Short Take: See? The Internet Is NOT Making Us Illiterate

updated/edited at 6 p.m. EST

Richard Daley was not an articulate man, as most English teachers will agree. He may not exit a paragraph the same way that he entered it, but when a councilman tried to take him to task for handing out city contracts to his nephews, Daley found a way to tell the councilman to kiss his bottom. He said it. We understood it. What more can one expect from the English language?

Mike Rokyo, Boss [biography on infamous Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Sr.]

The Internet is Homo Loquens at its best. It shows language expanding richly in all directions

David Crystal, Cambridge University

If the first-time Internet surfer is a grammatical stickler for perfection and precision, he will undoubtedly shake his head in wonderment at the ostensibly blatant and severe disregard for the extant grammar, spelling and punctuation commonly found in modern-day Netspeak. Oneis first day on the Net would typically reveal emails, chat-room messages and instant-messages laden with smiley faces, arcane acronyms, abbreviations and esoteric symbols that would make the average English teacher retire from his profession in disgust -- or make him quietly reach a shaking hand towards the Maalox.

But upon closer inspection, Internet communications are not structure-agnostic, multi-tributaried streams of consciousness, but rather, they are both a micro- and a macrocosm of our rapidly evolving, hyper-expressive and quite-expansive human language.

At least, according to David Crystal, with whom I agree wholeheartedly.

David Crystal -- Dr. David Crystal, rather -- is an authority on language who helped produce the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, as well as frequently appearing on Americais National Public Radio (NPR). So, his opinions count for something.

He sees the internet as the greatest linguistic paradigm morph since the Great Vowel Shift.

"A whole new medium of communication does not arrive very often in the history of the race," says Crystal. A whole new medium, indeed.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Crystal talks up his book, "Language and the Internet," the first formal analysis of the rules and mores of how we cyber-citizens "speak." The article (see URL below) spends its length airing Crystalis correct belief that the Internet isnit creating a nation of illiterates who wouldnit know an editor from an emoticon, but rather, it showcases what he terms the "third medium" of human communication:

-the first medium was speech, which has been around ever since the first Australopithecus learned to stand on its hind quarters (or Adam and Eve, take your pick)

-the second was writing, which is commonly believed to be discovered and/or created about 10,000 years ago

Crystal says that we are now living in the age of internet-mediated communications, and weid better get used to it, since it isnit going away. Actually, if youire reading this, youire ahead of the curve, since, Crystal says, that all of your neighbors will be communicating thusly before long.

Aldus Huxley would be proud of our brave, new world.

Take a look at the rest of the article, which is linked below. Itis a great read.

While I appreciate and agree with Professor Crystalis findings, I see another, equally, if not more, important effect of the internet. It is one of the few technologies that have brought power to the people. After all, the word is far mightier than the sword.

No other mass media allow near-instantaneous communication between people across the globe, between writer and reader, between speaker and listener. No other communication media can take upon itself the title "great equalizer" like the Internet can, with its inherent ability to provide the lowliest individual with access to hundreds, thousands and millions of people via the vehicle of a mere phone line. All it takes is an ISP and an attitude.

If they havenit already, governments and corporations will some time soon rue the day that the Common Man discovered the iNet, for he (or she) -- and the rest of the powerless -- are now on par with the powerful for the first time in the annals of mankind.

The Mac world is abuzz with the phrases describing a society of denizens strapped with every gizmo under the sun -- digital this and digital that. But we should not forget that the internet is the true digital lifestyle. It has life. It lives and breathes, but only as we live and breathe into it. Goods and services will still be the driving currency in the world economy, but we need to have a paradigm shift towards the understanding that information is no less powerful and influential than any good or service produced heretofore.

The Mac, or any PC for that matter, suddenly takes on a much greater significance when you see how much effect you can have on the rest of the world from the privacy of your own home, by expressing and sharing thoughts spoken through your keyboard. That is what "digital lifestyle" is all about

I wonder if even Apple would dare put that element of the digital lifestyle into a marketing message, for that would truly empower the people, maybe even more than The Establishment wants.


Further reading: "Pooh-Poohing the Purists, Scholar Revels in Netspeak," New York Times, 12/13/2001

Rodney O. Lain loves saying and writing the word "boustrophedonical." When he isnit trying to locate languages that are written boustrophedonically, he writes his iBrotha column for The Mac Observer, as well as the occasional editorial. Rodney lives in Minnesota, where he is an IT supervisor for The Man at a Fortune 50 company.