GLOBAL FLOW #4: THE INTERNET— THE GREAT FLATTENING FORCE

As perhaps the greatest flattening force in a globalized world, the Internet has dramatically increased people’s contact with speakers of other languages. As Garda (2009: 29) explains, human communication in the twenty-first century is characterized by discourses that function simultaneously in space and time:

What is different today from the ways in which people used language in the nineteenth and twentieth century is that we can simultaneously and collaboratively engage in many different language practices at the same time, as happens in electronic instant messaging and chatting. And in so doing, there is a measure of “agency” that did not exist prior to the technological revolution. That is, speakers are now free to choose a broader range of language practices than those offered by the immediate community and the school; and they can use them in ways that are not reflected in more institutionalized language practices of schools and official publications.

In today’s multilingual, global world, people are communicating on the Internet not only in its established lingua franca, English, but also in a multitude of other languages (Danet & Herring, 2007). Since the Internet began expanding globally in the 1990s, the number of non-English-speaking users has grown to 1,430 million, or roughly three-quarters of all Internet users (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2010). Although English continues to be used most often on the web (27% of total Internet use in the world in 2010, according to Miniwatts Marketing Group), Chinese follows closely behind (23% of total worldwide Internet use in 2010). Table 2.1 displays the top ten languages used on the web in terms of number of users.

As can be seen in Table 2.1, between 2000 and 2010, the greatest language growth on the Internet was experienced by Arabic (2,501%), followed by Russian (1,826%), Chinese (1,277%), Portuguese (990%), and Spanish (743%). English saw only a 281% growth in the last decade (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2010). What is striking about this table is that with just ten languages, 82% of the two billion Internet users in the world can be reached. We should note however that although Table 2.1 gives some idea of the size of the world’s biggest languages and Internet penetration in various countries, it assigns only

Internet World Users by Language

TABLE 2.1

Language

Millions of Users

As Proportion of Total Internet Users

Growth from 2000 to 2010

English

537

27%

281%

Chinese

445

23%

1,277%

Spanish

153

8%

743%

Japanese

99

5%

111%

Portuguese

83

4%

990%

German

75

4%

173%

Arabic

65

3%

2,501%

French

60

3%

398%

Russian

60

3%

1,826%

Korean

39

2%

107%

Top 10 languages

1,616

82%

421%

Rest of the languages

351

18%

589%

World Total

1,967

100%

445%

Source: Adapted from Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2010

one language per person and thus does not capture the bi- or multilinguality of many people in the world.

Nor does Table 2.1 capture the prevalence of language mixing found in Internet texts. In his analysis of Chinese Internet Language (CIL) found in Bulletin Board Systems, chatrooms, Internet novels, personal emails, and Internet news and advertisements, Gao (2006) shows that English heavily influences CIL at the lexical, sentential, and discursive levels. For example, Gao (2006: 302) shows the following examples of Chinese-English mixing posted in online Bulletin Board Systems:

(a) X gei ren yi zhong qinqie de feel

X give person one type cordial Particle

“X gives you a cordial feeling.”

(b) Let’s Show Huanying renhe dui huaju

welcome any concerning stage play

you xingqu de tongxue!

have interest Particle classmate

“Let’s put on a show! Any student who is interested in drama is welcome!”

Gao (2006) notes that even when there is no overt language mixing, the influence of English can be seen in Englishized Chinese words and grammar.

For example, he shows that many Chinese terms used in Internet communication have been borrowed from English, such as the word mao (“modem”), Shichuang (“Windows”), and yimeier (“email”). Furthermore, Chinese Internet users have modeled on English to create new expressions, such as the abbreviations PP (“beautiful,” from piaopiao in Chinese), jj (“elder sister,” from jiejie in Chinese), DD (“younger brother,” from didi in Chinese), and TMD (“goddamn,” from tamadi in Chinese).

At the level of syntax, Gao (2006) notes that Englishized Chinese sentences display English grammar. For example, in (c) below, the prepositional phrase zai jia li (“at home”) was moved from before the verb phrase chi wufan (“to have lunch”) to after it, reflecting an English word order. In (d), the time phrase mingnian (“next year”) was moved from before the verb phrase qu meiguo (“to go to the US”) to after it, also reflecting an English word order.

(c) Wo chi wufan zai jia li

I eat lunch Preposition home inside

“I’ll have lunch at home.”

(d) Wo qu Meiguo mingnian

I go US following year

“I am going to the US the next year.”

Gao (2006) contends that Chinese Internet Language (CIL) has potential to change the ways in which Standard Chinese is spoken and written. Although not all components of CIL will turn into part of the conventionalized Chinese language, Gao (2006) argues that some electronic expressions are more likely to be accepted than others by Chinese speakers. This argument has significant implications for traditional concepts of language contact which results from colonization and emigration (Weinreich, 1963). In an era of globalization, theories of language contact and change must take into account communications in both physical and virtual spaces.

Code-mixing is a prominent feature of Internet language involving other languages. Warschauer, El Said, & Zohry (2002) found that while English is the dominant language used online among early Internet adopters in Egypt, a written form of Romanized Egyptian Arabic is also widely used in informal communication by this group. The authors argue that the participants’ use of English does not signify an embrace of Western culture or an abandonment of Egyptian identity. On the contrary, the use of English reflects the participants’ ability to absorb the best from a broad array of cultures and make it their own. The participants used their own local language, Egyptian Arabic, as a vehicle to express their most personal thoughts and feelings while they used English for more formal communication. This is a prime example of how Internet communication in the twenty-first century involves both the homogenizing tendencies of the global and the particularizing tendencies of the local (Robertson, 1995).

 
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