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Ironic, Informal And Expressive, 'New Rules Of Language' Evolve Online

With all our texting, tweeting and social media posting, billions of people are using typed words for the kind everyday communication that used to happen more often in conversation. A new book argues that we’ve created a unique new language to reproduce the shades of meaning that we used to convey verbally. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on the new rules of language that he calls chat-speak.


Other segments from the episode on August 20, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Tuesday, April 20, 2019: Interview with Charles King; Commentary on language of the internet.



This is FRESH AIR. With all our texting, tweeting and social media posting, billions of people are using typed words for the kind of everyday communication that used to happen more often in conversation. A new book argues that we've created a unique new language to reproduce the shades of meaning we used to convey orally. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg reflects on the new rules of language that he calls chatspeak.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: You recall back in 2004 when George W. Bush referred to rumors on the internets. That instantly became a classic Bush-ism. But to my mind, he got it right, not just because what we call the internet originated as a collection of networks 40 years ago, but because what people call internet culture is an ocean of yammer strewn with innumerable islands and continents, each with its own rules, customs and conversations.

But in a lively and wide-ranging new book called "Because Internet," the linguist Gretchen McCullough argues that a huge part of our internet lives is conducted in a common vernacular, what she calls in her subtitle, the new rules of language. I think of it as chatspeak. McCullough traces its origins back to the early days of email, but it came into full flower in the modern era of social media. It's the style of informal writing people use when they go to the Internet to reproduce the sense of connectedness they get from hanging out in physical gathering places like high school cafeterias, bars and coffee houses.

To that end, they've had to devise ways of compensating for the loss of the gestures, expressions and vocal effects that convey meaning in face-to-face conversation. That is, they've had to create what McCulloch calls a typographical tone of voice. They've done that through what social scientists called bricolage; cobbling together the straps of material you happen to have on hand. They convey emphasis by putting spaces between letters or using all caps or repeating exclamation points. They lengthen words like yes or no to suggest a friendly intimacy or they achieve other effects by repurposing the rules of formal writing. There's no need to mark the end of a text message with a period, so when somebody does use one, it's taken as a sign of passive aggressiveness - I'm fine, period.

Then there are all the graphic indicators, such as emoticons like smileys, which morphed into a whole army of emojis, particularly the emblematic ones like thumbs up and praying hands. McCulloch likens those to digital gestures. Or if you really want to display an emotion, you can conscript somebody else to do it for you in the form of an animated GIF - a frustrated Whoopi Goldberg, a shimmying Steph Curry, a little girl cringing in disgust.

It's striking how many ways there are to signal irony on the Internet. You can bracket a word with tildes, the wavy little mark over the N in mañana, as in, well, isn't that ~special~? Or you can just write #irony after a sentence. It's a curious innovation. People have been proposing punctuation marks to indicate irony since the 17th century, but authors have preferred to let readers figure it out for themselves. It's hard to imagine Jane Austen sprinkling her works with smileys and winkies.

But the social Internet is awash with overt irony, often tipping into sarcasm. That has its dangers. As McCulloch notes, irony can be used to make abhorrent beliefs look appealing. On the message boards of the extreme right, people routinely espouse racist views while saying it's all in fun. That's not a new phenomenon. During World War II, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre made the same point about how Nazi anti-Semites resorted to jokiness to put their ideas across. The need for those overt tip-offs of irony reflects a big difference between chat speak and face-to-face conversation. You don't always know who's out there or how your words are going to land.

American adolescents average around 300 Facebook friends and 150 Instagram followers. That's a whole lot more than the posse they hang out with after school. When the audience is that diffuse and open-ended, their posts take the shape of a self-consciously crafted performance. They post to proclaim their presence, to connect with others of their kind and to evoke responses from anyone within earshot, whether it's likes or forwards or replies. And they time their posts for maximum impact. Usually, in the morning, people start tweeting around the same time birds do and for the same reasons.

McCulloch argues that all our texting and tweeting has enabled ordinary people to write with exquisite levels of social nuance, as she puts it, which used to be the province of professionals. It's certainly not doing any damage to the English language, despite the fulminations of the people I think of as the great unwired. Those stories about texting slang and abbreviations showing up on students' writing are pure urban legends. Bear in mind that the whole point of slang is knowing who you're not supposed to use it with.

But if chat speak helps fulfill people's yearnings for connectedness, it isn't very well-adapted to developing any idea that's bigger than an aphorism. That belongs to another continent of Internet discourse on the blogs and websites where you can find a vast accumulation of intelligent commentary in critical writing by millions of authors who could never make their ideas public before. It's not exactly formal writing. In fact, it's inherited a lot of informality from the give and take of Internet chatter. But it's still a language where writers are conscientious about breaking up their thoughts with periods and where they don't telegraph their irony.

I don't know whether a fluency with McCulloch's new rules of writing gives you a leg up when it comes to mastering the old ones. But if it makes you reflective about the way you use written words, it's a good place to start.

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California Berkeley School of Information. On tomorrow's show, our guest will be character actor Stephen Root. He's probably best known for his role as the sad-sack office worker in the cult favorite film "Office Space." He was a voice actor for the animated series "King Of The Hill," and he played the station manager on NBC's "NewsRadio." After appearing in nearly 800 TV episodes and a hundred films, he's received his first Emmy nomination for his role as the handler of a hitman in the HBO series "Barry." Hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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