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The Language of the Web

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New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

Weblish (also netspeak, webspeak) noun [U]
the form of English used in online documents, e-mail and other forms of online communication

weblish adjective

'Traditional rules of communication are being subverted by the digitally literate who are responsible for the widespread adoption of "Weblish".'
(Colin Meek, online journalist, August 2000)

'… linguist Crystal decides … "netspeak" is a new species of communication, offering groovy new variations on existing language rather than threatening it.'
(Steven Poole, review of Language and the Internet by David Crystal, The Guardian, October 2001)

English is the international language of the Web. As the Internet and online forms of communication increasingly dominate our 21st century lives, so we can observe a new style of language use, and a term for an emerging form of English is coined, referred to as Weblish.

In a 2001 Times newspaper article on language and the Internet, Professor David Crystal is quoted as saying that '… The danger is that English may become diglossic …' Here he refers to a situation where two forms of a language exist, one high form, which is more formal or socially prestigious, and a low form, which is in use every day. His idea then is that Weblish emerges as a low form, perpetuating a language divide between those who use online communication and those who communicate more formally by using a letter or fax (the high form).

Weblish has been characterised by observing various new conventions of punctuation and usage, such as persistent use of abbreviations, acronyms and lower case letters, and an acceptability of spelling mistakes, even in formal communication. Other characteristics include the death of the apostrophe, the elimination of the hyphen in words like cooperate, compound formation (eg: workinglunch) and turning nouns into verbs (e.g. flame becomes a verb meaning to send nasty or insulting e-mails). In formal e-mail correspondence there is an absence of titles such as Mr, Miss, Mrs, etc and set phrases for signing off such as yours sincerely and yours faithfully.

Terms such as netspeak, webspeak and Internetese are common lexical variants of Weblish, and as there is increasing evidence for languages other than English being widely used on the Web, are more appropriate as universal terms; online conventions of (lack of) punctuation and capitalisation of letters, acceptability of errors, etc, can apply cross-linguistically.

Background

A neologism like Weblish reflects a fast-growing tendency: as the Internet makes a growing impact on every aspect of our lives, we increasingly need to introduce terms which differentiate between concepts and individuals in the online universe and those in the real world. We've all heard of snail mail or surface mail as opposed to e-mail. There are hundreds of other examples, and here are just a few:

(The) Outernet noun [U] can be defined as traditional media such as newspapers, television, books, magazines and films. Compare (the) Internet noun [U].

A webisode noun [C] is part of a film or show (eg: cartoon, soap opera) which is based on the Web. Compare episode noun [C]. Similarly a webzine noun [C] is a journal or magazine based on the Web. Compare magazine noun [C].

An elancer noun [C] is a skilled professional who provides their services over the Net. An elancer works from home, but via the Internet is able to work for anyone, anywhere in the world. Compare freelancer noun [C].

A webrarian noun [C] is a person who is an expert at finding and cataloguing information on the Internet. The term cybrarian noun [C] is also used, especially to refer to a person who makes a living doing online research and information retrieval. Compare librarian noun [C].

ecruiting noun [U] is the practice of recruiting online, using Internet technology to help recruit better people faster, and at a lower cost. Derivatives ecruitment noun [U] and ecruiter noun [C] also exist. Compare the verb recruit [I,T] and derivatives recruiting noun [U], recruitment noun [U].

A cyberchondriac noun [C] is someone who imagines they have a particular illness because their symptoms are like those described on an Internet health site. Compare hypochondriac noun [C].

This kind of word formation is expanding rapidly. The Internet is one of the primary sources of neologisms in the 21st century, and this column will examine many other such examples in coming issues.


For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.