As a college graduate with a bachelor's degree in English from a reputable university, I like to imagine that my mind is a passionate tumult of well-primed thought. As a matter of practicality, however, my accredited education has prepared me, at best, to coax readers into reading words that I conjure, or, at worst, to serve them delicious caffeinated beverages. For the sake of sanity and pride I have put my mind and efforts to achieving the former and sympathizing with those relegated to the latter. There but for the grace of whichever deity has been watching over my ass, go I. To that end I think about language as a matter of course, partly because, despite evidence to the contrary, I want to write interesting and engaging articles, and even more partly because I'm a big, ol', honkin', English nerd.
As an extension of that, I find myself fascinated at the sociolectical multilingualism that has evolved in the language of discourse in online communities. What, precisely the hell I think I mean by sociolectical multilingualism is a question that I assure you would be no easier to solve were you a doctoral candidate in linguistics at an Ivy League college; it's the kind of nonsense, pretentious, pseudo-scholarly thing amateur hacks like to say to sound smart because they have no formal training. I make no illusions about my season ticket to the peanut gallery, but allow me to try and explain.
For two years now I have become increasingly obsessed with the manifestation of language as personally demonstrated by my own son's cat-terrorizing, bull-stubborn, age-frustrated toddler's mind. Watching him try to extract comprehension from the jumble of phonemes we slap together haphazardly into meanings such as 'don't drink the liquid soap' or 'that's why we tell you not to put your hands in your diaper' is a bittersweet comedy matched only by his own fumbling attempts to create meanings with language. And, I participate with rapturous enthusiasm.
"Did you see how he just correctly added a direct object after that transitive verb?" I say.
"Actually, sir, I did. He has lovely diction. Now, did you want that latte venti sized?"
This linguistic interest, if one were to so blatantly abuse the word, has bled over into what may be an even less interesting curiosity at the development (and by development in this case I mean abuse) of language in very general terms across the panoply of virtual communities.
It is an academic pursuit of a kind, if entirely without academic credential. Perhaps it is borne of nostalgia at the memory of days spent in hot classrooms oozing with the stink of used books, Dr. Pepper, clove cigarettes, and, because we are talking about a liberal arts education, patchouli. I would sit in uncomfortable chairs designed by sociopaths with an intense lumbar hatred, wary of the interminable persecution of wasps and yellow-jackets which spent their spare time between molesting half-full cans of sugary-caffeine-delivery drinks, gazing murderous intent at me through multi-faceted eyes -- such is the life and paranoia of the severe allergy sufferer -- while listening to long lectures on Chaucer's Middle English, or the etymological development of our language from its Indo-European heritage. I suppose mine is not a particularly rose-colored fuzzy memory, but I miss the discussion, and outside of my occasional excursions to buy coffee I have no one with whom to explore the topic.
Which is a shame, because I think the increasingly common "language" of the virtual community, and their shared quirks, defies much of the common linguistics nomenclature, and it should be a fascinating exploration for those so inclined.
At first I considered that the unusual traits of internet language were as ordinary as jargon, though technically jargon is an oral phenomenon, and to be fair I think any linguist worth his weight in salt would dismiss some kind of internet speak as something very much like that. I, fortunately, am an amateur linguist only worth my weight in talcum powder, so I am free to dismiss such learned and scholarly response with a wave of my bachelor-degree empowered hand. After all, those pompous asses can't drop a grade on me anymore!
Internet forum speak is jargonesque (not actually a word!) in that it primarily employs a kind of shorthand familiar to those within the group, and identifies members of that group by the demonstrable ability to speak the jargon. But I am not simply talking about a World of Warcraft player imploring in-game that he is 'LFG in BRD for MC attunement', which really is a jargon within a specific online community, and seems, to the uninitiated, like it might just as well be spy lingo for, "the nuclear detonator is in my colon".
I am discussing alterations to the language across a broader spectrum, including but not limited to patterns of discourse, unique words and phrases that are more than acronyms or terminology, and even accepted styles. I won't go so far as to call it any kind of formal language, though it seems like a kind of sociolect to me, if anything. It's as though there is, for the internet, a kind of accent that develops, except instead of being a regional or spoken "dialect" it is only a phenomenon of the written word, and not defined by a region. In fact, by the global nature of the internet it is multilingual.
Hence, multilingual sociolect! Ta da! I can go stick my head in a bucket of water now if you like.
In fact, I'm not entirely alone in thinking that the "language" of the internet is a notable linguistic phenomenon, though the popularly held belief is that the nature of online discourse is actually damaging the integrity of the language, not that it is developing in its own organic fashion to become something impressive and distinct. It's not a new fear either, as the telegraph, telephone, and, that perennial telepariah (also not a word!), television, were also held to be a danger to the fragile eggshell of our virgin and modest language. But at least there is some recognition that language and the internet have some kind of casual relationship.
The thrust of what I'm saying is this: If you tasked a natural speaker of English, one unfamiliar with the subtleties of online conversation, and asked them to communicate in an established virtual community, it is likely that they would stand out by virtue of their language usage, though not because of their ability or inability to use a jargon, or acronyms, or emoticons, but because their forms, patterns, and styles of speech would not match the sociolectic norms of the virtual community. The interesting thing is, however, that if you put the same groups of people, and your same test subject, into an oral setting, then the abnormalities in common speech should be far less likely.
It's not accurate to say that Internet Speak, for lack of a better or formalized term, is anything close to its own language, nor is it a creole, pidgin, or even quite a jargon. What precisely it is remains a fascinating question, and I am no more satisfied in calling it a sociolect than I am in drinking turkey gravy as a thirst quencher. While I concern myself largely with English, the multilingual global nature of the internet shows an effect across geopolitical, regional, and linguistic boundaries, and yet the phenomenon doesn't seem to be widely studied, despite the hundreds of millions of people who seem to know and understand the subtle shifts required to communicate effectively and naturally online. Even the rules themselves are organic, lack formality, often seem random and mutable, and defy classification, but it seems undeniable that there is some force at work.
No wonder the rigidity of academia seems to be either mystified or pretending the phenomena doesn't exist.