LANGUAGE AND THE INTERNET

 

 

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“After all, when  you come right down  to it, how many people speak the same language even when they speak the  same language?" Russell Hoban

 

 The acknowledged developer of the Internet , Tim burners-Lee once said that  the Internet is “less a technological fact than  a social fact “ and its chief stock-in-trade is language”.  According to  a popular mythology, the Internet will be bad for the future  of language. Technospeak  will rule , standards  will be lost, and creativity  diminished as globalization imposes sameness. There are those who  say that the Internet is aan irresistible  force churning over the Earth’s surface , crushing languages and cultures as it propels English to  world domination.

 With few exceptions, Anglophones built the invisible empire we call cyberspace. Practically everything online is in English search  engines, web pages , operating systems ,databases ,chats,etc . Are we to conclude that the Net is an “English-only” zone ? Must we speak English or get out ?

 

Not at all. David Crystal , one of the foremost authorities  on language , argues the opposite, claiming that  the Internet is enabling a  dramatic expansion of the range and  variety of language  and is providing unprecedented  opportunities  for personal creativity. In order to grow and be  maintained  as a linguistic  medium, the principals and standards of the Internet must evolve – and they  will be very different from  other mediums.

 

The Sixth language

  World history  follows the progress of civilization  which,  in turn, moves in response to changing cultural technologies. The mode of technology  imparts something of its nature to public experience. Form affects  substances or, in the famous  words of English professor Herbert Marshall  McLuhan , “the medium  is the message”

   Language is a dynamic living organism  which is constantly  growing and evolving. In his book ”The Sixth Language :Learning a Living in the Internet Age”, University of Toronto physics  professor  Robert Logan  submits that the Internet constitutes the sixth link  in an evolutionary  chain of languages that  include speech , writing, mathematics ,   science , and computing, each  developing its own  distinct semantics and syntax.

   “Each language” , states Dr. Logan, “builds on the futures of its  predecessors  while adding a number  of new information-processing elements of its own. Each new language eventually led to an information explosion and a new set of challenges which  set the stage for the next level  of development and the emergence  of still another form of language”

    Two of the languages, mathematics and writing, emerged at exactly the same point in history-around 3100 BC – followed approximately   1000 years later by science. Now, within a single generation, two more languages have    appeared in rapid succession : computing and the Internet, the fifth  and sixth languages.

  According  to Logan , computing and the Internet(which includes the  World Wide Web) will play  a role  as equally important  as that  of any  of the four languages that preceded them centuries ago.

 

 “A different language  is a different  vision of life” (Federico Fellini)

 

  The Third Medium

   We have two forms of English , written  and spoken. Not so, says David Crystal. There’s  a new form  in town, that he calls  Netspeak. In the minds of many, it’s little more than linguistic vandalism, online expression  where grammar  is gone and spelling  is  superfluous.

”We are on the  brink of the biggest revolution  in language ever “ claims Crystal.

Is the Internet a revolution ? Is it a linguistic revolution ?  Beyond the  visual  panache  of the presentation  on a screen , the Internet’s linguistic character is immediately  obvious to anyone online. As the Internet has  become incorporated  into our lives ,it is becoming clearer  how it is being shaped by and   is adapting  language and languages. Opening up linguistic issues for a general readership, Crystal argues that Netspeak is a radically new  linguistic medium that we can not ignore.

  According to Crystal   the net is not a monolithic  creation, but  rather a disparate  set of communications methods  that includes e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging (IM) , web logs, mailing lists, Internet Relay Chat (IRC)  and Usenet  newsgroup , World Wide Webpages and virtual  worlds. He largely  dismisses  the common view that online communication is illiterate and  dumbed-down language.

   It is true that much of the language  found on the Internet is non-standard, playful , guilty of bending  the usual rules of language , tolerant of  typographical  and  spelling errors and full of new words. But, it is also true that online language  is innovative and has variety  and special character.

  It is constantly  evolving  its own  systematic rules to  suit new circumstances.  The phenomenon of  online language  is going to change  the way  we think of language in  a fundamental way because it  is a linguistic   singularity-a genuine  new medium.

 

“They have been  at  a great  feast of languages and  stolen the scraps “ (William Shakespeare)

 

Is English  the language  of the Internet ?

   For many indeed , the language of the Internet  is English . There was a  headline in the New York Times in 1996 which  said simply :  ‘ World Wide Web : 3 English Words’.  The article , by  Michael Specter  , went on to  say : “ If you want to take full advantage of  the Internet  there is only one way  to  do  it : learn English”.

  We cannot dismiss the fact  that the spread of  English as the commercial  lingua franca  has taken  its toll , particularly on the Internet, where even the computer code is based  on English . English  is the  main language of  pop music, books , newspapers,  air traffic control , international  business , academic conferences , science, technology , diplomacy , sports,  international  competition  and advertising. As many  as 1,0 billion people  ,one-third of humanity, have some knowledge of the English  language . More than 25 percents speaks English with  varying degrees of competence . According to  widely  published statistics  , half of  Europe’s business deals are conducted in English while more than  two- thirds  of the world’s scientists  read in English. Three-quarters of the world’s mail  is written in English  and 80 percent of the world’s  electronically  stored information  is in English.

   But in his article  , Michael   Specter  also  acknowledged  the arrival of other languages : “As the web  grows” he said , “the number of people on it  who  speak  French, say ,or Russian, will become more varied  and the variety  will be expressed  on the web”.

  The web is “Fundamentally a   democratic  technology   “ he  said, “but it won’t  necessarily  happen  soon “. The  evidence shows that , with  the Internet’s globalization  that has occurred  since then , the presence of other  languages on the Web has  steadily risen.

“It is a song. It is a whisper.

 It is  a poem scribbled on a napkin.

 It is a promise. It is much more  and much less.

 It is language , and language is ideas.”

                          (Pooja  Kumar )

 

The other  side of the Internet

    The delusion  that  everything on the Web  is in English  is rooted in a crippling visual handicap of monolingual  Anglophones. The other side  of the Internet  is all but invisible  to  them. Because they  can only search  for English words or phrases , they  conclude that  the hits they   get  are all that’s available on the  World Wide Web. If they get no  hits, they  conclude that  information is not  available. Multilingual  cybernauts , on the other hand, enjoy  a much bigger , more colourful  , more diverse Internet. The fact  that  two-thirds of the world’s children  grow up  in bilingual or multilingual  environments is evidence enough  that using a language for international  communications  does not imply  abandoning  other idioms in more local contexts, nor indeed one’s cultural  roots or native language.

  In his article “The Internet…good news or bad for language?” (1998, Creative Marketeam Canada) , linguist  and author Robert Henderson  call this vast network of online resources  and services-available only in other languages- the shadow Web. It contains information one cannot get in English, providing a distinct  edge over monolingual  competitors.

  The major search engines , such as Google, Yahoo, and Infoseek, do index pages in other languages; with  their fast interfaces  and optimized  design , they  are generally the best  place to  start a non-English  search. Using their non-English  services helps to narrow  the search  to  target language pages. However, most of  the  non-English pages these big  American engines index are limited  to  global culture, or foreign perspectives on issues better covered  by  the English  Internet in  the first place.  For culture –specific searches, target languages search  engines work best.  Most of these are more country -specific than global in scope, so  you generally  have to  run  your keywords  through several  of them  to  cover the territory. They  are also  invariably slower and susceptible  to  vanish  overnight , but they  are still   the most effective way  to  find information  on matters  that  don’t concern  the United States.

 

True  creativity often  starts where language ends “ (Arthur  Koestler)

 Helping to  preserve  endangered  languages

  The net plays another ,more active, role on the linguistic  front. A role that is frequently overlooked  by  Anglophones who believe  English  victory  is imminent. Since the advent of World Wide Web , many  minority  languages  (those spoken  by  single nations  or ethnic groups)  have enjoyed a dramatic  upsurge  in vitality. Many  such  tongues  were considered  endangered  just a decade ago. Late-century mobility and economic currents were taking more  and more speakers  out of their communities and away  from fellow speakers. Languages were disappearing at an  alarming rate.

   Like biological  extinction , linguistic extinction  is a serious loss  for all of humankind. Languages are some of the  primary ways people maintain  their culture  and are crucial to understanding  other cultures. When  fewer and fewer people  share a particular language , it may  die , and when it does, part of our collective human  culture  dies with it.

   Surprisingly, though , the Internet has become a valuable tool  for preserving endangered languages . Speakers of these languages not only have been  particularly  active in  putting up  web pages in their various languages, but also in mounting  extremely effective , large-scale dictionary and language-learning  projects online. There is no reason  why  minority  languages cannot coexist with  a lingua franca  like English.  Indeed, the Internet  offers more hope for their survival  than they   have  ever known  before, especially  as translation  tools become more effective.

 

A Tradition Turned Upside Down

  Computer technology, says Brian King, director of the Worldwide Language Institute, has traditionally been  the sole domain  of a ‘techie’ elite, fluent in  both  complex  programming languages  and in English- the universal language of science and technology.

Computers have never designed to handle  writing systems that couldn’t be translated into  ASCII. There wasn’t much  room for  anything other  than  the 26 letters of the English  alphabet  in a coding system  that  originally couldn’t even  recognize  acute accents and umlauts-not to mention nonalphabetic systems like Chinese”.

  But tradition has been turned  upside down. Computer technology has now occurred  on a global  scale. Graphical User Interfaces  like Window and Macintosh have accelerated the process  to make computers easy  to  use  for the average person. These days this ease of use  has spread  beyond the personal   computer to  the virtual , networked space  of the Internet. English  is no longer  necessarily  the lingua franca of the  user, and it is no longer necessary   to understand English  to  use a computer. Perhaps there is no  true  lingua franca , but only the individual  languages of  users.

  Localization is now a fast  growing area  in software and hardware development , but this development  has not been  as fast as  it could  have  been. First, ASCII became Extended ASCII. This meant that  computers could begin to  start  recognizing the accents  and symbols used in variants of English  alphabet , such  as those  used by  European languages. But only one language  could be displayed on a page  at  a time.

   The most  recent development is UNICODE. Although  still  evolving and only just being  incorporated into the latest software, this new coding system translates  each  character into  16  bytes. Whereas  8 byte Extended ASCII  could only handle  a maximum of  256 characters, UNICODE can handle over 65,000 unique  characters and therefore potentially accommodate  all of the world’s writing systems  on the computer.

 

A Multilingual  Future ?

   The web is increasingly  reflecting the distribution  of language presence  in the real  world, and many  sites provide the evidence.. there are thousands of businesses now doing  their best  to present a multilingual identity. Nobody  has yet  figured  out just how many  languages  have obtained a presence  on the Web. It is not very  difficult to  find evidence of a net  presence for all  the most  frequently  used languages in the world , and for a large number of  minority languages, too. About a quarter of the world’s languages –that’s about 1500- have some sort of cyber existence now.

  According to  a a recent Global Reach survey, the estimates of people  with  Internet  access in non-English speaking countries increased between  1995 and 2000 from 7 million to an  amazing 136 million. In 1998, there was another  surprise: the number of newly created websites not in English passed the total for newly created sites that were in English. Less then  half of the Web (35,6%) is now in English.

  In the jargon of the Internet, there needs to be lots of good ‘content’ in the local languages out there, and until there is , people will continue using the languages that have managed to  accumulate content-English in particular. So the future of a multilingual  Internet  isn’t guaranteed. It will all depend on how quickly  new sites can build up a local language momentum.

The 'Globish' Language

Breaking the Language Barrier

Greek as International Lingua Franca

Languages in Extinction

Is the English Language Changing

The Barriers to Educating Girls

English–the universal language

on the Internet ?

Language News

Indigo Children

International Phonetic Association  

IPA

Xenophon Zolotas on Economy

Links to the Linguistics

Translation Problems

Language and the Brain

Language and the Internet

Alexandria's New Library, Biblioteca Alexandrina

Greek Language Centre

Dyslexic Mind

 

LINGUISTICS

 

 ALEXANDER LANGUAGE SCHOOL