Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Netspeak Tales

LOLcats were the first Internet trope to make Netspeak universally popular, starting in 2005-2006. Image Source: I Can Has Cheezburger via Macmillan Dictionary.

The personal pronoun is dying. On Twitter, texting and instant messaging, in newspapers and other written media, technology prompts writers to drop the personal pronoun so that sentences begin with verbs, and the pronoun is assumed. Where possible, even the verbs are chopped, as: Meet u l8r. So much on 2day.

Sometimes, language crumbles in the other direction. Around 2004, I read a great transgressive short story about disintegrating Millennial language. In the story, an increasingly alienated protagonist gradually loses his ability to speak to other people. He begins dropping words from his sentences; the linguistic break down signifies his helpless and unstoppable withdrawal. In the end, he can only say the word "I" repeatedly. The affliction is called aphasia. It is not the loss of actual physical ability to speak out loud, rather a psychological loss of will to utter words, a frightening mental block between one's inner life and the outer world.

The author and title of this story escape me; the publication might have been the New Yorker, The Observer or the TLS; maybe one of the blog's readers will recognize the plot. Incidentally, the story about aphasia was published alongside Chuck Palahniuk's story, "Guts," which is another fictional example of trauma of the protagonist breaking through social reality of the reader. You can read it here.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was in a terrible car accident, and in the aftermath became mute for a time. It was a descent into silence, an invisible wall with which no one could argue. I realized that while language is held by intellectuals to be the hallmark of civilization, the willful erasure of language is ironically a moment of power, a last defense against total collapse.

And yet, George Orwell pegged his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four in the brutal rise of Newspeak, a gutted, simplified language that signified the soullessness of the society. Some blame top-down policies of schools before they condemn the grassroots spread of technology. This complaint kicks a hornet's nest about educational agendas popularized over the past fifty years, which no longer permit spelling and grammar to be taught. So which is it? Is language collapsing and heralding a brutish, dystopian future - or are we on the verge of a linguistic renaissance?

Image Source: Daily Mail.

An Internet search reveals a growing ambivalence about the place of Internet linguistics in cyberculture and beyond it. An expert consensus concludes that the Internet and tech gadgets are destroying modern English, the Web's lingua franca. However, after an initial wave of dismissive negativity, some researchers and online writers ponder the dynamism of Netspeak, leetspeak and textspeak:
Despite debate, the notion that the break down of language could be a sign of social rejuvenation flies in the face of conventional wisdom. What does it mean if people drop the personal pronoun from their communications, thereby erasing their agency from their actions? In a networked cybersphere, where everyone is some kind of writer, are they not erasing themselves? Then there are alphanumeric acronym codes which replace common phrases.

Moreover, a whole world of unconscious typos awaits, where one confuses it's and its, or led and lead, despite knowing the difference. I wondered about the unconscious typo, especially, because I recently confused peace and piece in a tweet. OMG. I found that auto-error very unnerving. How does tech enable a stream-of-consciousness Joycean free indirect speech? How does it demand linguistic free association, and narrative unconscious, subconscious and preconscious metalanguages, such that the rules of spelling and grammar fall away, and only the guts of the language remain in our heads?

I asked a question about unconscious typos - what compels them? - on Twitter. Bloggers Kate Sherrod (see her blog here) and Paul Laroquod (see his blog here) disagreed that typos indicated a break down of language. Kate felt that dropping words reflected the demands of technological communication, but that enforced brevity was more or less beneficial:
I can definitely see where the 'I' is implied and so droppable. A similar thing happened to the 'you' in imperatives long ago. I probably first dropped the 'I' when texting on an old alphanumeric keypad because every letter was a PITA. It's interesting that you're doing this now; I've been thinking lately about the possibility of my prose style deteriorating horribly just at a time when there is a new demand for it. Social media is where the demand has been created, and is also where the erosion occurs. Interesting!!! Most of the time I admire and enjoy the simplicity/brevity achieved thereby. Most of the time.
And Paul said: "Change ≠ disintegration. We are merely returning to the linguistic malleability of the preliterate ages." Insightful, prescient, but somehow, it did not comfort me.

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1 comment:

  1. (I) just thought I'd exit lurk mode for a moment to let you know that this blog is one of my very favourite things to read on the internet and in itself shores up my faith in the resilient complexity of language.

    Your posts are balanced, beautifully written, sometimes troubling and always thought-provoking. Many thanks!