Every language changes, as I occasionally have to remind my non-linguist friends when they complain about this or that. Some languages change more than others — English, for example, has changed much more quickly and more dramatically than, say, Icelandic — but the phenomenon is common to all languages. Linguist Gretchen McCulloch writes about a particular aspect of change in the English language in her engaging new book, Because internet.
Before we go any further, take a look at how the subtitle was revised after the American edition (the first image here) came out. The British edition (the second image here), which will be published a month from now, uses the second version. Why, I hear you ask, should we replace “understanding the new rules of language” with “understanding how language is changing”? My guess is that the subtle subtitle replacement of rules with the middle voice is changing more accurately reflects McCulloch’s point of view. The word rules, after all, suggests prescriptivism to most readers — even though it’s descriptive to linguists. What we want to understand is how English is changing, and how the internet is contributing to those changes.
Please note that this entertaining book is not a college textbook; the tone is mostly popular rather than academic. (There are, I admit, a few passages that are actually pretty academic, but almost anyone with a Ph.D. Is likely to slip into that register from time to time. And the book actually could be used as a college textbook, even though that’s not its intention.) Be open-minded to the scope of Because internet: internet here does not mean World Wide Web, even though McCulloch has given up fighting the battle to preserve the distinction, as have I. A lot of the book deals with email, texting, Twitter, and all sorts of social media, providing a huge amount of data for any linguist who wants to research actual usage. But this is the point to bring in one caveat and a corresponding observation about the book. As McCulloch points out, the combination of archiving and cheap large-volume storage means that practically everything written in recent years can readily be found, but it’s really hard to get solid data from the ’70s and ’80s. As an early adopter of the internet from those decades, I can assure you that everything McCulloch says about them is accurate, which means that she did great research even though she’s too young to have been there in person.
So have I learned anything new from this book? Yes, definitely. For instance, I now have a somewhat better idea of why some people (young people?) think it’s wrong or passive-aggressive to put a period at the end of a sentence. And you may have noticed that I don’t capitalize internet anymore; that’s because of McCulloch’s book. And I know something new about tildes. You’ll learn something too, maybe something that I happen to have already known — like the fact that the opening three letters of emoji and emoticon have nothing to do with each other. I loved her lucid explanation of why emojis are not a language, despite the common idea that they are. (Try translating this paragraph into Spanish, for example. Then try translating it into emojis.)
One reviewer, linguist Joe Kessler, observes:
Internet culture changes quickly, and today’s dank meme can soon become tomorrow’s dated lolcat. McCulloch’s strength as an ethnographer of cyberspace is that she doesn’t attempt to present this inevitably static snapshot as some definitive report, but rather walks her audience through the social and historical forces that have allowed variation from the formal rules to flourish online in the first place. Drawing upon her personal observations as a curious digital native as well as decades of studies from before and after such a status was even possible, the writer connects research on network ties, dialect maps, emerging technologies, and more into a fairly cohesive and persuasive account of how the language we see and use on our devices has acquired its particular characteristics.
“Ethnographer of cyberspace”? I like that phrase!
As another reviewer observed, McCulloch’s knowledge of linguistics is both deep and broad (unlike the popular stereotype of a Ph.D., who is supposed to know “more and more about less and less”). She is also the co-host of an excellent blog and one of my favorite podcasts: All Things Linguistic and Lingthusiasm, respectively. Read the former and listen to the latter!