[Paleopsych] Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave by David Crystal
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Sun Jan 23 18:34:46 UTC 2005
Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave by David Crystal
The Internet has proven itself to be the next leg of a linguistic
revolution that began with the slow, steady spread of English and the
death of other languages.
by David Crystal
Linguistics used to be a much simpler affair: There was American
English and there was the Queens English. There was speech and there
was writing. There were thousands of languages, none of them global in
stature. There were certainly no smileys.
Those days are gone. Now, with a sequence of characters on the
computer keyboard, we can tack happy little faces onto the end of our
sentences (a colon represents the eyes, a dash the nose, and the right
parenthesis the mouth:-). We can cut and paste by taking words from
one place in an e-mail and adding them somewhere else. Web pages
change in front of our eyes: Words appear and disappear in varying
colors, sentences slide onto the screen and off again, letters dance
Its revolutionary, the Internet. Any linguists worth their salt cant
help but be impressed. If nothing else, the Internet deserves great
credit for granting us a mode of communication more dynamic than
traditional writing and more permanent than traditional speech. In
fact, electronic communication is neither writing nor speech per se.
Rather, it allows us to take features from each medium and adapt them
to suit a new form of expression. The way we use language is changing
at breakneck speed.
It has often been said that the Internet is a social revolution.
Indeed it is, but it is a linguistic revolution as well. Consider
traditional writing, which has always been permanent; you open a book
at page six, close the book, then open it at page six again, and you
expect to see the same thing. You would be more than a little
surprised if the books page had changed in the interim. But on Web
pages, this kind of impermanence is perfectly normal.
Then there are the hypertext links, the basic functional unit of the
Web. These are the links you click on in order to go from one part of
a page to another, from one page to another, or from one site to
another. The nearest thing we have in writingthe footnote or the
cross-referenceis always an optional extra, and there is nothing like
this in speech.
Real-time Internet discussion groups, or chat rooms, allow a user to
see messages coming in from all over the world. If there are thirty
people in the chat room, its possible to see thirty different
messages, all making various contributions to a theme. In a unique
way, you can listen to thirty people at once, or have a conversation
with them all at the same time; you can monitor what each one of those
people is saying, and respond to as many of them as your mental powers
and typing speed permit. This too is a revolutionary state of affairs,
as far as speech is concerned.
What so many people now understand is that there are very specific
ways in which the Internet is changing our linguistic experience.
There are symbolic ways as well. The Internet is part of a larger
revolution, with two other major trends working in tandem. For one,
English has emerged as a global language. For another, we are in the
midst of a creeping crisis: Thousands of languages are dying out.
When the World Wide Web came along, it offered a home to all
languagesas soon as their communities had functioning computer
technology, of course. While the Internet started out as a totally
English medium, its increasingly multilingual character has been its
most notable change.
To get a sense of just how radical this change has been, consider the
fact that in the mid-1990s, it was widely quoted that eighty percent
of Internet pages were in English. By 1998, however, the number of
newly created Web sites not in English was greater than the total
number of newly created sites that were in English. Since then,
estimates for how much information on the Web is in English have
fallen steadily. Already, some have put the amount at less than fifty
On the other hand, the presence of other languages has steadily
increased. Its estimated that about one-quarter of the worlds
languages have some sort of cyber existence now, and as communications
infrastructure expands in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, the
Internet as a whole will soon be significantly non-English.
The Internet has turned out to be the ideal medium for minority
languages. If you are a speaker or supporter of an endangered
languagean aboriginal language, say, or one of the Celtic
languagesyoure keen to give the language some publicity, to draw the
worlds attention to its plight. Previously, this was very difficult to
do. It was hard to attract a newspaper article on the subject, and the
cost of a newspaper advertisement was prohibitive. It was virtually
impossible to get a radio or television program devoted to it. Surely,
by the time someone wrote a book about one of these languages, got it
published, and everyone read it, the language might well be uttering
its last words.
But now, with Web pages and e-mail, you can get your message out in
next to no time, in your own languagewith a translation as well, if
you want. Chat rooms are a boon to speakers of minority languages who
live in isolation from each other, as they can now belong to a virtual
speech community. The Web offers a World Wide Welcome for global
linguistic diversity. And in an era when so many languages of the
world are dying, such optimism is truly revolutionary.
It is a real art to be able to make sense of a revolution as its
happening, to not leave it up to the historians to later analyze its
impact and effects. Revolutions are fast and dynamic by nature,
radical shifts that take place in a short period of time. We are now
at a transformative step in the evolution of human language.
The linguistic originality and novelty of the Internet should make our
hearts beat faster. It is offering us a future of communication
radically different from that of the past. It is presenting us with
styles of expression that are fundamentally unlike anything we have
seen before. It is revising our cherished concepts of the way we think
about the life of a language. Electronic communication has brought us
to the brink of the biggest language revolution ever, and it is
exciting to be in at its beginning.
The Tongue Who Would Be King
Lost In Translation
Something New Under the Sun
More information about the paleopsych