Book review: Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch

Language is always changing, and on a macro level some of the most radical changes have resulted from technology. Writing is the prime example. Millennia after its development, telephony reshaped our communication; mere decades later, computers arrived, became networked, and here I am, typing something for you to read on your PC or phone, however many miles away.

The internet’s effects on our use of language are still being unpacked. We are in the midst of a dizzying surge in interconnectivity, and it can be hard to step back and understand just what is happening to language in the early 21st century. Why are full stops often omitted now? What exactly are emoji doing? Why do people lol if they’re not laughing? With memes, can you even?

Book cover is bright yellow, with text in black. The subtitle is highlighted in blue, with pins bracketing it, like on a phone.Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is a new book by linguist Gretchen McCulloch that sets out to demystify some of the strange shifts going on in language right now. It provides a friendly yet substantial snapshot of linguistic trends and phenomena online, and it explains with clarity and ebullience what underpins them – socially, psychologically, technologically, linguistically.

‘When future historians look back on this era,’ McCulloch writes,

they’ll find our changes just as fascinating as we now find innovative words from Shakespeare or Latin or Norman French. So let’s adopt the perspective of these future historians now, and explore the revolutionary period in linguistic history that we’re living through from a place of excitement and curiosity.

Because Internet is a book about language change: where we pick up new usages, and why, and what it all means. Such changes depend on both weak ties (acquaintances, colleagues), to introduce new forms, and strong ties (family, friends), to spread them. The internet accelerates language change, essentially, because it leads to many more weak ties:

It’s not an accident that Twitter, where you’re encouraged to follow people you don’t already know, has given rise to more linguistic innovation (not to mention memes and social movements) than Facebook, where you primarily friend people you already know offline.

Context is everything. For centuries, formal writing was culturally privileged: with the standardisation of English came rules and norms that people saw as important, even intrinsic to the language. Things might loosen up in notes and letters, but in general there was a firm stylistic dichotomy between prose, which was formal, and speech, which was not.

The internet, with its democratising structure, subverts this:

Regardless of the specific linguistic circles we hang out with online, we’re all speakers of internet language because the shape of our language is influenced by the internet as a cultural context. Every language online is becoming decentralized, getting more of its informal register written down. Every speaker is learning how to write exquisite layers of social nuance that we once reserved for speech …

In forums, social media, and instant messaging, these nuances are expressed in ways that constitute a ‘distinct genre with its own goals’. Words are coined and mutated; formatting is refashioned; punctuation and symbols are repurposed. How this is executed and interpreted varies with context, age, and background – including where and when we first learned the local customs of online chat.

This last factor should not be underestimated. McCulloch devotes a chapter to mapping out a workable taxonomy of ‘Internet People’ based on their age, use of the internet, and entry to its social spaces. These groups’ particular styles and assumptions are a common source of mutual misunderstanding:

The dot dot dot is especially perilous. For people with experience of informal writing offline, it’s a generic separation character, as we just saw. But for internet-oriented writers, the generic separator is the line break or new message, which has left the dot dot dot open to taking on a further meaning of something left unsaid.

Irony in text is notoriously tricky: history has seen many failed efforts to codify it with a special mark. Irony’s risks, and rewards, are high: if it fails it can ‘gravely injure the conversation’, but if it succeeds there is ‘the sublime joy of feeling purely understood’. It is, in McCulloch’s phrase, ‘a linguistic trust fall’.

We may finally be getting somewhere. Irony online is now commonly conveyed (in some communities) with a range of unconventional typography: respellings, quirky capitalisation, tildes, and minimalist punctuation – a constellation of devices that emerged on Tumblr and Twitter since 2012. It’s complicated ‘because irony itself is complicated’.

Linguist Llama meme: a llama in the centre, facing you, on a background of large blue triangles. Text at the top: Language changes faster now. Text at the bottom: Because internetAnd then there are emoji, which critics accuse of dumbing down the language or even replacing it. Not only will McCulloch put your mind at rest on those fronts (I mean, really 🤨😂), she also makes a persuasive case that what emoji are doing is very like what gesture does for speech. There are differences, of course:

gestures are good at movement, while emoji are better at detail. … But their core function, the way that they fit into our systems of communication, has too many similarities to be an accident.

Nor is it accidental that the emoji we use the most tend to represent our faces and hands: ‘We use emoji less to describe the world around us, and more to be fully ourselves in an online world.’ They play a crucial role in conveying tone, as emoticons did before them: a vital service in many ways:

When we learn to write in ways that communicate our tone of voice, not just our mastery of rules, we learn to see writing not as a way of asserting our intellectual superiority, but as a way of listening to each other better.

Because Internet does more than reveal the historical patterns and linguistic mechanisms behind our new modes of communicating. It also celebrates our endless creativity in pushing language in fresh directions. Its insights will appeal equally to fluent users of internet language and less-online people who may be baffled by or suspicious of its jargon and in-jokes (Remember the fuss over because X?).

McCulloch’s book is thought-provoking, page-turning, witty, and delightful, and will go a long way towards bridging the communicative gaps between tribes and generations online. You can order Because Internet from Riverhead Books (a division of Penguin), and also read a chapter there.

[Disclosure: The publisher sent me a review copy, and I know the author online: we follow each other on Twitter, and she has written for Strong Language, a blog about swearing that I co-founded with James Harbeck.]
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8 Responses to Book review: Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch

  1. gkhaas says:

    In the example from her ebook, the apostrophes are rendered as accented capital Os.  I hope it’s not that way in the ebook itself…..

  2. Roger Hill says:

    How about because criminals, too? A century ago, the Internet would have been a utopian ideal, barely imaginable. But criminals love it so much, what’ll be left of it in a few years, never mind the distant future.

  3. lauratfrey says:

    This sounds fascinating. The idea that when and how we first got online affects how we use language online in particular.

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