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"Because Internet": Celebrating the Way We Talk Online

The American Dialect Society's choice for the Word of the Year for 2013, because, was "a bit of a surprise," as Ben Zimmer wrote here in January 2014. This "humble word," Zimmer wrote, "has recently expanded in new grammatical directions in informal use online"; among other things, it could immediately precede a noun ("because science") or an interjection ("because yum"). The ADS's press release quoted one supporter who attended the WOTY vote: "Because should be Word of the Year 'because useful!'"

Not all WOTYs turn out to have staying power, but because has defied the odds. For proof, I give you Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, a sparkling and enlightening new book by the linguist Gretchen McCulloch whose title is both a description and an example of one of the "new rules."

McCulloch studies and writes about informal language for a general audience; she's Wired magazine's "resident linguist" and the co-host of the Lingthusiasm podcast. (Her bio says she lives "in Montreal, but also on the internet.") Her linguistic enthusiasm is stoked by Twitter, texting, emoji, memes, creative typography, and the many other evolving forms of written communication. Most published writing is premeditated, or "filtered through multiple hands." But, McCulloch writes, "internet writing is different. It's unedited, it's unfiltered, and it's so beautifully mundane." And learning about its patterns can help all of us — not just linguists — understand more about language in general.

Take tone of voice, for example. For centuries, writers have struggled with a common problem: how to convey sarcasm on the page? After all, we have punctuation marks that express excitement (!) and interrogation (?), but no convenient symbol for irony. It's not for lack of trying: Back in the 1500s, the backward question mark, or percontation point (⸮), was offered as a solution. And as recently as 2010 a Michigan company invented, patented, and attempted to sell — for an unironic $1.99 per license — what it called the SarcMark.

Gretchen McCulloch

Those efforts failed, but, as McCulloch tells us, over the last decade or so internet writers have found not one but several successful (and delightful) ways to get their sarcastic point across. Overt signposting, like </sarcasm> or #sarcasm, "can be a trifle obvious," she writes; if you want to be more subtle, you can use the ~sarcasm tilde~, also known as "sparkle sarcasm," which first appeared around 2010 and which was chosen, McCulloch theorizes, because the tilde's wavy design mirrors the up-and-down pitch of a sarcastically inflected word like "sooooo."

An even more sophisticated approach to written irony is what McCulloch calls "minimalist typography," written in all lower-case letters with no punctuation. (It's the opposite of VERY SHOUTY all-caps writing.) If you think this writing style is "lazy," think again: As McCulloch points out, smartphones' predictive keyboards, which automatically capitalize proper nouns and the first words in sentences, require users to painstakingly disable the default if they want to go minimal. And the effect can be profound, even poetic. "If sparkle punctuation is overt artistic ornamentation," McCulloch writes, "then minimalist punctuation is an open canvas, inviting you to fill in the gaps." Here's an example McCulloch flagged on Twitter; note that it was written by an institutional account you wouldn't ordinarily expect to flout convention.

Still skeptical about the richness of internet language? Here's another example: emoji. You've probably seen alarmist headlines about how these pictographs are "ruining people's grasp of English," as a former UK government advisor told the Telegraph. Maybe you've even nodded in agreement. McCulloch wants you to take a step back and reconsider that role illustrations — hearts, doodles, smiling faces — have always played in informal writing. (She found lots of examples when she dug through a trove of old postcards.) Emoji — the Japanese word is a blend of e (picture) and moji (character), and only coincidentally suggests "emotion" — originated on Japanese mobile phones in 1997 and became popular worldwide with the spread of smartphones in the 2010s. There are now hundreds of emoji; as McCulloch points out, the most popular ones depict faces and hands: smiling, crying, thumbs up, pointing. "Emoji aren't the same as words," she writes, "but they're clearly doing something important for communication."

With the help of her Lingthusiasm co-host, Australian linguist Lauren Gawne, McCulloch figured out what that something was: emoji are "emblematic gestures." And what they're doing is the equivalent of the facial expressions and body motions we use to add tone and meaning to oral communication. When we add a winking emoji, we're shading a message with "I'm kidding" or "that's cute"; crossed fingers say "here's hoping" or "good luck." Emoji don't "dilute language and expression," as that UK government advisor huffed; they enrich it, just as shrugging shoulders or handshakes give extra dimension to conversations.

A lot of online language seems to have materialized overnight, but McCulloch — a tireless and eager researcher — shows us its long history. She reminds us that "the phone was as revolutionary for conversation as the internet was" — it took a while, she points out, for "Hello" to catch on as a friendly rather than startling greeting. Likewise, the smile emoticon :-) had a somewhat bumpy beginning. It was invented in 1982 by a professor at Carnegie Mellon University to allow early emailers to indicate when a transmission was intended as a joke; it won out, McCulloch tells us, over numerous other options, including *, %, &, and "a numerical 0 – 10 'Humor Value.'" Before "LOL" — the acronym for "laughing out loud" — became popular, also in the 1980s, people in online chatrooms tried >grin< >laugh< and *smile*. By 2017, when McCulloch did a survey of how people use "lol," she found "a word in transition. Not only was it steadily losing its capitalization, but its meaning was also evolving" — often to something like "sarcasm or wryness" or even "passive aggression."

Taking the long and objective view, as McCulloch does, provides invaluable perspective on contemporary language peeves. She wisely notes that "the technologies we now decry as new and inferior are going to be someone else's nostalgia trip; the technologies we now nostalgize were someone else's new and inferior versions." Rather than bemoan the proliferation of informal internet language, she writes, let's explore and celebrate it: "When we study only formal language, we see through a tiny pinhole into what English can do. When we study informal language, we open our minds wide. We step out of the library and see the complexity of the wide world surrounds us."

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of Because Internet from the publisher, Riverhead (Penguin).

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.