“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.