Approximately 30 million people worldwide use the Internet and online services daily. The Net is growing exponentially in all areas, and a rapidly increasing number of people are finding themselves working and playing on the Internet. The people on the Net are not all rocket scientists and computer programmers; they’re graphic designers, teachers, students, artists, musicians, feminists, Rush Limbaugh-fans, and your next-door neighbors. What these diverse groups of people have in common is their language. The Net community exists and thrives because of effective written communication, as on the net all you have available to express yourself are typewritten words. If you cannot express yourself well in written language, you either learn more effective ways of communicating or get lost in the shuffle. “Netspeak” is evolving on a national and international level. The technological vocabulary once used only by computer programmers and elite computer manipulators called “Hackers,” has spread to all users of computer networks.
The language is currently spoken by people on the Internet and is rapidly spilling over into advertising and business. The words “online,” “network,” and “surf the net” are occurring more and more frequently in our newspapers and on television. If you’re like most Americans, you’re feeling bombarded by Netspeak. Television advertisers, newspapers, and international businesses have jumped on the “Information Superhighway” bandwagon, making the Net more accessible to large numbers of not-entirely-technically-oriented people. As a result, technological vocabulary is entering into non-technological communication. For example, even the archaic UNIX command “grep,” (an acronym meaning Get REpeated Pattern) is becoming more widely accepted as a synonym of “search” in everyday communication.
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The argument rages as to whether Netspeak is merely slang or jargon in and of itself. The language is emerging based loosely upon telecommunications vocabulary and computer jargons, with new derivations and compounds of existing words, and shifts creating different usages; all of which depending quite heavily upon clippings. Because of these reasons, the majority of Net-using linguists classify Netspeak as dynamic jargon in and of itself, rather than as a collection of slang. Linguistically, the most interesting feature of Netspeak is its morphology. Acronyms and abbreviations make up a large part of Net jargon. FAQ (Frequently Asked Question), MUD (Multi-User-Dungeon), and URL (Uniform Resource Locator) are some of the most frequently seen TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) on the Internet. General abbreviations abound as well, in more friendly and conversationally conducive forms, such as TIA (Thanks In Advance), BRB (Be Right Back), BTW (By The Way), and IMHO (In My Humble Opinion.)
These abbreviations can be baffling to new users, and speaking in abbreviations takes some getting used to. Once users are used to them, though, such abbreviations are a nice and easy way of expediting communication. The derivation is another method by which many words are formed. The word Internet itself is the word “net” with the prefix “inter-” added to it. Another interesting example is the word “hypertext,” used to describe the format of one area of the Internet, the WWW (World Wide Web). The WWW is made up of millions of pages of text with “hotlinks” that allow the user to jump to another page with different information on it. “Hypertext,” derived by adding the prefix “hyper-” to the word “text,” produces the definition “a method of storing data through a computer program that allows a user to create and link fields of information at will and to retrieve the data nonsequentially,” according to Webster’s College Dictionary. Proper names also make a large impact on the vocabulary of Net users.
Archie, Jughead, and Veronica are all different protocols for searching different areas of the Internet for specific information. Another new use of proper names is for descriptive purposes. For example, the proper-name turned descriptive noun/verb/adjective “Gabriel” has come to be understood as a stalling tactic, or a form of filibustering; “He’s pulling a Gabriel,” or “He’s in Gabriel mode.” Most frequently, this type of name-borrowing happens due to highly and widely visible actions by an individual on the Internet. Onomatopoeias are also widely found in net jargon, as it’s often necessary to get across an action such as a sigh or moan, without having sound capabilities to send the sound itself. Very frequently net users will use asterisks to denote such sounds as *sigh* or *moan.* Semantically, net jargon is also quite interesting. Many, many words used in net jargon are taken from regular English and applied to new ideas or protocols. For example, a gopher is not a furry rodent on the Internet; a gopher is a software program designed to gopher through a vast amount of information so that the user can find what she’s looking for.
A server is not a waitress or waiter; a server is another computer that tells your machine what it needs to know to communicate on the net. A handle is not a part of a coffee cup; a handle is a nickname. A shell isn’t the thing a clam lives in; it’s the command system that allows you to enter commands to communicate with the machine on the other end. Functional shifts are also often frequently seen among vocabulary on the net. For example, a flame (noun) is an angry, hostile response sent to another person. To flame (verb) is to send someone such a response. You use a Gopher (noun) to gopher (verb) through information. These finer distinctions are learned with experience and time on the net. Context is everything when all you have to communicate with is your words and typewritten expressions. One example of coinage, and creativity, within written Netspeech is the addition of “emoticons” to express emotions and intention. Emoticons, most frequently seen in the form of sideways smiles are found sprinkled throughout electronic communication to donate feelings such as happiness, or to express sarcasm or humor.
Most Net users consider emoticons a part of their vocabulary, even if they do not fall into traditional grammatical rules. Emoticons are not used as words, they are an attempt at expressing feelings without the luxury of using one’s voice. Using all-caps is another way Net users have found to bring a voice to their written communication; in the form of shouting. Net users use all-caps very sparingly, only to emphasize very important words or ideas because most readers do not wish to be shouted at. Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of Netspeak, however, is pronunciation. Most frequently, a user’s first encounter with a new vocabulary word is by reading it, rather than hearing it. This presents interesting pronunciation differences among different people. There is an interesting controversy among the net community over the correct pronunciation of the word “ethernet” in normal speech. Ethernet is a network protocol with a fast data transfer rate. Most of the computers in offices at Western are connected by ethernet.
In the past, Ethernet was the name of a specific networking and communications protocol. At that time, the word Ethernet was pronounced with a long [E]. As the concept of Ethernet networking spread, however, the word gradually changed to ethernet, pronounced with a short [e], a description of that specific type of network. In spoken communication, the two different pronunciations created a great argument among computer users, as to which pronunciation was correct; an argument that will continue for all time when it comes to spoken communication, and that is absolutely unimportant in written communication. The structure and development of the word ethernet are particularly interesting as well. It is a compound of “ether” and “net,” increasingly being used to describe the concept of the Internet itself. As the Net is a global connection of millions of machines, it is difficult for the user to understand what’s happening to get the information through those millions of machines to their own.
The basic explanation of the structure of the Internet is evolving to use the word “ethernet,” meaning a network that exists a sort of like a gaseous cloud, with the imagery of a cloud of networking information taking up the ether; occupying the upper regions of space. While this is absolutely incorrect and inaccurate, it does help new users learn to not ask how the networks, and to just accept that it does. American English Net jargon is somewhat internationally prevalent. Many terms used on the multi-lingual yet English-dominated Internet are borrowed from language to language. The words “Internet” and “cyberspace” are used around the world, as is evident when one is cruising the Net and encounters a piece of writing entirely written in Norwegian or Russian. The only words an English-speaker easily recognizes are those internationally understood items of Netspeak. Another example is the grammatical and vocabulary mutations that English Net jargon inspires. According to the Hacker Jargon File, Italian net users often use the nonexistent verbs “scrollare” (to scroll) and “deletare” (to delete) rather than native Italian “scorerre” and “cancellare.” The English verb “to hack” has been seen conjugated in many European languages.
As the Internet and computer online services further invade life in the United States and the world over, more and more people will contribute to, change, and further develop Net jargon as we know it today. In addition, more people will find Net jargon spilling over into their offline lives. Nothing in our world today is changing more quickly than computer networks and technology, and therefore, no jargon is changing more quickly than Netspeak. As more and more specialty words make their way into our dictionaries, Net jargon will become increasingly prevalent in our written and spoken communication. Everyone, not just Net users will become familiar with the new words and usages, as is already evident in the increasing use of the terms “networking” and “cyberspace.” As a business, advertising, and entertainment move onto the networks, Netspeak will continue to grow, change, and become more a part of everyday communication. This dynamic language reflects the very rapid development of new concepts and the need to communicate about these concepts. As linguists, tracking this language development is one interesting way of documenting the progression of the “Information Age,” just as the language changes of Early America allow historical linguists to track the movements of our early ancestors.
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