The Internet is killing off punctuation it doesn’t need, want or comprehend Compound words, hyphens are also facing extermination, by Jen Gerson
Jun. 6, 2006. 01:00 AM
Its? It’s? ’90s? One word, two? A hyphen? Huh? It’s old, it’s useless, it’s annoying and according to one linguist, the Internet bell doth toll for the apostrophe, among and other arcane punctuation.”People are absolutely confused about punctuation, particularly about apostrophes,” says Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of Alphabet to Email: How written English has evolved and where it’s going. As if to prove the point, the publisher accidentally left out the apostrophe of the “it’s” on one of the first drafts of the book jacket. Baron researches the effect of instant messengers, email and SMS on language. And she says that in the next 10 years, the Internet will shave the fat off of questionably useful punctuation.”If you Google a word with an apostrophe, Google doesn’t care,” she says.It’s true. A search for 90’s, ’90s and 90s’ turns up the same 10 websites, albeit in different orders. Equally insignificant for Google were compound words and the hyphen. Most literate users won’t distinguish between e-mail and email, for instance, in the world according to search engines, it’s all email to them.”Language changes over time naturally. But now we’re very confused,” Baron says.URLs’ tendency to string separate words into one long address isn’t helping language hold its form either.Linguistically speaking, the next decade will see these niceties of language become “largely a free for all, whether you have one word or two or a hyphen,” Baron says.The Internet is reinforcing bad English habits started during the linguistically lackadaisical ’60s and ’70s, she says.”There are other social forces affecting languages that make them far more informal than it used to,” she says, citing the decline in formal tone and grammatical discipline set in motion in public education during the feel-good, express-yourself-as-you-will, don’t-be-hampered-by-the-Man-with-the-red-pen hippie era.”The Internet reinforces that,” Baron says.Despite the apostrophe’s problems, computer-speak isn’t destroying English entirely.No matter how much you’re into what’s become common online language, calling that smacktard you’ve met on AOL a n00b does not mean that you’re cool, either.Yes, LOL, WTF, 😉 and other obscure cryptic truncations and symbols once only known by netizens and niche geeks have seeped into common, if informal use, as instant messaging and email have become more frequent.But Baron says that the day of abbreviating phrases and encrypting communication is ending.She has found that while coded language is common among young teenagers, once a given person becomes more confident with typing and computers, the abbreviations and corruptions are abandoned.The reason is simple: It often takes more time and effort to decode abbreviations than it does to spell out phrases in full. And l33t , a computer language that Microsoft has even provided dictionaries for, to help parents decode it is now an online in-joke and refuge of computer nubcakes, ahem, that is to say, people new to online culture.In a compilation of 500 computer-based corruptions and abbreviations, David Crystal, author of the book Language and the Internet, and professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, says only about a dozen are commonly used, in fewer than a fifth of all emails and instant messages.”There’s little evidence that this is impacting the youth culture where it evolved,” he says.It is, however, hanging around. l33t-speak is a way of chatting on message boards, forums and instant messenger that replaces l3773r5 w/ |\|umb3r5 & 5`/mb0l5 (translation: letters with numbers and symbols).Its origins are obscure and in dispute. But it most likely began on early Internet bulletin board systems among hackers and software pirates, (i.e. the Web elite shortened to leet or l33t). They would use the corruption of the letters to bypass software that scanned words to detect illegal activity.Spammers today use l33t to get around email filters and send advertisements for \/1agr@, for instance. L33t hit the Net big in the mid-’90s with the advent of the video game Doom.Once the game began to allow more than one person to play and communicate with one another over the Internet, the nefarious origins of l33t made it perfect for in-game trash talking.But that’s as big as it looks like it’s ever going to get. Teenagers are identifying with the technology and using and using the corruptions of the language as a slang, “to show that you’re one of the guys,” Crystal says. For example, saying that someone was pwn’d in a game means that they were owned, or beaten. But the forces that kill all trends killed it became just mainstream enough not to matter to the ones who started it all. Once the speak was picked up by the teenybopper set busy LOLing and IMing each other eager to prove their Net-cred, the elite largely abandoned, unless it was used to mock someone as a n00b.