Crotchety Clarionaut Worrad posted a rant about the Death of the English Language at the Hands of the Internet. And then less crotchety, contemplative Clarionaut Stabback posted an oblique response-of-sorts that posed more questions than it answered. My reaction to Worrad’s initial rant was equally crotchety; in light of Stabback’s measured response, I think I may have calmed down enough to weigh in.
Worrad claims that ‘netspeak is a problem because it’s imprecise. Which, okay. Yes, it is often imprecise. But this ignores any potential positives — such as community-building and/or the creation of safe spaces within an otherwise hostile ‘net — that might derive from such shared linguistic markers. Is history really moving so rapidly that “sounds like 2009” counts as a burn? And who is he critiquing by firing off said burn?
The crux of the issue: Is the homogenization of language occurring thanks to the Internet a good or a bad thing (or is this even happening)?
First off, I want data before I’ll accept the initial premise. I’ll believe we’re all beginning to sound the same when multiple linguists prove it to me. (They probably can.)
Secondly, this is how communities form; this is how they delineate boundaries and select insiders and outsiders. Y’all know I am not a fan of unthinking tribalism, but with the exception of asocial recluses, humans are gonna group up, and that group formation will involve shared linguistic markers.
Personal anecdote as evidence ahoy! I came late to the Internet party. Did not participate in chatroom culture, was not much for social networking. Then my boyfriend shot himself in the head and I decided to play World of Warcraft for two years. No, I am not proud of this. Did it get me through those two years? Yes.
WOWchat is ‘netspeak distilled, with a healthy helping of rampant racism and misogyny (I have posted about this before). I found it absolutely fascinating, if often repellent. For one thing, it was a window onto the generation coming up behind me, their communication style uncensored, as opposed to the neutered compositions I received from my students. WOW offered a tiny window onto their social selves. [Aside: Yes, the US is obsessed with youth culture; I acknowledge that it’s easy to find what The Kids These Days are up to fascinating because the entire culture pressures you to obsess over just that, lest you court obsolescence.]
Of course, there is no faster way to kill a phenomenon of youth culture than to put it in the hands of thirty-year-olds. I think Worrad will fish his wish, in that all the things he lists have reached such a saturation point they’re bound to flip over into uncoolness (if they haven’t already). I will find this sad, rather than cause for celebration, because it will represent the death of my early adulthood. I already feel nostalgia for the alot.
All this to say, I started using ‘netspeak out of necessity, in order to negotiate the social contours of WOW (Cat Valente is a former WOW player, too; I’m assuming Worrad’s criticism refers either to her, or to Requires). Even after I’d quit WOW, I found the foibles of that mode of speech amusing enough to keep using them. Not out of laziness, but because they’re community-building, shared language as a way of spotting fellow gamers and Internet-obsessives. Blogs are a speed-form, too (just like IM and texting); if efficiency is of the essence, what’s wrong with relying on shorthand, so long as it doesn’t impede meaning? And I’m not convinced ‘netspeak impedes meaning, at least not universally. Bitch about “fail” all you want, but context will usually tell you which shading of “fail” is intended.
This brings me to gender politics. Because half the people I see dropping these signifiers anymore are women, often speaking to audiences that are predominantly made up of other women. Feminist blogs, women-dominated author and reviewer blogs and the like. Women are expected to remain polite, even (especially?) in the toxic miasma of the Internet. Half the time these supposedly language-destroying tics are used to denigrate or minimize one’s own achievements (“2K words due today; off to write all the things!”), to take the sting out of criticism (“this review gets the facts wrong in four places, lawl”), in any number of hyper-gendered ways. Eh, this is a game anyone can play at home. Go to nearly any woman-authored blog and look at how Internetspeak is being used, and tell me I’m wrong. It’s not so much imprecise as it is anxiously social. I want to read this as a form of resistance, at least in part. Feminist gamers immersed in the linguistic tics of misogynist cesspits like RPG chat, instead use that linguistic mode to carve out Internet communities that are recognizably of Internet 2.0, but aren’t actively hostile to women. That all-too-apparent ‘netspeak cower/duck/cover is a method of both avoiding the wrath of trolls while simultaneously stealing their turf. These are just a few of the reasons why I occasionally use lolspeak.
Or maybe I’m just pathologically lazy. Yeah, that’s probably it.
Given all this, I read Worrad’s rant and what I heard him saying, larded in to his critique of ‘netspeak’s imprecision, is that now that old people (anyone over 25…soooo incredibly ooooold) and women (girl cooties!) have gotten hold of what used to be dudely gamer-speak = Death of the English Language.
None of this answers the original question posed, though, which is about the homogenization of language. I think Chris is right and the jury’s still out. In this globalized world (one in which English is hegemonically dominant) it’s no surprise that language itself mimics the operations of globalization in its simplification, in its flattening out of shades of meaning. But this seems like as much an opportunity as a problem. How might writers critique the rise of ‘netspeak in all its complexity, or even influence its development? Any way you answer this question, how is auto-denigrating existing phenomena the answer?