Your Ability to Can Even: A Defense of Internet Linguistics -The Toast

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The first time I consciously realized that there was something unique about how we speak on the Internet was when a friend’s post popped up on my newsfeed. It was a link to something awesome and it was captioned: “I have lost all ability to can.”

I’ll be honest. I don’t remember what the link was. It’s statistically likely that it was either a wittily executed “How the Hetero Capitalist Able-Bodied White Patriarchy Ruined the World” article or yet another set of Mean Girls gifs explaining the most topical event of the time. Regardless, it was the phrase that gave me pause.

“I have lost all ability to can.”

A playful riff on the more frequently used Internet expression: “I can’t even.”

Loose translation: “This link is so amazing that I have lost my ability to express my appreciation for it in fully formed sentences. All speech has been reduced to this ill-formed sentence. Thus is the depth of my excitement about this. Click on it. Click on it if you too would like to experience this level of incoherent excitement.”

How did I get all of that from one sentence? My immersion learning of Tumblr-Internet-speak was so gradual that I hadn’t even noticed it was happening. One day, scrolling through Facebook I happened to notice that this phrase, a fairly non-standard sentence, was itself a variation of another Internet expression. I was only able to understand it because of a wealth of reference points from other places on the Internet. The friend who posted the comment was tapping into a shared cultural knowledge that I understood. I was fairly certain that someone lacking this shared reference point would not only find the sentence jarring but also mildly confusing.

To confirm this, I asked a non-Internet-obsessed friend what he thought the phrase meant. I even showed him the original post.

“Ummm…like canning? Canning food items? She can’t can things? Is that article about canning something, maybe?”

So I explained the phrase and he seemed fairly disgusted in a what-are-these-people-doing-to-our-language way. My first instinct was to agree with him, until I realized: Isn’t this what language is supposed to do? Isn’t it supposed to flex and shape itself to convey what we mean to say as directly and efficiently as possible?

There is just something about “I have lost the ability to can” that can’t be captured by “this is so great, it’s driving me crazy” or any variation thereof. Internet language does this all the time. Sometimes “AODEHwhddhwdwebw” is far more eloquent than saying “I’m so overtaken with emotion, I can barely type so I smashed the keyboard with my forehead.” The phrase “right in the feels” may, in fact, express more than “wow, [insert name of most popular BBC show of the day] made me so sad that I felt the pain as one would a physical blow.”

That’s when you know something interesting is happening linguistically. When the new grammatical structures and phrases express something that conventional language simply cannot. Sure, this new grammar-bending, punctuation-erasing, verb-into-noun-turning, key-board-smashing linguistic convention doesn’t dominate the whole Internet. While it is mostly Tumblr that generates this language, let’s remember that there are only virtual borders on the Internet. Users of one social media platform are likely to be users of several and they take the language with them across Internet borders. So language generated on Tumblr is is now becoming Facebook and Twitter language and influencing language everywhere from Buzzfeed to Autostraddle.

As with all other things, once I noticed the effects of the Internet on language use around me once, I noticed it all the time. It was there in day-to-day vocabulary people use, vocabulary that would be impossible without the Internet: “She was trolling that entire conference.” I caught myself emailing friends links to articles that I agree with, providing only the simple explanation: “THIS.” It was in the way my friend said about her coworker’s incomprehensible desire to wake up at six in the morning to play golf: “what even though, you know?” Author and Tumblr-parental-figure John Green has noticed this phenomenon, as have other Tumblr users, leading to some great tongue-in-cheek jokes about Internet Language.

The linguistic study of the Internet is a very young field but it does, in fact, exist. A quick search confirmed that I was (of course and alas) not the first to look at what is happening and think: Internet linguistics. David Crystal, one of the notable linguists working on this topic may, indeed, have penned the term. Crystal, along with Deborah Tannen, has jumped to the defense of the Internet community, fighting against the notion that the Internet is ruining the English language. Conventional wisdom portrays this form of linguistic flexibility and playfulness as the end of intelligent human life. The Internet has been blamed for making children illiterate, making adults stupid and generally tarnishing the state of modern discourse.

Not only are these allegations not true. David Crystal’s research actually points to the opposite. Those who use technology read more on a day-to-day basis than non-tech users and are, therefore, faster and better readers. For all the stereotypes that tech-language is ridden with incomprehensible abbreviations and misleading punctuation, Crystal actually finds that less than 10% of texters abbreviated any words at all. A remarkable number of people are simply using technology to communicate more quickly without altering the rules of language.

Other critics don’t quite accuse the Internet of making us illiterate but question its use of language nonetheless.  Critics such as Robert McCrum of The Guardian, recognize that language is normative, subject to change and that it cannot be policed but still warn us: “To paraphrase Orwell, the English of the world wide web – loose, informal, and distressingly dyspeptic – is not really the kind people want to read in a book, a magazine, or even a newspaper… The violence the Internet does to the English language is simply the cost of doing business in the digital age.”

Critics of Internet language owe a letter of apology to George Orwell, who (along with Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, and Jesus Christ) belongs to an exclusive club of people who are conveniently reanimated whenever someone wants to win an argument without actually being clever. If we’re going to drag Orwell back from the grave, then let it be noted for the record that it sounds like he would have quite enjoyed some of the liberties that the Internet has taken with English. In fact, he took issue, not with language being flexible or non-standard, but with language that did not communicate efficiently:

To begin with [my concern] has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a ‘standard English’, which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom, which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style’.

It is important to note the backlash against Internet Language because it confirms that: yes, something is going on, something big enough to make technophobes take up their pens (or their keyboards?) against it. The backlash confirms the emergence of Internet Language as a fairly serious development, if not a very small and vibrant written dialect. Dialects are characterized as deviations from the “standard” version of a given language and are often dismissed due to their lack prestige by standard users of the language. Internet speech, when not viciously attacked for fueling the hatred of our enemies and weakening the resolve of our allies, has been dismissed as a passing fad or simply poorly developed slang. Even linguists such as Crystal, who defend the development of Internet Language, note that it is limited in its grammatical and structural contribution to language.

Yes, the type of very flexible and linguistically creative Internet speech that I’m referencing here, is limited if we consider the English speaking population as a whole but the effects are overwhelming large if we narrow our sample population. Within the population of Tumblr-loving, blog addicted, tech-savvy, avid Internet users the influence of this language cannot be ignored. The fact is, the type of language that is being created online is affecting day-to-day speech patterns and writing styles of most young adults. Internet-speak, Tumblr-speak, blog-speak or whatever you want to call it allows us to associate expressions of opinions and feeling with gifs, pictures and visually stylized texts. It enhances our visual thinking and makes us more creative with the use of verbal language. It allows us to subvert standard grammar constructions and experiment with changing verbs to nouns and vice versa.

The most interesting aspect of this sociolinguistic development is that there is a somewhat post-modern element of self-consciousness and playfulness present in its construction. Taking Tumblr as a “home base” for the construction of this dialect, we see self-conscious musings on the state of Tumblr language quite often. The speakers of Chicano English or Yinglish did not stop midway through the creation of their new dialect to say: “Hey? Do you think we’re, like, making a new language here or what?” The development of most dialects is often gradual and utilitarian. Dialects develop when people with a distinct cultural and linguistic heritage run up against a rigid and unfamiliar system, usually by immigrating to a new country. It becomes necessary to develop a way to retain old linguistic features while adopting new ones in order to able to communicate. While the participants in this process are certainly cognizant that there is a linguistic development, they are not consciously trying to develop a new language. The process happens over time without any conscious effort.

Let’s compare and contrast that with Tumblr-speak: we’re taking a group of people who have insider knowledge of the English language (or at least a good grasp of it) and placing them in a new, unfamiliar, virtual space. This space introduces visual aids to language in the form of photos and gifs, the ability to comment on someone else’s text in a reblog and the ability to communicate a lot of information in very few words using hashtags. We also see the creation of tone in a toneless medium. In order to simulate conversational patterns in writing we SHOUT WHEN WE’RE SUPER EXCITED or *psssst whisper when we’re pretending to tell someone a secret while perfectly aware that anyone on the internet can read what we’re saying.* slash the coolest bit tho is that u can like ironically forgo all capitalization and punctuation just write in a weird speech pattern its ok everyone will still understand maybe it even helps read the text more quickly because nothing is interrupting the flow of words

In short, this dialect results when people who already share a language are given new tools. The result isn’t a butchering of English language but a creative experiment with it. Am I claiming that the Internet as a whole is operating on a level of postmodernism that would make Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon seem like novices? maybe i am maybe im not u punk wut of it like who r u to tell me otherwise

Dr. Tannen does the interesting work of examining gender and tech language. In studying sample text messages, she found that women were much more likely to use enthusiasm markers like exclamation points and add emphasis via capitalization. Most linguists emphasize the lack of understanding that can take place between men and women as a result of the different value that each gender places on conveying emotions. Supposedly, women perceive men’s lack of enthusiasm markers and capitalization as coldness and men perceive women’s use of them to be unnecessary.

However, what I find most fascinating about the Internet Language is that it is making language less, not more, gendered. Men and women on the Internet use many of the same tropes, enthusiasm markers and emphasizers in order to communicate. In the world of blogging and Internet writing, women are the creators of language. It is a realm in which women are not being socialized with already existing language but are doing the work of socializing and creating a community. Women dominate every important social media platform. Women outnumber men on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest and account for 72% of all social media users. On Tumblr, where the number of men and women is roughly equal, women dominate the conversation.

There is so much shared language and comfort with different gender expressions that it is not uncommon for people to mistake a poster’s gender. Instances like this Tumblr post are not uncommon on the Internet. Because gender presentation is not immediately apparent on the Internet, writers have agency to play with language and expression of gender through writing. That is not to say that gender no longer matters; it does. But this new linguistic tradition allows users to create the rules of language together instead of being bound by pre-existing conditions.

On the one hand, linguists like to remind us that this is more of the same old stuff, just another development in communication, much like the advent of the typewriter and the telegram: it will change how we communicate but it will have a limited effect on the way we speak with one another.

On the other hand, the Internet could be something on the scale of the invention of the printing press, it might forever alter the way we think about language and relate to one another. Increasingly, Internet Language is not just a phenomenon restricted to the computer screen and we don’t simply disconnect from this dialect when we log out of Tumblr. Admittedly, language moves quickly on the Internet and it’s hard to talk about one definite “Internet Language” when it’s continuously changing.

And, of course, it isn’t perfect: there are, as there have always been, those determined to treat language rather poorly. But the Internet Language phenomenon is just as much sociological as it is sociolinguistic: we are just as shaped by language as it is shaped by us. Internet language requires participation and imagination. It requires you to be able to convey excitement and frustration and sarcasm using only words and symbols—if you don’t think that’s cool…well, then, I don’t even.

Tia Baheri is a student living in Washington DC. She studies many things, none of which are linguistics. Her great life passions are women's studies, film, politics, caffeine and Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce. She read War and Peace once. It was good.

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