Because Internet: Understanding the new rules of language

Gretchen McCulloch (Riverhead, 2019), 288pp, £19.99
ISBN 978 0 73 521093 6

Reviewed by Louise Bolotin

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Anyone who’s been on the internet in even the last five years will be aware of how fast our language is changing as a result of what people do online. And it’s changing because internet. Gretchen McCulloch’s title perfectly sums up these changes – those two words are a great illustration of how we are shortening our sentences, for example. Having taught ourselves to write with great brevity on Twitter – express yourself in 140 characters or fewer (ok, it’s 280 now because Twitter) – we are now learning how to write without verbs when we don’t need them. Because Internet came out in 2019, but for at least five years before that I was texting friends along the lines of ‘Can’t come out later because tired’, or ‘Running late because tram’. I was late to this particular party, though, because this construction can be traced back to at least 2001.

McCulloch, a linguist, has taken the prepositional because and run with it as a great example of how we are communicating in ever-more creative ways. Her delve into how our increasing interconnectivity is changing language is firmly underpinned by historical evidence, some of it going back way further than you could ever imagine – she notes that Richard Dawkins posited the notion of memes in 1976, but she argues cogently that they already existed before the internet, referencing the popular ‘Kilroy was here’ graffiti during World War Two that anyone over the age of 40 will recall seeing on walls well into the 1970s.

As well as memes and because, McCulloch also scrolls through the origins of emoji and emoticons, gifs and the choice to use punctuation – sometimes very creatively – or not. As David Crystal noted in his keynote speech at the SfEP 2019 conference, no one bothers to use a full stop in a text now, unless they want to weight their comment with an unspoken sub-text. Abbreviations come and go with shocking rapidity. While lol is still around, and frequently used as a full stop, ROFL and PMSL have long vanished and by the time you go googling for the meaning of TFW, it’s now guaranteed that too will have fallen out of favour.

There is an abundance of context for all these different elements of the internet culture triggering these changes, although I was less convinced by her grouping of internet users into convenient categories that border on the stereotypical – Old Internet People (aka early adopters), Full Internet, Semi Internet and so on.

‘When future historians look back on this era,’ McCulloch says, ‘they’ll find our changes just as fascinating as we now find innovative words from Shakespeare or Latin or Norman French. So let’s adopt the perspective of these future historians now, and explore the revolutionary period in linguistic history that we’re living through from a place of excitement and curiosity.’

She’s not wrong there when it comes to editing – we need to be up to speed with how our language is changing if we are to perform our work with accuracy and the ability to style appropriately. Because Internet is very well researched – there are nearly 40 pages of endnotes – but it’s also witty and accessible. You need to actually read your way through it as it’s not the kind of reference work you can just dip into, but the reward is a deeper understanding of this period of intense linguistic change.

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