SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 27 FEBRUARY 2005
ONE of the predictions made about the internet was that it would make, nay force, the English language upon people and cause a decline in other languages. Like so many other prophesies of the dotcom dynasty, it was woefully wrong.
That's not to say that some languages are dying, but the coroner's report points to economics, history and geography. Languages have been appearing and disappearing for millennia and the internet was deemed to be last century's culprit.
In the mid to late 1990s, the dominance of English on the web and in email wasn't backdropped against the dire lack of internet connectivity throughout the majority of the world's peoples.
But now that the connectivity gap is closing, more and more languages are appearing on the web. Linguistics professor David Crystal has found more than 1000 languages with some presence on the web. Current estimates show that over 90% of web pages in Japan are written in Japanese.
There are technical difficulties in getting certain languages to display properly, but this was a lack of foresight more than anything else. Progress is slow, but the increase in internet access will hurry it along.
Far from hampering the spread and use of language, the internet is enhancing communication and how language is used. Writing in the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages newsletter, Ned Thomas predicted "a great demand for multilingual websites, for multilingual data retrieval, for machine translation, for voice recognition systems to be multilingual".
The other great potential of the internet lies in the phenomenal rise of writing. According to Professor Crystal, author of Language and the Internet, "resources for the expression of informality in writing have hugely increased - something not seen in English since the Middle Ages.
"First we had speech - that was the real breakthrough. And then, about 10,000 years ago, writing."
Crystal is convinced that the internet is "a genuine third medium of communication". He believes that "we've never had anything fundamentally different from speaking and writing" and has described this hybrid as "something that is neither speech nor writing, but a very curious amalgam of the two". The important aspect for Crystal is that "the internet is getting more people to write, and that's a great thing".
The web is moving writing further along the pages of its history. Switching from an oral culture to a writing one didn't happen in one clean jump, nor was it even.
When writing first appeared it was regarded as having the power of magic. Evidence of this is still around today. Thanks to a Scottish dialect the Middle English word 'grammarye' survived to become 'glamour' and the charms of page three.
When writing was new, it developed into a craft practiced by a sought-after few. It still had a strong oral dimension which rhyme and metre pursued. Early poets imagined writing as speaking out loud, because their work would be listened to, not read. In order to bypass distractions at court, poems were heavy on rhythm and repetition, which to Shakespeare was much ado about nothing.
Religious texts also dominated, shepherded by monks until Gutenberg and his printing press schismed the flock. Today, many journalists are represented in unions by Fathers and Mothers of Chapels. The word 'scribe' still refers to someone who takes minutes at a meeting.
In days of yore, scribal culture required detailed and specialised technical knowledge. Before paper, objects used for writing on - such as animal skins - needed mechanical know-how to use them properly.
Writing implements required similar knowledge. The right type of goose quill had to be used, split in a certain way and constantly sharpened. Pen knives have come a long way since.
This kind of detailed technical knowledge existed in the early days of the internet, where a command line connection script had to be written before anything else could be.
Now that this period is ending, and a third communication medium is gripping the world, expect the language lieutenants to reappear. Already there have been skirmishes about the manner and value of blogging.
Professor Crystal hasn't much time for the language purists: "They think language should be used by a fixed set of rules - always their rules".
Because of the internet, those rules are, once again, being re-written.