November 17, 2014

Sci + Tech | February 10, 2014
From current to correct
How the internet shapes language
Written by | Visual by Antu Das | The McGill Daily

David Foster Wallace, an American author and former professor at Illinois State University, opens his essay Authority and American Usage with a question for the reader: “Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale?” After a brief sketch of the politics around modern language, he rephrases it, asking, “Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?” Published in 2007, Wallace’s essay popularized a debate around language that would gain traction in the following years. The essay intended to critique the notion of grammatical correctness within the U.S. political sphere, placing Standard Written English in opposition to the dialects of marginalized North American groups; however, this contention between linguistic prescriptivism and descriptivism is made more relevant in the new media landscape with the rise of internet communication.

Unravelling the seamy underbelly

The true “democratic spirit,” Wallace argues, questions the historicity of prescription, in turn challenging authority. Who has genuine authority to establish rules, and can language exist in a depoliticized space? “Correctness” emerges as a social construct to be probed and prodded by the people.

Radical cybercitizens often construe an idealized internet as the promised land of democracy, an arena in which anyone can commentate. The new media platform provided by the internet is manipulable, networkable, and interactive. User-driven technologies emerge, allowing for broadcasting at the individual level. Twitter handles reach virality, and in self-publishing, bloggers bypass the traditional editorial hierarchy that enforces Standard English conventions in print and radio. Thus, one’s individual pattern of grammar and vocabulary has the potential to reach (and influence) more people than ever before.

Whether new media democratize language by returning it to the masses, or establish a new class of linguistic “taste-makers,” is contestable. According to Charles Boberg, a linguistics professor at McGill, the linguistic trends on the internet parallel many other social and cultural phenomena. A few influential people act as guides to what is ‘in,’ and the trend rapidly spreads across the rest of the population.

Applied internet linguistics and the democratic spirit

Theorists have argued that the internet challenges the linguistic binary, wherein speech and writing form the two absolutes; the internet provides a unique mode of linguistic communication. In contrast to spoken conversations, online communication delays feedback and allows a premeditated response. This potentially leaves less room for spontaneity in the exchange. The internet also enhances our interactions by allowing the use of hyperlinks and graphics (such as image macros and animated GIFs) in communication.

A growing body of knowledge in applied internet linguistics explores the role of internet slang, or netspeak, in driving linguistic evolution. In an interview with the CBC, Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist with a Master’s of Arts from McGill, explains: “Our notion of grammatically correct is kind of a weird beast. Some of the ideas of what people think of as correct are strange holdovers from the Latin tradition of grammar, [such as] this idea that you should never split a preposition.” Yet, the interpersonal dynamics of communication leave room for linguistic evolution. Ubiquity plays a role in legitimizing certain coinages, eventually allowing them to enter the realm of the correct. McCulloch continues, “But various more subtle things have made their way into the canon of English literature without people really noticing or people really remarking on them.”

Because internet

One such example lies in contemporary usage of “because.” In November 2013, Megan Garber of The Atlantic reported on a syntactic trend gaining internet linguists’ attention. In her article “English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet,” she reports on the new construction that linguists have dubbed the “prepositional because.” Though “because-noun” has garnered the most media attention, the same syntax can be used with other parts of speech.

By the rules of Standard English, “because” is a subordinating conjunction. As such, “because” can only be followed by a finite clause (“because the cake was delicious”) or a prepositional phrase (“because of the internet”).

Prepositional because, on the other hand, may precede an adjective or a noun. Interestingly, the conjunction’s conventional purpose is preserved in the two prepositional forms of “because.” “Because-noun” is exemplified in the title of Garber’s article: “English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet.” The properly formed sentence would instead claim that there is a new preposition “because of the internet.” Here, the noun is clearly a contemporary analog to the prepositional phrase. Similarly, “because-adjective” mirrors the construction involving finite clauses. “I ate the whole cake because delicious” acts as a jocular rendition of “because it is delicious.”

How it evolved

Prepositional because has its own evolutionary history. Neal Whitman of the Literal Minded blog explains that the construction emerged in the early 2000s with “because” being followed by a jokey interjection: “because – hey – why not?” “It’s like a verbal shrug,” he writes, “as if to ask, ‘What more do I need to say?’”

The underlying sarcastic tone appealed to satirists and bloggers alike. “Because – hey” began to appear on websites with a particular demographic following, including Jezebel, a women’s interests subsidiary of Gawker Media. Readers quickly adopted “because – hey” as a meme, thanks to its simplicity and lightheartedness. Eventually, people dropped the “hey.” In her blog All Things Linguistic, McCulloch suggests that the construction’s “stylized verbal incoherence [mirrors] emotional incoherence.” Similar constructions are also found with but, also, so, thus, and the like.

The lasting effects of this construction’s ubiquity, however, are still to be seen. Linguistic databases show that children are now using it without the implicit sarcasm that made prepositional because go viral as a meme.

Contentions

Boberg is skeptical of the media buzz surrounding prepositional because. “I think this is one of dozens of language usage trends that start up on the internet, quickly spread, and then eventually die out as they become passé. It’s true that the internet, because of the instant global communication it facilitates, may have sped up this process considerably, compared to the old print world, but the process is essentially the same,” he says.

When asked whether he believed prepositional because and related constructions would have a lasting impact on the English language, Boberg expressed doubt. “I think it’s just one of many shorthand forms that developed from texting and email typing, which have been widely reported on all over the world by linguists and others who study the internet,” he told The Daily. “I doubt it’s going to have any effect outside that medium (e.g. in speech or more formal, traditional writing), and I doubt it’s going to survive more than five years, unless as a restricted conventionalized form in texting. But it’s dangerous to try to predict the future.”

McCulloch expressed a similar concern in her interview with CBC. “You can’t necessarily predict which things are going to stick around and become part of the formal written canon and which things are going to remain as slang,” added McCulloch. “But there is definitely a porous boundary between the two.”

Related Articles