David Crystal works from his home in Holyhead, North Wales, as a writer, editor, lecturer, and broadcaster. Patron of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL), he retired from full-time academia, and works as a writer, editor and consultant. Crystal was awarded the OBE (Order of the Britsh Empire) in 1995 and became a Fellow of the British Academy in 2000.
(By Artarxerxes Modesto)

Letra Magna: What is the relationship between language, the internet and society?

David Crystal: Language has no independent life of its own. It exists only in the mouths, ears, hands, eyes, and brains of people. Language changes because people - and thus society - changes. And when a new technology comes along, such as the internet, language adapts immediately to meet the fresh communicative opportunities offered by the new medium. There's nothing novel about this. Earlier technologies did the same thing. The arrival of printing, the telephone, the telegraph, and broadcasting all pulled language in fresh directions. Each evolution was accompanied by the prophets of doom, of course - people who felt that the new technology signalled an impending linguistic disaster - and the internet has been no different.

LM: Is the internet making changes in the structure of languages?

DC: Not very much. If we look at the different levels of language structure, we find that languages post-internet are not very different from languages pre-internet. A few hundred new words and phrases have arrived, such as blogging, netiquette, twittering, and social networking, but a few hundred new lexical items are a drop in the ocean when we think of them in relation to the well over a million words in a language like English. Hardly any novel grammatical constructions have emerged - just the occasional idiosyncratic usage, such as software which presents us with expressions like one file(s). Orthography is the area where we see most structural change, in that several internet situations tolerate variations in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation which would be considered nonstandard in traditional writing - emails which leave out punctuation, for example, or which use it excessively (as when people write such things as Fantastic!!!!!!!). The abbreviations of text messaging fall into this category, as do emoticons, but hardly any of these have entered the language as a whole. And I've detected no novelty yet in pronunciation, when people use the internet for speech communication.

LM: How would you define Netspeak?

Netspeak is a term I've used when talking informally about computer-mediated communication (CMC) on the internet. These days I find both these terms too restricting, and prefer either electronically mediated communication (EMC) or digitally mediated communication (DMC). The reason for the extension is to allow the comfortable inclusion of technologies which are not computational in the usual sense, such as mobile phone communication or the rapidly evolving range of devices which talk to you (as in satellite navigation systems) or respond to your voice (as in voice-activated answerphones and washing machines).

LM: What is the main characteristic of Netspeak?

DC: A range of technologically motivated varieties (or styles) which have increased the expressive richness of languages. Each internet situation - email, chatroom interaction, virtual worlds, the Web, text messaging, instant messaging, blogging, the social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and so on - has a different stylistic character. Sentence length varies greatly, for example, and there is considerable variation in the types of sentence structure used, as well as distinctiveness in vocabulary and orthography (eg in the use of abbreviations and emoticons).

 LM: What is the relationship between face-to-face conversation and Netspeak?

DC: There is a fundamental difference. Face-to-face conversation allows simultaneous feedback. People listen to each other and look at each other, and the reactions they make influence the way a speaker proceeds. Simultaneous feedback is not possible in internet situations. While sending an email it is not possible to receive simultaneous feedback for the obvious reason that the recipient is unaware of the existence of the email until it is sent. Even instant messaging is not 'instant' in the opportunity it provides people to react. The nearest we get to simultaneous feedback is in an iChat or Skype video interaction, where people can see their addressee(s), but even here the effects of comunicative lag (whereby a message sent to the other person is delayed by the routing technology) means there is often interference in the turn-taking between the participants.

LM: How does Netspeak relate to recent developments in linguistics?

DC: In several ways. First, it is providing linguistics with unprecedented amounts of data. The internet is the largest language corpus there could ever be, and a great deal of the information it contains is time-stamped, opening up exciting possibilities for the study of language change. Second, it is making accessible language varieties and usages which would previously have been difficult to obtain. I live in the UK. A few years ago, if I wanted up-to-date samples of, say, South African English, I would have had to go to South Africa. Now I can call up innumerable sources, spoken and written, online. Third, it is giving a new lease of life to endangered languages. A language spoken by very few people would formerly have had great difficulty achieving a public presence using traditional media (press, radio, etc). Now, assuming the speech community is online, it is relatively easy to present their language and evolve a virtual speech community - and many endangered languages can be seen on the internet now.

LM: Why so you think so many languages are endangered?

DC: It is a combination of three factors, which have come together with great force in recent years. Many communities have come to be under threat as a result of physical disasters, such as tsunamis, famine, and AIDS. We still encounter racial antagonism to minority communities (and thus their languages) in several parts of the world. And the forces of globalisation continue to be extremely strong, making it difficult for small communities to retain their identity (and language is the primary index of identity). It is estimated that a language is dying, somewhere in the world, every two weeks on average, these days.

LM: Is this the result of English becoming a global language?

DC: English has been the language of alternative choice in several parts of the world, such as Australia and North America, and as a result the speakers of many small languages have ceased to use them, seeing English as providing a better chance of empowerment in their new society. But it isn't just English. English has had nothing to do with the disappearance of indigenous languages in South and Central America, where Spanish and Portuguese have been the alternatives. Nor can English explain the disappearance of languages in many other parts of the world, where such languages as Russian, Chinese, and Arabic have been the dominating factors.