The other day I ran across a piece I'd written back in 2001. In some ways it seems dated, as in capitalizing "web" words. But in others it's still pretty current. Here it is:
How the Web is Changing English
by Crawford Kilian (2001)
As a novelist, I know that you show the truth about your characters by putting them under stress that threatens their identity. As a writer and editor, I know that nothing stresses writers and editors more than confronting issues around “bad English,” “improper usage,” and sloppy punctuation.
Such confrontations usually happen in private when the editor and writer lock in deadly embrace over a stray semicolon or whether it’s all right to write “alright.” But the Internet has brought these quarrels out into public scrutiny. America and Britain, Oscar Wilde once observed, are two great nations divided by the same language. Now the division affects the whole English world, and countless foreign countries as well.
According to Global Reach, a Website that monitors Internet use around the world, some 391 million people are currently online. Almost 48 percent of them – 215 million -- are English speakers. Americans make up 167 million (actually down a bit from 2000). Britain has 22 million, Canada 11 million, Australia 9 million and New Zealand 1.5 million. Most of the rest are people for whom English is an additional language. English is the de facto language of the Internet, but just whose English? And for how long?
[Compare those usage figures with the ones most currently offered by Global Reach.]
Watch an editors’ or content developers’ mail list light up about “ize” versus “ise,” “color” versus “colour,” and you see that people in different countries feel their identities are somehow at stake. And so they are, but not perhaps as we might fear. Our dialect is our cultural DNA. Whatever we may choose to say in it, we have a subtext: This is who I am. If your dialect is different, you are different and maybe we don’t even have anything to say to one another. As Professor Higgins observed long ago in My Fair Lady, “An Englishman has only to open his mouth to make some other Englishman despise him.”
Hatred or respect may spring from the dialect of the aristocratic or the plebeian, from the urbane or the rustic. Usually it is those on the economic or geographic margin whose language is most despised—not because it lacks eloquence, but because it does not speak in the accents of power.
Chaucer’s English, 600 years ago, became the ancestor of our English only because London was the political and economic hub of medieval England. Vigorous literatures in regional dialects are now lost to all but scholars, because they left no descendants. Those who might have become Northumbrian Shakespeares moved to London and adopted the dialect of the rich and powerful.
The British Diaspora sent Chaucer’s descendants all over the planet, in colonies that preserved or mutated the home dialects. The Appalachians are home to expressions long forgotten at home—and most Americans still use “gotten,”which Brits find as archaic as “God wot.” But London itself is marginal now, and power speaks English with an Appalachian-descended Texas twang.
Or so it seems. But the metaphor of the margin—the silence, the blankness that gives context to the central words—is fading. In a medium without a margin, the marginal are not only finding a voice, they are renewing the language itself.
The Diaspora is reconverging through the Web, like an enormous family reunion. Distant cousins are taking a fancy to one another and slipping outside together for a breath of air. Who cares who speaks “superior” or “standard” or “proper” English? One sexy idiom, and all our defenses (defences?) collapse in surrender.
Some of the relatives at this reunion are in-laws, people from Scandinavia or India or Spain who’ve married into the language. They’re pretty cute too. (Who cares if “cute” to Chaucer was short for “acute,” meaning “as pointed as a needle”?) Let’s have lunch after the reunion and really get to know one another. We seem to have a lot in common, and we can gossip about everyone else.
A whole new dialect—maybe a new language—is emerging from Web English. Its subtext is still “This is who I am,” but it’s an identity far less parochial than the language has ever expressed before. Several factors are at work in the creation of this new Global English.
One factor is what I call “crystallization.” Someone comes up with a standard operating system, and everyone else adopts and adapts to it. The same thing happened a century ago with the QWERTY keyboard. Good or bad, such crystallizations are unstoppable. Web jargon itself has crystallized not only English but numerous other languages. Visit a Website in Spain; even its Spanish-language pages use terms like “web,” “content benchmarking and audit,” “fulfillment,” and “site.” A Brazilian site offers “setup” and “hosting” for local “websites,” as well as “e-mail”—and you can put your purchases in a “shopping cart.”
Do Spaniards or Brazilians, confronting these exotic anglicisms, feel threatened? Or do they feel that these words make them members of an important new community?
Probably both, just as native English speakers may wince or grin at a new slang term that welcomes some while excluding others. If you’re a Brazilian who doesn’t understand “setup” and “shopping cart,” you feel excluded—and in your own country, on a site ostensibly in your own language. At best, you associate them with modernity and glamour, though they’re otherwise meaningless. But if you do know these terms, you feel like part of the in crowd.
That feeling of exclusion, in turn, is thanks to another factor that's changing English: “exformation.” Coined by Tor Norretranders, a Danish writer, the term means the information that you drop from a message because you know your reader already knows it. The classic example is Victor Hugo’s concise dialogue with his publisher. Wanting to know how Les Miserables was selling, Hugo sent his publisher a one-symbol telegram: ? The publisher replied: !
If we don’t have the context, the exformation of a word or phrase, it’s meaningless and we feel excluded. For millions of Web users, “setup” and “shopping cart” are literally exclusive, pushing them back into a society on the defensive. With that exformation, however, millions more step into a new society.
What’s true of non-English speakers is still more true of those of us in the Diaspora. Canadian newspapers a few years ago reverted to “colour” and “labour” because their readers preferred the British usage to the American. American magazines and the New York Times are available almost anywhere. The sheer weight of the American presence forces many Canadians to resist; in a case like this, adopting the neighbo(u)r’s usage gains you nothing. The Americans don’t even notice. Sticking to your own usage lets you hang on to a scrap of your identity.
Global English therefore seems to be evolving in step with self-consciously regional dialects. Most of us, if we write and edit for the Web, will become polyglots in a single language: writing Global for formal occasions, writing local for friends and family, writing in others’ dialects when we want to get along with (or sell to) some of our cousins and in-laws.
Within each dialect, of course we have questions of register. I may impress my Latin American students with my 1950s-vintage Mexico City Spanish, but should I address a young female student intimately as “tu” or more distantly as “usted”? In the new dialects of Global English, is “ma’am” a courtesy or an insult? If I use American Plain Language, will an Australian lawyer find me pleasantly clear or babbling baby talk?
These are questions of exformation, of grasping background and context that our readers take for granted. We can learn that background only by trial and error, and even our readers might find it hard to explain it to us. Nor would they all agree on, for example, when to use “tu” with an unrelated young woman, or the value of Plain Language in Australian legal writing.
If Chaucer’s dialect became Standard English thanks to power, then standardization is also a way of preserving that power, keeping it in the family of those who master its rituals. Many English teachers still regard their job as preparing students for a rite of passage into the ranks of power. Like Professor Higgins, we want the power elite to take our mudlarks for princesses.
Yet the Web and the Net disperse power, enabling the once-silent to speak in any voice they choose, to scribble in the margins and between the lines of the central text. We may sneer at their spelling and punctuation, but what can we do about it? Send them grumpy e-mail, and hope we haven’t made any typos or accidental errors in grammar?
As writers and editors, we will have to accept that our dialect, for all its virtues, is just another dialect. Others’ dialects may be less eloquent or flexible, but they deserve just as much respect. And, as we are learning in the ongoing family reunion, exchanging cultural DNA will give both Global English and its dialects a welcome new strength and reach. Imperial English took words from every language it encountered; Global English should welcome words from its own dialects. If it’s going to be the world’s speech, it might as well be worthy of the hono(u)r.