Thomas Blaikie

WTF is Grammar?

Because Internet: Understanding How Language is Changing

By

Harvill Secker 326pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

This is quite a jolly academic book written by a linguist for the general reader about internet language. It has already had considerable success in America. The curious thing is that it’s a book at all. Hasn’t the internet killed off books? Why isn’t it a podcast or a live download or whatever?

What is the language of the internet? Most of us have probably heard of LOL (or lol), omg, emojis and even memes, and come face to face with unconventional confections of exclamation marks, repeated letters and novelty punctuation. For people like us, top-end book lovers, the language of the internet might seem, well, rather ghastly: illiterate, limited, debased, invasive like Japanese knotweed, a frightful triffid threatening to obliterate decent standards of communication. They, the internet lovers, if they even bother to glance in our direction, will think: omg!!!!11!!! sad lol.

I recently heard of somebody who no longer laughs. Instead she says ‘lol’, which might be a new internet way of laughing. An urban myth, perhaps, but there’s a common assumption that too much online activity transforms people into zombies in ‘real’ life. As is perhaps inevitable, linguists like Gretchen McCulloch take a different view.

The internet has turned millions of people into writers. On Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and so on, the medium to some extent dictates the message, which is casual, colloquial and nonstandard. The idea that dialect and deviations from ‘correct’ grammar and vocabulary are not ‘wrong’ but deliberate, efficient and possibly even creative is hardly new. All the same, it’s encouraging that McCulloch repeats it. Take lol, for instance. Research reveals a certain sophistication in its use. It occurs only at the beginning or end of an utterance, never both and never in the middle. For example, in ‘got a lot of homework lol’, the addition of lol removes any sense of whining and self-pity; in ‘what are you doing out so late lol’, it makes the message less demanding or reproving. Repeated letters often occur in emotive words: ‘yayyyy’, ‘nooo’. McCulloch thinks it’s brilliant that silent letters are sometimes repeated too, as in ‘dumbbb’, because this creates a ‘form of emotional expression that now has no possible spoken equivalent’.

The way we communicate digitally is growing more complex. A lot of people these days send a string of separate text messages, with no punctuation whatsoever: ‘hey’ (new message) ‘how’s it going’ (new message). The break between one message and another is the equivalent of a row of dots in old-fashioned offline writing, so it’s easy-going, not insistent, and there’s a space in which the other person might reply (but doesn’t). Now, if you write ‘hey.’ it’s a TOTALLY DIFFERENT THING. Full stops are aggressive. As are capital letters.

Then we come to emojis. McCulloch’s idea is that emojis are the internet equivalent of gestures and facial expressions, many of them indeed being pictures of hands or faces. This explains why they got so popular in about five minutes and stayed that way. Millions use emojis every second. Smiley face is the one we all know. Apparently if you’re a teenager and you send a declaration of love to someone heart emoji, heart emoji, heart emoji and they come back smiley face, that’s the worst. It means not interested in a nice way. Well, that gets that over and done with. I’ve sometimes stumbled on the emoji catalogue on my phone. I can’t make head or tail of a lot of them – all those yellow heads with different patches of blue, and the one with heart sunglasses. Does it signify something different to the plain red heart? One ought to know, of course. McCulloch keeps referring to the aubergine emoji (or eggplant, actually), which is apparently rude, but what you’re supposed to do with it I’ve no idea.

I read the chapter on memes. I’m still not clear what they are. I think a meme is, like, one of those pictures of a cat with captions in joke cat language about President Trump. Well, they’re cartoons as used to be, aren’t they?

McCulloch is more than willing to admit that internet language is nothing new. Her argument is mostly credible. She has evidence that those deploying text language (‘CUsoon’) will switch to conventional spelling in the same text, especially once they’ve started using certain words, such as ‘must’. She says that teenagers ‘hang out’ aimlessly online in just the same way they’ve always done in shopping malls and at bus stops. They’re not going weird online through isolation. She has little to say about online abuse and bullying, except that on platforms where it is not tolerated or not the norm it does not occur. Politeness breeds politeness. She makes a good case for the internet being more civilised than it might appear and its language, such as it is, being more artful and considered. But as for her claim that lol, no full stops, text decorated with asterisks and so on are some wonderful flowering of creativity… well, sorry lol.

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