The Internet: Communication Corruptor or Language Liberator?

Author:  Rebecca Straw
Institution:  Biology and Science Journalism
Date:  June 2005

In 1977, the world changed with one key stroke when Dave Crocker, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, and his colleagues sent the first electronic mail. That email changed the way humans communicate. Since then, email and similar technology has been connecting people across the globe.

Image 1. AOL's online messaging service, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), is the most popular IM service in America.

Image 1. AOL's online messaging service, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), is the most popular IM service in America.

Before the emergence of electronic communication, communication meant writing letters, calling on the phone or meeting face to face. Today, we are flooded with possibilities to contact each other. We can send information through emails and online messaging services. We can communicate through text message by mobile phones and some palm pilots.

Simeon Yates, the Head of Communication and Community Research Centre in England, studies how electronic devices have fit into and reshaped culture. "[They] are being employed to do cultural things." Yates says. "So the question is, do you text or don't you text?"

Yates and some of his fellow linguists spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Washington, D.C. on February 18th.

As we communicate more frequently through electronic devices, our language has adapted, reflected in what David Crysal, author of Language and the Internet, has termed "netspeak." Crysal says that netspeak represents a huge change in communication not seen since the Middle Ages.

Image 2. David Crystal, the author of Language and the Internet, describes the transition in language since the Internet.

Image 2. David Crystal, the author of Language and the Internet, describes the transition in language since the Internet.

However, not everyone is happy about this change. "Prophets of doom gather every time a new technology emerges," Crystal says. "They gathered again as new forms of punctuation and spelling emerged." According to Crystal, these prophets have begun to proclaim the death of language and the murder of society by the Internet. Linguists, like Crystal and his colleagues, have the rare opportunity to see how netspeak is affecting our language and society.


Netspeak: The new communication revolution

Netspeak doesn't fall cleanly into existing patterns of speech. A person can talk with someone else and receive immediate feedback through an instant messaging service. If someone writes an email, the recipient may not receive the message for days after it was sent. Also, the email or message could be private, one person talking to another; or it could be blatantly public, like a web page or online journal. "The social context determines the type of conversation," Yates says. "With linguistically similar messages, the technology is the same." Speech should then be similar to IM and email should resemble letter writing.

Unlike speaking either over the phone or in person, computer communicators cannot express emotion easily. In order to overcome this, emoticons have been invented. Emoticons can be as simple like a smiley face created from a few punctuation marks, or emoticons can be elegant and detailed like the Japanese kaomoji or "face marks" or even take the form of animated graphics.

Those fluent in netspeak have also developed their own stylistic shorthand. By substituting letters and numbers for sounds and words, like "c" for "see," users can communicate more quickly. As a result, many conversations appear more like automobile vanity plates than traditional writing. Rather than corrupting our written language, Crystal argues that netspeak is stylistically appropriate on the Internet where ideas need to be conveyed quickly. But like other forms of shorthand, netspeak is not be used outside of its context, Crystal explains.

Creative individuals have begun to further exploit the Internet and other electronic devices. Diary-writing, a nearly-extinct form of literature, has been resurrected in the form of web journals called web logs, or for short, blogs, according to Crystal. "[Blogs] are the written language in its naked form," Crystal says. "They are created without copy editors who take language and standardize it to blandness."

Image 3. A typical conversation through an online messaging service.

Image 3. A typical conversation through an online messaging service.

Poetry has also found a home among the electronically literate. In 2002, a British paper, the Guardian, hosted a poetry competition. Only poems written through text messages were eligible. The winning poem was submitted by Emma Passmore and posted on the Guardian's Web site. It reads:

"I left my pictur on th ground wher u walk

so that somday if th sun was jst right

& th rain didnt wash me awa

u might c me out of th corner of yr i & pic me up"

Instant Messaging: Is it writing or speech?

Most people do not use electronic devices to create poetry, but rather to talk with friends. Instant messaging (IM) services, like AOL's AIM, MSN, and Yahoo! allow people to chat via the Internet. Each day, one billion messages are sent through IM. IM tends to be less formal than email. Researcher Naomi Baron of American University says the primary users of IM are college age students and teens. At the AAAS conference, Baron presented her research on the conversation patterns of college students through IM.

Image 4. The Guardian had a text poetry contest in 2002. Participates sent entries through mobile phones to the judges.

Image 4. The Guardian had a text poetry contest in 2002. Participates sent entries through mobile phones to the judges.

As she studied IM conversations, Baron was puzzled. IM uses written words but it also has speech-like characteristics. Speech, generally, is a two-person discussion. Information is conveyed quickly, and the responses are immediate. Linguists call this form of communication synchronous. Conversely, writing is an asynchronous form of communication. A writer produces a long monologue, which will later be edited and revised. Anyone can read the writing but they, usually, cannot respond immediately to the writer. IM can be synchronous or asynchronous. A writer could immediately receive a response to their message, or the receiver could not respond for hours or days.

While studying IM, Baron collected the conversations into a database of 12,000 words. After examination, she divided IM conversation into three parts. These parts are similar to the word, sentence and paragraph used by writers. The most basic unit of conversation was called a transmission. A single message was considered a transmission. Transmissions were short, containing an average of only 5.4 words. In fact, 22 percent of transmissions were single words. When several transmissions were sent in a row, but still part of the same message, Baron called them sequences. Utterances contained the completed thought and could encompass both transmissions and sequences. Students frequently separated utterances into sequences Baron call the separations utterance breaks. "Utterance breaks keep the other person on-line and interested," Baron says.

For example, suppose two people, SydneyAWeb and DevinJacks are discussing their lunch plans. SydneyAWeb types, "Want to meet at 12:00?" and then hits send. That was a transmission. DevinJacks replies, "How about 12:30?" He sends the message and immediately follows it with, "I have a class until 12:10." Send message. These two messages represent a sequence, and both of DevinJack's messages were part of an utterance, representing a complete thought, and separated by an utterance break.

After conducting several linguistic tests, Baron determined that IM conversations resembled speech, but was still unique. Compared to speech, IM messages contained fewer contractions, like "I'm" instead of "I am." Unlike in speech, where it would be seen as rude, IM users carried on multiple conversations and activities while chatting. One student chatted with 11 other people while Baron talked with him. "[IM] is language under the radar," Baron said. "Students use it causally while doing other activities." IM conversations still followed many of the other unspoken rules in speech, including gender differences.

The gender difference: So what if I chat like a girl?

Studies have shown that men and women communicate differently. While talking, men aim to inform, while women's speech is filled with more emotion. Women's oral conversations tend to follow grammar rules more than men's. Men are generally more aggressive in the discussion and more likely to interrupt than women.

Similarly, gender differences exist in IM conversations, according to Baron's study. Men were still more informative; women continued to be more emotionally involved in their conversations. Women took twice as long to say goodbye and used more emoticons per conversation. The average woman used three "smiley faces" when chatting. Alternatively, men only used one "smiley face" per conversation.

Grammar and sentence structure is also used differently: Men separated their utterances, but the women were more likely to write run-on sentences and, significantly fewer contractions were found in the women's conversations than in the men's.

Gender variation occurs in Japan as well. There, the koamoji, which are elaborate smiley faces, are primarily used by women. These pictures can be very complex and dainty. "Koamoji results from a cult of cuteness among Japanese women," says Brenda Danet from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, at the AAAS conference.

As computers become more common, communication will also change with it. "It is exciting to be at the beginning [of electronic communication]," Crystal says. "It will be more exciting to see the end."

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