Book of the week
Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
Until recently, this book’s title wouldn’t have made sense to anyone, said Katy Steinmetz in Time. The word “because” has for centuries been followed in most speech by either a full clause or a preposition. One day, however, the bland little conjunction “suddenly began bursting with new life,” empowering any of us to answer a question about climate change with the phrase “because science” or a question about why we’re sleepy with “because burrito.” As the title of Gretchen McCulloch’s engaging new book indicates, all credit for this and many other startling locutions belongs to the internet. If language’s evolution interests you at all, you’ll devour her lively survey of internet-speak. To McCulloch, the internet era isn’t turning us all into tramplers of language’s finer points; “on the contrary, it’s making us more creative in our writing than ever before.”
“McCulloch is doing important work here,” said Cory Doctorow in BoingBoing.net. The internet has been a dream come true for her and her fellow linguists, because it allows detailed study of informal English as it evolves, and the fluidity of the language has always been central to its global success. People who’ve spent their lives communicating on the internet have developed a new lexicon. They express frustration through “keysmash”—the gobbledygook that results when you run your fingers randomly across the keyboard—and they signal friendly intent through exclamation points. Various moods are expressed through other typological tricks—ALL CAPS convey shouting, for example, and a tilde signals sarcasm. “Especially interesting is the chapter on emoji.” To McCulloch, those graphic symbols comprise not a new language but a variation on such older modes of communication as hand and facial gestures.
One of the themes of Because Internet is how fluid internet language can be, said Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times. “Lol” is still shorthand for “laughing out loud,” but over time it has acquired new layers of meaning: It can defuse tension, gently mock the recipient, or even express apprehension. McCulloch is such a winsome writer that you’ll want to join her in celebrating internet speech’s protean nature and how its subtle rules can create a sense of community. But a language whose codes are accessible only to an in-group excludes many people, too, and you don’t have to spend much time on Twitter or Reddit to notice how much hatred is expressed through coded language. McCulloch prefers to be optimistic, promising that the exciting world of internet speech welcomes anyone and everyone. “I hope she’s right.” ■