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Language in Cyberspace
The Internet is a petri dish for culturing and spreading language. Gareth Branwyn and Paul McFedries  explore the interaction between technology and language in an increasingly wired world.
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As a multi-channel form of communication, publishing medium, research tool and new type of marketplace (to name just a few chief applications), the Internet has left few areas of our society untouched. Yet most people seem unaware of the degree to which the Internet has changed the very nature of our language.

Technology has always strongly influenced language. The printing press, telephone, radio and television not only affected how language was circulated, but each technology also created new experiences that begged for new words to describe them.

As a petri dish for culturing and spreading language, the Internet has been unique. Indeed, linguists, cyberpundits and other language experts argue over whether it should have its own linguistic category. In his 2001 Language and the Internet, (Cambridge Encyclopedia editor and well-known linguist) David Crystal proclaimed that online communication was a new, hybridized form of language. It’s not really speech, he argued, although people often think of it as a kind of text-based conversation. And it’s not writing in any established sense, given its strange mix of formal and informal styles, telegram-like abbreviations, “emoticons,” home-brewed shorthand, tech jargon and playful slang. Crystal proposed the term netspeak to identify this new “fourth medium” of language (the first three being speech, writing and sign language).

Language has always had a viral quality, and the Internet has been an exploitable host for the rapid spread of new words, especially jargon and slang. New words are coined to fit a given situation. If they’re “good” (adequately naming things or experiences, or are clever, funny, memorable, etc.) they survive, spreading like a stubborn head cold. The Internet has greatly accelerated the rate at which such words penetrate the language at large.In fact, it'scausing the written work to inform the spoken word at a rate never seen before in human history.

Before the Internet, hotbeds of new words — trades, subcultures (street gangs, young people, pop music genres), sciences and the military — tended to be insular, often geographically local and frequently elitist (you had to be in the know to speak the lingo). If a word took hold in one of these interest groups and had a use beyond it, it could be months or years before the term established itself in the popular lexicon. But the Internet has allowed new language to spread as far and wide as its global reach. As the Internet adage goes, “Information wants to be free” (as in unfettered). So does language. Now, new words with the “right stuff” can hop within days from far-flung chat rooms to email to Web sites, into your vocabulary.

The following essay will examine the role the Internet plays in the creation and dissemination of new words and phrases. By being something of a word hotbed, the Internet continues a tradition where new technologies generate terms that end up in popular vernacular. What distinguishes the Internet from earlier technologies is that the Internet has spawned a revolution:  more new words have been created in the past 10 years as a result of the Internet than in any other period in our linguistic history. By acting as it own distribution system — via Web sites, e-mail messages, chat groups, newsgroups, and instant messages — the Internet has caused new words to travel the wired world at light speed.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Word Spy  Paul McFedries'  Web site devoted to lexpionage, the art of sleuthing new words and phrases.
  • BuzzWhack  A Web site dedicated to de-mystifying buzzwords.
  • NetLingo NetLingo is an award-winning dictionary of Internet terms that contains thousands of words and definitions that describe the online world of business, technology, and communication.
  • Branwyn, Gareth. Jargon Watch. San Francisco: HardWired, 1997.
  • Crystal, David. Language and the Internet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Hale, Constance, Jessie Scanlon. Wired Style. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
  • McFedries, Paul. Word Spy: The Word Lover’s Guide to Modern Culture. New York: Broadway Books, 2004.
  • Raymond, Eric S., ed. The New Hacker's Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.
Paul McFedries is a writer with more than 40 books to his credit. His most recent book is Word Spy: The Word Lover's Guide to Modern Culture, published in February by Broadway Books. McFedries loves all words (his company name is Logophilia Limited; logophilia means "the love of words"), but he particularly enjoys tracking down new words, especially those with some traction in the culture but that aren't yet in any dictionary. He posts the results of these lexical hunts on his popular Web site WordSpy.com.

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