BOOKS: by R.J. Stove (reviewer)News Weekly
'Language and the Internet', by David Crystal
, December 15, 2001
LANGUAGE AND THE INTERNET
by David Crystal
Cambridge University Press
Rec. price: $39.95
This book will not teach you how to design your own Web pages, how to start a million-dollar dot.com enterprise from what John Cleese called "the discomfort of your miserable home", or how to protect your children from pornographers’ worst cyberspatial depredations. It will, however, teach you about how the Internet’s culture has affected - and is, in turn, affected by - our mother-tongue.
Produced by one of the few linguistics scholars of modern times who can actually write, it is the best sort of popular philosophy: the sort which so far defies prevailing Australian moeurs
as actually to demonstrate its deductions by readily checkable examples.
David Crystal wrote Language and the Internet
to wrestle with the questions which the Internet’s very existence has placed on millions of lips. Will the Internet kill off all languages other than English? Will it impart a specious technocratic veneer to brutish illiteracy? Can the subversive ethos of its chief popularisers survive its transformation from an arcane hobby of academics and defence personnel to a mass medium?
Crystal’s answers are often surprising, about half the time genuinely comforting, and always the product not just of deep thought but of hair-raisingly detailed research. (It is worth noting that nine-tenths of his bibliography consists of print-based rather than online documents, although the latter category is common enough in his footnotes.)
The opening chapters of Crystal’s monograph are perhaps the least germane to most readers’ interests: dealing as they mostly do with Internet chat groups, which for most of us will surely be an information source of last resort, rather than the environment in which we prefer dwelling. (Presumably readers who do
prefer dwelling in this environment will already be familiar with most of the data Crystal cites, and will not need to have it recapitulated here.)
That a medium allegedly devoted to free-wheeling outlaw gonzos’ wish-fulfilment should have evolved an etiquette code as complex and arcane as anything in Louis XIV’s Versailles is - to the historically literate - curious, but Crystal fails to emphasise this point.
Even the section on good and bad E-mail writing proves less helpful than one might have hoped, partly because there can be few if any readers who would actually need to be told
what junk E-mail looks like. After all, merely to have an E-mail address is to be deluged by such snake-oil-vending subject-lines as "Free Your Life Forever" or "Win $31,000,000 and a PT Cruiser!".
The plethora of acronymic abbreviations which E-mail has spawned appeals to Crystal, and is duly analysed here. But again, the boffins will already know this material, and the rest of us are unlikely to require it (although it is presumably useful to register the difference between ROTF ["rolling on the floor"] and ROTFL ["rolling on the floor laughing"], while certain situations would undoubtedly tempt even the meekest of us to use "RTFM" ["read the **** manual"]).
Where Crystal does deserve every Net user’s attention is in his last two sections: "The Language of the Web" and "The Linguistic Future of the Internet". Both of these (the first even more than the second) present a persuasive case for believing that - whatever the original aims of those who devised the technology during the Cold War - the Net’s overall effect in recent years has been to strengthen, rather than weaken, the attractiveness of non-English languages.
When Finland’s national broadcasting company decides to give its news bulletins in Latin
, one can only conclude that something pretty seismic is afoot: all the more so in that fewer than 2 per cent of Finns are Catholics, and that Finnish Catholics with liturgical interests in Latin’s preservation are presumably fewer still.
Admittedly the Net has severe, though gradually diminishing, problems in rendering foreign-language diacriticals even within the Roman alphabet (problems with which any Website designer soon grows depressingly well acquainted).
Nevertheless, the very fact that these difficulties are now being recognised - rather than scorned as pettifogging impediments to some grand vision of a monoglot globe - is instructive.
Still more instructive is the huge increase in non-English-speaking countries’ Internet access: an increase sometimes facilitated by, but by no means always due to, legal requirements (such as famously exist in France and Québec).
Between 1995 and 2000, these countries’ Net users grew from seven million to 136 million: while since 1998, the fastest rate of increase for new Websites has occurred not in English, but in Spanish, Japanese, German and French, in that order. Le Soir,
the Brussels newspaper, now publishes online editions not only in French and Flemish - Belgium’s two national languages - but also in English, German, Italian and Spanish.
If all this leads to a new and vicious tribalism, it would merely put the Net in the long line of technological developments intended as a force for international goodwill, yet in practice becoming the precise opposite.