Netspeak:An Analysis of Internet Jargon


Approximately 30 million people world-wide 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 occuring 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. The argument rages as to whether
Netspeak is merely slang, or a 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 a 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. 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 the 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 ( 8^ )
or ; ) for example, ) are found sprinkled throughout
electronic communication to donote feelings such as
happiniess, 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 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. An ethernet is a network
protocol with a fast data transfer rate. Most of the
computers in offices at Western are connected by an
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 is
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 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 net works, 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 are 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 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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