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Monday, March 12, 2007

Internet affecting the "color" of English?

What will happen to the English language in the world of the Internet and the forces which govern communication in this global community? I have been increasingly asking myself this in the light of my work as a translator of Serbian into English, and also as someone who dabbles in webmastering in his not-so-spare time.

If you ask a Brit what they think of American, Webster-influenced spelling of English words such as color or favorite, or "Americanisms" such as fall instead of autumn or movie instead of film, they will probably shudder involuntarily and mutter something about "those Americans ruining the English language".

I am not even going to get into that debate. What interests me is what direction the English language will take in the Internet village.

The myth of English net dominance
First off, let me just enlighten the reader that the Internet does not revolve around English. You can look up the data yourself - there is a gargantuan non-English Internet presence which far outweighs that in the English language. The fact that you never see any of it is because Google and company very kindly filter out the non-latin script, non-English stuff for you, and English language sites just about never link to non-English sites - the English-speaking Internet is surprisingly parochial for such a huge community!

English here to stay
The fact remains, though, that the English language is the lingua-france of the Internet, due to its similar "real-world" significance and because the US and the rest of the English-speaking world represent such a huge market that they simply cannot be ignored. Not to mention the fact that the Internet grew up optimised around the English language (remember ASCII!). Nobody can predict how long the English language will remain the global language of communication, but perhaps a more pertinent question is, what kind of English will we be speaking/writing in 20, 30, 50 years' time?

English and SEO
For example, think of the influences of certain net forces on the English language in the period to come. Imagine I have a site which aims for a high placing in search engine results for the term "favorite color". Oops - how do I spell it, as an avowed adherent of "British spelling"? The search engines DO give different results, depending on the spelling, "favorite", or "favourite". So what do I do if I want to make sure my site is optimized for the world's largest and richest market? The answer doesn't seem so simple now, does it? Do we mix the spellings, and try to optimize our site for both? That could get messy. Or do we Anglophiles say, "hang the lost traffic, I'm gonna stick to British spelling"? No-one is that thick-headed, are they?

English and non-native speakers
However, there is another force at work, that of the huge community of non-native English users, or speakers of one of the "former colonial" varieties of English, who represent a large portion of the web-publishing community. Their goal is also to access the lucrative English-speaking markets, but this is not their only influence. Their unique brand of English is idiomatic in its own way, but is also not always up to "standard", as a native speaker would see it. Will we see the accelerated emergence of a new genus of English, a mixture of "Chinglish", "Spanglish" and other varieties, where the least of the worries for the conservative English speaker will be spelling?

It will be interesting to see this development happen, as I suspect it will visibly occur in our lifetime and we could see our children beginning to speak a language which we can no longer clearly identify as the English language we grew up speaking, whatever side of the Atlantic we originate from.

4 comments:

Dale said...

I'm beginning to think the web will actually make English more standardized and reverse the tendency toward idiomatization. If you look at discussion on Reddit, for example, which is where I found this article, you'll find an incredible level of writing excellence, along with a fair measure of people correcting others for spelling and grammar mistakes.

There used to be a lot more languages and dialects before the advent of the printing press, and still more before the advent of literacy. I believe the web will strengthen that trend.

Andrew said...

It looks like you're wrong about engish:

See here

markowe said...

Well spotted, so there are still more English speakers, though if you read the comments that go with the statistics, it might be worth taking the numbers with some reserve.

Also, I wonder what the trend is - for example, see the comment about Spanish internet users growing by 250%. What will the structure be like in 10-15 years time I wonder?

Dale, agree absolutely, I guess that is my point too - that English will sort of "average out" on the global level. I wonder, though, what this "dialect" will look like, and will it only affect the written language, with spoken varieties retaining their diversity, or will "Internet English" affect the spoken language too, in the long run.

This is certainly the case with American English, which is slowly but surely making inroads into British English by the sheer weight of cultural dominance. Can the Internet culture come to dominate language in the same way?

markowe said...

P.S. English is the TOP internet language, to be sure, but it does not have an overall majority. If my maths is right, 70% of the Internet does NOT speak English, according to these statistics.