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Back to computer-mediated communication

At this point in its evolution, CMC is so technically different from its primary media predecessors—-speech and writing—-that, despite the myriad means of communication that CMC offers, they all have a set of uniquely identifying linguistic characteristics. This conglomerate register has been given several names, including “Internet discourse” and “electronic language”, but has been most succinctly been identified by David Crystal as “Netspeak”.

Crystal takes the concept that CMC is distinct from registers of both speech and writing, a comparison first proposed by sociolinguist Naomi Baron, and analyses the similarities and differences in the three media in great detail. Crystal takes seven predominant features of speech (‘time-bound’, ‘loosely structured’, etc.) and an equal number for text (‘space-bound’, ‘elaborately structured’) , and matches them with six predominant CMC-based media (email, etc.). Of the 42 resulting matching indicators for each, CMC has 21 ‘yes’ indicators for writing (with 8 ‘variable’s) and only 15 ‘yes’ indicators for speech (with 4 ‘variable’s). Crystal concludes that “Netspeak is better seen as written language which has been pulled some way in the direction of speech than as spoken language which has been written down,” though elements of both media are clearly present.

One feature of ‘Netspeak’ which is most plain to the outside observer is the expanded lexicon. Some neologisms and meaning shifts, such as "newbie", "spam", and "surf" originated in Netspeak and gained a wider, offline audience, but other lexical items, particularly acronyms and abbreviations such as LOL (‘laughing out loud’) and l8r (‘later’), are almost exclusively restricted to use in CMC. (It is important to note that text messaging falls under CMC's purview.) Some lexical items seen in CMC communities, notably leet speak, undergo typographical change and/or meaning shift. Some members of online communities, surprisingly, even have unique morphological rules. For example, the irregular plural morpheme [-en] (as in ‘oxen’) can be used in these idiolects to form other sorts of plural nouns, notably "boxen" and "matrixen".

New words, however, are not the only textual addition to the register of Netspeak. Most notably, ‘emoticons’ (or ‘smileys’) provide a unique linguistic role and have rarely, if ever, been used in writing predating the development of the Internet. Virtually all forms of CMC are used to engage in some form of interactive communication, but when the medium is solely textual there is no way to introduce orality, “the dialogic spontaneity of spoken and non-verbal language,” into the conversation. Consequently, literary features such as sarcasm become significantly more difficult to convey. Accordingly, emoticons such as ‘:-)’, ‘:-[‘, and ‘:*)’ have been developed in order to suggest, respectively, happiness, sarcasm and inebriation. Although there is no structural reason that these emoticons could not be present in non-CMC texts, Crystal suggests that the non-immediacy of dialogic texts (like letters) gives the participants time to construct phrasings and contexts that make the need for such emoticons unnecessary.

(Whether this makes the statement that CMC-based dialogue is inherently more ‘impersonal’ than other forms of dialogue true or not is still under debate. At least one study has found that a request sent out via mass email to participate in an experiment is noticeably poor at eliciting responses, and studies on the ferocity of CMC-based arguments or ‘flaming’ have become so intense that the involved parties had to be separately led out of the building in which the experiment was taking place. However, the former study found a personalized email to be just as effective as a face-to-face, oral request, and other studies on flaming have produced significantly more mixed results.)

A final important note concerning Netspeak is that the features outlined above, fairly uniquely for the register of CMC, are not restricted to English or any other language. Although register studies on CMC in non-English environments are difficult to find, those that are accessible provide evidence that the aforementioned features of Netspeak, as well as can be determined, do not disappear or change significantly in languages and dialects as varied as French, Japanese, and the ‘new English’ of India. As the percentage of Internet users whose primary language is English has dropped from 82.3% to 29.5% between 1997 and 2007, this fact is of great significance for further research in registers of CMC.

Chesney, T. “The effect of communication medium on research participation decisions.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11:3, article 10. 2006.
Crystal, David. Language and the Internet: Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Herring, Susan C., ed. Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1996.
Pemberton, Lyn and Shurville, Simon, eds. Words on the Web: Computer Mediated Communication. Exeter, England: Intellect Ltd, 2000. Wallace, Patricia. The Psychology of the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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