I am convinced something is changing with the way people communicate. I do not like this change. I am not talking about the insidious invasion represented by technology, but rather the linguistic shift that accompanies the barbarians. I am talking about the pernicious degradation of language itself.
Slang fills the Internet. I think that it has for quite some time. I remember writing a paper and giving a speech on the syntax, style and elements of Internet slang in 1992—spring of my senior year at Wabash. While the world wide web was invented in late 1990 at CERN. But the web needed a client. It needed a program to make it accessible. That program was Mosaic. Without Mosaic there was not much interest in the world wide web. Mosaic was released in April of 1993. I obtained my first exposure to Mosaic shortly thereafter at Loyola University here in Chicago. I developed my first web page– using Mosaic as the test client– in the summer of 1993.
What is significant about that moment, the creation of that first web page, is that it was the first time I incorporated an image into any content I transferred electronically to someone else. Up until that moment my use of the Internet was almost entirely textual. Not visual. In fact my exposure to networked computer systems at all up until that moment was almost entirely textual: LAN Manager networks, Novell NetWare networks and predominantly dial-up bulletin board systems. The client operating systems and applications all ran on DOS, or Windows 3.11. The servers usual did not run on anything much more sophisticated. My first exposure to the Internet came in 1991 when I discovered it was an even broader set of interconnected systems than the BITNET system to which Wabash connected. My first several Internet applications included email, BITNET relay, telnet, USENET news, IRC, FTP and gopher. I learned these programs primarily by obtaining accounts on first the Wabash VAX/VMS system and then later a Loyola AIX system.
Those first years on the Internet consisted of me staring at black window boxes filled with white text. The written word. Much of my early web browsing was done using the text-based web browser, lynx. I did this for two reasons: it was considerably faster, and the computer lab only had a very limited number of X-Windows workstations capable of running Mosaic. They were in high demand by computer science students. Philosophy graduate students “just screwing around on the computer” were significantly lower on the priority list. Then I learned about the dial-up access modem bank that was rarely used. I fired up ProComm Plus, dialed in, and was able to sit on that AIX shell for hours from the (relative) comfort of my grungy apartment and explore to my heart’s content—just as long as I did not mind everything being text-based. I did not mind. At the time, the Internet essentially was text-based.
You had to write. And to express yourself you had to write clearly—or at least creatively. In that sense, your effect on the social community was directly attributable to the effectiveness of your language skills: the abilities to read critically write effectively and think analytically. – Grammar was often the target of ridicule. Misspellings, failure to punctuate, lack of subject-verb agreement, dangling participles, split infinitives—all of those landmines of elementary and high school language arts classes could and often did explode with violence and vitriol. Some of the first online communities I participated in relentlessly derided these sorts of mistakes. In hindsight, this behavior could possibly be categorized as a form of harassment or abuse—social hazing. Elitist, certainly. Not only did you have to quickly learn the technical elements—what commands do what sorts of things, understanding cryptic error messages and adjusting for them—but now you have to escape incarceration by the Library Police.
This is not to say that the Library Police Grammar Squad was the only avenue of criticism. Arguments erupted with long and dramatic flair; debates could often contain elements that spanned thousands of words. To participate effectively, you had to be able to hold onto an argument or idea that lasted longer than a handful of words. I saw this happen most visibly on USENET, but it was not limited to that sphere. It happened everywhere; and I think it happened because the Internet was similarly constrained by these necessary preconditions of language. To use the Internet you had to read and write—and consequently you had to think. It reminded me of my experiences in college.
I saw it as a rite of passage.
Sociologists, linguists or anthropologists may someday be able to explain the reasons for the shift. Did I come to the Internet in those last precious days when it was primarily an academic tool? I got in just a couple years before Eternal September. Is that what did it? I do not know. It would be easy to blame AOL and part of me thinks that as essentially unfair.
Today I see a strong shift away from text-based mediums on the Internet. Video, images, audio, multi-media messages are being adopted with increasing popularity. Most cellphones now come with a built-in camera, for example—and many of those have systems that allow you to send the pictures to others directly from the phone. There is no need to download them to a computer before you send them on. Many social networking sites focus on a multimedia expression of personality. MySpace, for example, encourages users to include personal song lists and dozens of pictures. Load the page and leave your friends messages while their favorite songs play on your speakers.
I believe the written word is losing its place in the order of importance.
What has happened, and what I want to write about is the proliferation of Internet slang. The claim is that most Internet slang originated to save keystrokes. I can understand laziness. I agree it is easier to type “RTFM” than it is to type “read the fucking manual”—and again, if you do not happen to know that the acronym stands for that particular directive you are left out in the cold. Like most jargon, Internet slang aggrandizes those who use it: it fabricates the appearance of specialized knowledge of an already complex medium. Using it makes you one of the cool kids.
People want to be cool.
I think the explosive adoption of text messaging on cellphones—and I have to admit that using a ten-digit keypad to spell out words longer than about four letters can be tedious—has accelerated the adoption of at least shorthand slang.
So we have a number of factors at work at once: a desire to be seen as cool. That desire manifests itself as it has for many generations. People identify themselves with artists, warriors and heroes they believe to embody cool. People want to be seen as creative. We imitate and derive our artistic expressions from others who have done so before us—or alongside us. Every artist is a cannibal; every poet is a thief. All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief.
Add to this the practical aspect of the degree of difficulty—the achievement of actual creativity versus the derived appearance of cool. If I look cool and sound cool, is that good enough? Does that get me far enough along the continuum of cool that I can be happy with myself? Maybe so.
But by then I have given up on—or just completely forgotten—how to do these things for myself. Style and appearance become all that I know. Substance is irrelevant. And being human, we make mistakes. Particularly when communicating with one another, we do that. We say things we do not mean. We use the wrong word when we intended another one. We forget to say things at the right time; or we say the right things at the wrong times. These problems have not gone away simply because we have determined that it is cooler to say “ic” instead of “Yes, I understand”. Now watch what happens to language under such degradation.
This is an example of an actual emailed request made to me at work not too terribly long ago. The requestor was not an end user. The requestor worked at a management level in my same department. The requestor was effectively my boss, empowered to direct what sorts of work I should be doing at any given time:
plz luk @ teh websrvr it is workign
Let me provide some context, because that message certainly does not. At the time I got this request I administered several dozen different webservers doing a number of different things. Some were Internet-facing resources, some were internal resources. Some were test systems, some were simply reporting engines designed for administrators to ease data collection and gathering status information.
The request has at least three uses of shorthand slang, two typographic errors, no capitalization—oh, and it is missing one critical word: not. All of this before we get into the contextual problems: Which web server? What is not working? For what users? How long has this condition persisted? I had absolutely no idea what the requestor wanted me to do. I was completely confused. As the request came via email, I responded in the same medium and asked clarification of what was being requested of me. The requestor never got back to me. Instead the requestor found another administrator to look at the problem, one the requestor could talk to in person. I assume that the second administrator took that opportunity to ask the same clarification questions I did. I do not know. The whole event left me with discontent—and distress.
I do not understand this resistance to language. – Perhaps I have been attracted to it for so long and am comfortable working within its structures. Perhaps I rely on it so heavily in every aspect of my life and see its beauty, grace and subtlety in the infinite variety of forms. Perhaps these sentimental affections are what cause me distress. – That my associates mock my choice to read books rather than watch television does not help matters. Too many words, they object. But that’s the point, I rejoin silently.
My friend, Templar, has a number of insightful opinions on the degradation of language. One of my favorite anecdotes is his bemoaning of the meaning of the word awesome. The original meaning of the word meant inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration or fear produced by that which is grand, sublime or extremely powerful. God is awesome. – Now, he says, the word typically means: “pretty good”. Similarly he has criticized this shift toward Internet slang to homogenize meaning. Do most of the humorous items on the Internet really cause you to laugh out loud? To cackle, fall out of your chair and roll on the floor? – Then why say it. Even in acronym.
Aristotle wrote that man is the only animal with the gift of language. Other animals may have a voice with which to express pleasure and displeasure, but it is language that gives Man his ability to define advantage and interests—and consequently justice, family and state. Language makes us human.
Honor language; the word is awesome.