Review: Because Internet
Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language was published in 2019. It is written by Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist from McGill University who has found a niche writing about language on the internet. In this book, she explores how the internet has shaped language and vice versa - with the caveat that it's heavily focused on North American English, which she points out in no uncertain terms.
I'm a total stranger to the world of linguistics, and I found this an incredibly accessible, entertaining, and informative read. Obviously I can't vouch for the scholarly merit of this book, but McCulloch is a household name in the geeky realm of internet linguistics, having written extensively for publications such as WIRED and The Toast in addition to her podcast, Lingthusiasm.
McCulloch starts with a broad overview of what linguists do and the forms of language that interest them. Informal writing, she writes, is one that was difficult to study in pre-internet times. Now that so much of the world is online, social media sites such as Twitter are a rich vein of data for researchers to tap into. McCulloch then describes the intricate relationship between language and society, and how one cannot survive without the other. To study linguistics is to dive into the tangled web of anthropology, to learn about interesting cultural and historical phenomena in human societies - in this case, our singular, wonderful internet. An entire chapter is dedicated to how each generation was introduced to the internet, while a later chapter traces the evolution of chat interfaces. Equal attention and care is given to the linguistic components of the internet: emoji, slang, and yes, memes.
McCulloch displays an intimate familiarity not just with linguistics, but also with the internet. A self-described Full Internet Person, her love and enthusiasm for both subjects are evident throughout this incredibly entertaining book. She writes with a wink and a knowing smile, proudly displaying all the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the internet that is the very subject of this book. Her passion and intellectual curiosity are infectious, as is her warm and humanistic approach. Her optimism about social media is a refreshing drink in our current hellscape.
This book is a must-read for anyone curious about linguistics or the internet. Don't let the page count put you off: McCulloch has included plenty of references to point the reader to all manner of rabbit holes. I hope someday I'll find a niche as special to me as internet linguistics is to McCulloch. Here are some personal takeaways from the book.
- Predictive text and spellcheckers are susceptible to our biases and perpetuate them. For example, the insistence on the '-ise' suffix by British English spellcheckers when both '-ise' and '-ize' are commonly accepted. Other biases affect more marginalised groups.
- Related the the point above, there are newer spellcheckers that are trained on corpora derived from social networks, which may more accurately capture changes in language.
- The development of language conventions is a closed loop. Lexicons and dictionaries look to published, edited prose to establish rules, while editors rely upon them in the same way. Language conventions are therefore somewhat arbitrary and don't always reflect everyday use.
- Slang and jargon are usually introduced by marginalised social classes, appropriated by the privileged classes, and then co-opted by commercial brands.
- Different styles or 'dialects' of writing convey a different sense of intended audience.
- Arabizi is an interesting chat alphabet that represents Arabic in romanised letters and numerals. It is commonly used on social media.
- Emoji is literally "picture character" in Japanese. Not derived from "emotion" as in emoticon.
- Kaomoji are like vertically-oriented emoticons: T_T and o.O . Kaomoji express emotions via the eyes, while emoticons do so via the lips. This reflects the different ways East Asian and Western Caucasian people interpret emotions in facial expressions shown in some studies.
- Emoji serve as gestures in informal writing. There are two types of emoji: illustrative (e.g. birthday cake) and emblems (eggplant). Emblems have specific meanings associated with them.
- The first chat interface to display a linear stream of messages was CB Simulator, which aimed to recreate the experience of ham radio in a printed format. Earlier interfaces used separate boxes for each user.
- 'lol' has been around since the 1980s. It's meaning has changed from purely an indicator of humour to many subtle variations, including as a social lubricant.
- A social network has weak ties (acquaintances) and strong ties (close friends). Weak ties introduce linguistic changes, while strong ties spread them through the network. Weak ties are abundant in online social networks.
- Minimalist typography (typing in all lowercase) is a conscious effort to subvert the default conventions, considering the ubiquity of autocapitalisation.
- Phatic expressions (how's it going, what's up) are social cues that have little meaning in themselves. Contrast this with literal expressions (what's that).
- Memes are unique to the internet and are distinct from jokes, which have existed since time immemorial (see also faxlore and Xeroxlore). Memes are weird and often obscure, and serve as in-group references.
- Language isn't contained in books. It's a network that is constantly in flux.
Day 25 of #100DaysToOffload