To talk about how we communicate is often to complain about it. There are too many emails, too many texts and too many social media posts. Some are hateful, others merely annoying; yet, to our dismay, we spend hours a day reading and writing them.
The linguist Gretchen McCulloch views this glut as a delightful abundance. “When I see the boundless creativity of internet language flowing past me online, I can’t help but want to understand how it works,” she writes in her book, “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.”
“Why did emoji become so popular so quickly? What’s the deal with how people of different ages punctuate their emails and text messages so differently?” These are the types of questions she answers in her detailed but light-on-its-feet account of how we communicate now that we’re communicating online. (“We,” in this case, means internet-connected speakers of English, in particular its American varieties.)
For one thing, McCulloch argues, the internet is speeding up the evolution of English by increasing our ability to stay loosely in touch with, and mutually influence, one another. For another, linguists can now study the resulting changes more easily. The rapid increase in informal writing brought on by the internet has enabled researchers to take “a deeper look into day-to-day language than we’ve ever been able to see.”
Older means of studying everyday expression involved time-consuming processes like conducting and transcribing interviews. And examples of informal writing used to come disproportionately from “the kinds of famous people whose papers get donated to archives.” Now — on social media and, with permission, in texts and emails — researchers can see informal language written by a huge (if still not perfectly representative) portion of the population. Linguists looking at geotagged tweets a few years ago found that “hella” was particularly frequent in Northern California and that the abbreviation “ikr” (“I know, right?”) was popular in Detroit.
We already knew that where we live and whom we spend time with influence how we speak. On the internet, McCulloch argues, it also matters when and why we got online in the first place.
People who first used the internet to socialize, whether on AOL Instant Messenger or Snapchat, tend to adhere to linguistic norms that coalesced online. Those who use the internet rarely or for mostly practical reasons (work, shopping) often just use their offline communication styles online. That’s why some older people send texts with punctuation patterns, like repeated dashes or ellipses, that seem bizarre to younger recipients. They’re just “faithfully reproducing the conventions of a genre that they’re fluent in” — that is, informal writing in notes and postcards, where space was at a premium but complete sentences and standard punctuation were too formal.
To prove her point, McCulloch cites several examples, including a jotted recipe (“Drop level tablespoons of dough on greased baking sheets … Bake in moderate oven”) […]