I’m currently reading Gretchen McCulloch’s new book, ‘Because Internet’, which serves as an overview of linguistic study of the evolution of written (and sometimes spoken) communication brought about by the mass adoption of the internet. Both McCulloch and I implement one of the changes noted earlier on: the word internet has lost its capitalization over the years, with the AP style guide making it “official” in 2016.
But the question that I want to address isn’t the correct usage of capitalization, or even correct grammar in general. After all, I’ve been known to start sentences (or even full paragraphs, as is the case here) with conjunctions, and I’ll propose that ending with a preposition is where the written word is going to.
Instead, I want to discuss my usage of double quotes around the word official above, emphasizing my usage of the word, and providing a big no-no, at least according to Weird Al.
What is Official Usage Anyway?
While the thrust of my argument is that language rules are nothing more than convention, I’ll buttress my credentials in making this claim. I studied linguistics as part of my degree, though I did not take it nearly as far as McCulloch or professional linguists. Language as a concept has always interested me, as we are exposed to the spoken and written word at almost all times and don’t often stop to give thought as to why things are the way they are. Only when something is egregiously incorrect do we consider how a statement could be made more clear.
I imagine that it’s a stereotype that I got interested in computers because they are predicatable in a way that other humans aren’t, and that they are understandable in a way that language so often isn’t. Nuance can be hard to grasp over the myriad inflections, intonations, cadences, rhythms, pitches, and all other vocalizations that I’m forgetting. Try asking several people how they are feeling, and see if you can identify the differences in each utterance of “fine” that you receive in reply.
I can’t speak to the experiences of a large portion of the world who grow up in multilingual environments and intuit the rules in a different way. Human language is taught to be the same as programming languages when it comes to translating and learning while in higher education. You take a phrase, break it into component parts, find the right words, and consider the rules on order and variant usage. Sometimes you luck out with cognates, sometimes you have to think about the parts of speech in theory more than you ever do in your first tongue.
The difference between language spoken in public versus what you’re taught in school can be huge. The rules that are followed can help while learning, but you’ll quickly realize that humans abhor authority when expression of meaning can only occur when directly contradicting many official usage edicts that are passed down as if they were always in existence.
Decentralization of the Meaning of the Written Word
The internet (and the lowercase-w web, while we’re at it), have done a great deal to increase proliferation of alternative writing. This includes abbreviations like wtf, lol, and ftw, which serve the purpose of expressing a longer thought in fewer letters, a boon to slow typists and fat-fingered phone users alike. This also includes the introduction of new concepts and phrases, or words becoming untethered from their original meaning to give us entirely new abstractions. Snowflake used to describe a hexagonal formation of ice crystal falling from a storm, not as a derogatory term towards someone who is being sensitive.
For the supposed purists that cannot get behind the figurative use of the word literally, or the addition of new words like bougie and rando, please explain to me why we bother with flammable and inflammable, both words that predate the internet and signify that something is going to catch fire.
No one is waiting for permission to update language for the present and future based on but not being bound by the past. As McCulloch points out, many conventions, especially in English, come from historical conquests and infighting, as well as an embarrassment of the language as a second class citizen among other languages that were perceived as more civilized.
If there is concern over the descent of communication due to the visual nature of the internet, consider that children and teens are being exposed to more written and spoken language than at any time in the past, and are likewise writing far more than at any point in history. You may argue that status updates aren’t a replacement for the Great American Novel, with it’s capitalized gravitas, but you are unlikely to have penned ‘Moby Dick’ before making such a declaration.
I find some validity in the concern that language practices could cause a bifurcation of meaning, but only in short spurts. Sure, there are some higher profile differences between lol signifying “laugh out loud” versus “lots of love” depending generally on age, but that makes my point even more clear: decentralization of language doesn’t belong to the youthful internet denizens alone. It belongs to anyone who is unafraid to take a leap of faith with their phrasing, and embrace when others likewise reciprocate with new meaning of their own.