JCMC 9 (1) November 2003
Collab-U CMC Play E-Commerce Symposium Net Law InfoSpaces Usenet
NetStudy VEs VOs O-Journ HigherEd Conversation Cyberspace Web Commerce
Vol. 6 No. 1 Vol. 6 No. 2 Vol. 6 No. 3 Vol. 6 No. 4 Vol. 7 No. 1 Vol. 7 No. 2 Vol. 7 No. 3 Vol. 7 No. 4 Vol. 8 No. 1 Vol. 8 No. 2
Introduction: The Multilingual Internet
Yale University and Hebrew University
Susan C. Herring
- Why This Special Issue?
- Overview of the Articles
- Future Directions
- About the Authors
Why This Special Issue?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. Since the Internet began expanding globally in the 1990s, the number of non-English speaking users has grown to 470 million, or roughly two-thirds of all Internet users (CyberAtlas, 2003). To date, however, the research literature in English on computer-mediated communication has focused almost exclusively on emergent practices in English, neglecting developments within populations communicating online in other languages.
Consider two photographs taken in Essaouira, Morocco, a port city about three hours' drive from Marrakech, in March, 2002. In the first, a group of elderly women seem indifferent to the fact that they are sitting in front of an Internet kiosk, called, in a mixture of French and English, "Espace Internet: Cyber Drive."1 In the second photograph, inside the kiosk, a young woman wearing the hijab, the traditional head covering of Muslim women, is busy typing at a computer keyboard. Although just a short distance from one another, these women may be miles apart culturally. Is the young woman perhaps chatting with acquaintances across the globe in French—a dominant language in Morocco, although Arabic is the official language? Or might she be sharing instant messages with local friends in formerly "spoken"-only Moroccan Arabic?
To date, the research literature in English on computer-mediated communication has focused almost exclusively on emergent practices in English, neglecting developments within populations communicating online in other languages. Some notable exceptions are studies of code-switching among expatriate South Asians on Usenet (Paolillo, 1996); language choice among young Egyptian professionals using various forms of CMC (Warschauer, El Said & Zohry, 2002); self-presentation in email in Greek (Georgakopoulou, 1997); the negotiation of identity and power in a Japanese asynchronous discussion forum (Matsuda, 2002); and the linguistic properties of Swedish chat and text messaging (SMS) on mobile phones (Hård af Segerstad, 2002, forthcoming). However, such studies have been relatively infrequent, and their findings have never been brought together and compared.
This special issue is the first collection of articles written for an English-speaking audience that is devoted entirely to the analysis of computer-mediated communication on the multilingual Internet—in languages other than English, and—in one instance—in a sociocultural context in which English is no one's native language, yet is used as a lingua franca. The multilingual Internet raises a number of practical and scholarly questions, ranging from the distinctive features of email or chat in languages with specific font-related requirements, to code-switching in bilingual or multilingual online communication, to the effects of the English language and global "netspeak" (Crystal, 2001) on CMC in local languages. Linguistic research has shown that spoken languages vary in their structures, meanings and usage—is this equally true on the Internet, where speakers of different languages come into contact and influence one another on a scale never before imagined?
Because early planners of the Internet were generally American, and were implicitly thinking only about how to facilitate communication in English, they did not anticipate the problems that might arise when speakers of other languages tried to communicate online. The text-transmission protocol on the Internet is based on the ASCII character set. ASCII, an acronym for "American Standard Code for Information Interchange," was established in the 1960s, and contains 128 seven-bit codes (unique combinations of 1's and 0's), 95 of which are available for use.2 This character set is based on the roman alphabet and the sounds of the English language. The expression "plain text," as in email and chat, refers to a format that contains only basic ASCII characters, whether written in English, or in some other language.
How do people communicating online in languages with different sounds and different writing systems adapt to ASCII environments? What problems do they encounter, and what are the social, political and economic consequences if they do (or do not) adapt? Is there evidence of "typographic imperialism," as some authors have written about linguistic imperialism (Phillipson, 1992; Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas, 2001)? More generally, is the Internet accelerating the global spread of English (Crystal, 1998) and other "big" languages at the expense of local, indigenous languages, contributing to the trend toward extinction of the latter (Nettle & Romaine, 2000) and an overall reduction in global linguistic diversity (Herring, 2002)? Or, conversely, is the Internet an effective medium for the revitalization and preservation of "small" languages (Buszard-Welcher, 2001)?
Another important set of questions has to do with how cultural practices find expression in CMC in different languages. The English-language Internet is an environment in which face-threatening acts, including "flaming," are often evident, and in which men and women communicate using different discourse styles (Herring, 1994, 1996). How, if at all, do norms of communication differ among speakers of other languages conversing online among themselves? Does the tendency toward informality in CMC conflict with local norms regarding formality and status differences, and if so, how is this conflict resolved? Do women from traditional, hierarchical cultures participate more freely in CMC (e.g., Wheeler, 2001), adopting the more liberal communication norms of western culture? Is there a common Internet culture to which users from other cultures adapt, regardless of the language of communication, or do cultures preserve their local flavor online (e.g., Hongladarom, 2000)? Broadly speaking, how culturally and linguistically diverse is the Internet at the present time, and what trends can be discerned as we look toward the future?
To begin to address some of these questions, we invited researchers with backgrounds in such fields as communication, folklore, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, and linguistic anthropology to propose contributions to a special issue devoted to the multilingual Internet. The response was gratifying: we received nearly 60 proposals on various forms of CMC in languages spoken around the globe, many authored by native speakers. From this rich pool, we selected a subset of the best and most diverse proposals, in terms of languages and CMC technologies investigated. 3 The result of the selection process is the eight articles presented in this special issue. These articles explore matters relating to a total of 12 different languages online, including Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, "Greeklish" (Greek written in roman characters), French, German, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, and English as used by speakers of other languages.4 The CMC technologies investigated range from email, BBSs and newsgroups to Web chat and instant messaging.
Overview of the ArticlesThe articles in this issue fall into four broad categories: 1) adaptations of writing systems in online environments; 2) social interpretations of, and attitudes toward, such adaptation; 3) language choice in multilingual contexts; and 4) gender and language dynamics in computer-mediated communication in non-English-speaking cultures. The articles are described below in this general order.
The first contribution is by David Palfreyman and Muhamed Al-Khalil, linguists at Zayed University in Dubai. As in other Arab countries, in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, we find a situation of diglossia (Ferguson, 1972) in which classical written Arabic is used alongside a local spoken variety. Drawing on data from a corpus of Instant Messenger (IM) exchanges among female university students in the United Arab Emirates and an email survey of users' experiences, Palfreyman and Al-Khalil investigate what they call "ASCII-ized Arabic"—Arabic written in roman, rather than Arabic, characters. Their analysis identifies influences not only of typographic character sets, but also of different varieties of spoken Arabic, Arabic script, English orthography and other pre-CMC, romanized forms of Arabic. This photograph is a detail from a larger one5 (included with their paper) of an "expression wall" created by students at the university studied. Note that the second and fourth nicknames ("Fa6oom" and "5waly") include numbers as well as roman letters. This echoes the practice of employing numbers online to substitute for sounds of Arabic that cannot be represented in roman letters.
Yukiko Nishimura, a linguist at Toyo Gakuen University in Chiba, Japan, examines the linguistic and interactional properties of informal communication in Japanese among young people on BBSs. Japanese has an unusually complex writing system, employing kanji (originally Chinese ideographic characters), as well as two syllabary scripts, katakana and hiragana, and Romaji, a roman script for writing foreign words. Her article shows how the Japanese orthographic system enriches Japanese CMC in linguistic, interactional and socio-cultural contexts. Many features familiar to readers in English-language CMC recur, including eccentric spelling, typed-out laughter, abbreviations, and rebus writing. Nishimura also identifies features unique to Japanese, including innovative punctuation, a more elaborate repertoire of emoticons (smileys) than is typical in English, use of final particles as in spoken Japanese conversation, and variable use of polite versus plain verb forms.
The articles by Nishimura and Palfreyman and Al-Khalil demonstrate that traditional writing systems do not only cause problems for people trying to communicate on the Internet; they also offer possibilities for creativity and play. The next article, by Hsi-Yao Su, a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, examines playful, creative uses of writing systems on the electronic bulletin boards (BBSs) of two college student organizations in Taipei, Taiwan. Four popular creative uses of writing systems are identified and discussed: the rendering of the sounds of English, Taiwanese, and Taiwanese-accented Mandarin in Chinese characters, and the use of a transliteration alphabet associated with elementary education. Key to the interpretation of these uses are the ideologies associated with each language and writing system in contemporary Taiwan. For example, English is seen as potentially arrogant, and the transliteration alphabet as simple-minded. Su finds, however, that these associations are overridden in the environment of the BBS, where the playful juxtaposition of a linguistic form with a different language variety generates multi-level meanings of metalinguistic awareness, cleverness, and group solidarity.
Language ideologies also feature prominently in the article on "Greeklish," the controversial use of the roman alphabet in Greek online communication, by Dimitris Koutsogiannis of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and Bessie Mitsikopoulou of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. The focus of their study is discourse about Greeklish in the Greek press, rather than its actual use online, which the authors view as a "glocal" social practice. Adopting a critical discourse-analytic perspective, they identify three different trends: a retrospective trend views Greeklish as a threat to the Greek language and to Greek cultural heritage; a prospective trend approaches Greeklish as a transitory phenomenon which will become negligible due to technological advances; a third, resistive trend points to the negative effects of globalization, and relates Greeklish to other communication and sociocultural practices. Koutsogiannis and Mitsikopoulou situate contemporary debates about Greeklish in a broader historical perspective, simultaneously revealing what is new and not new about the perceived threat posed by foreign-language influence (in this case, English via the Internet).
The theme of languages in contact is the focus of Mercedes Durham's investigation of language choice in an asynchronous online forum for Swiss medical students. Durham, a doctoral student in English linguistics at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, aims to assess how the general language situation in Switzerland—which is divided into areas where French, German, Italian, and to a much lesser extent, Romansh, predominate—impinges on language use on the Internet. Swiss medical students have chosen an apparently democratic solution to their dilemma as to which language to use online: English, which is no one's native language, is preferred. Moreover, English use has increased over the last several years. Durham considers the relative importance of such factors as the native language of participants, the region in which they attend medical school and its language of instruction, the general status of English in Switzerland, and the status of English as the international lingua franca of medicine, in shaping language choice.
While the use of English as a lingua franca appears to be an acceptable expedient in the case of Switzerland, in Spain the relationship between Catalan and Spanish is politically more complex. Catalan, spoken in the autonomous region of Catalonia, is a small language struggling to preserve its viability in a cultural context dominated by Spanish. Salvador Climent and his colleagues at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia) and the Department of Linguistics at the Universitat de Barcelona propose that instead of Catálan speakers using Spanish as a lingua franca with speakers from other linguistic backgrounds—which is what tends to happen at present in online communication within Spain—machine translation offers an alternative: everyone can communicate in his or her own preferred language, and no lingua franca is required. In order to identify the challenges that automatic translation between Catalan and Spanish would need to overcome, Climent and his colleagues closely analyze a corpus of messages in both languages from newsgroups on the Virtual Campus of the Open University of Catalonia, classifying and quantifying features that lead to machine translation errors. They find that in addition to errors caused by interference between the two closely-related languages, characteristics of the email register conflict with the requirements of machine translation, calling into question its potential to benefit the status of Catalan.
The last two articles present case studies of gender patterns in online communication in different cultural contexts. Sandi de Oliveira, a linguist at the University of Copenhagen, analyzes politeness violations on the computer users' discussion list of a university in Portugal. Only Portuguese is used, and the grammar and spelling of the language are standard, as might be expected in workplace communication among academic professionals. However, the messages posted sometimes fail to observe the requirement—of utmost importance in Portuguese culture—to use the appropriate term of address. Although women participate less often in discussions on the list, messages posted by women are more often treated as transgressions. Oliveira observes that men are quick to chastise transgressions, in contrast to English-based claims that men are less concerned than women with maintaining politeness norms (Herring, 1994, 1996). At the same time, the behavior of the Portuguese men on the list asserts their traditional gender roles as interactionally dominant and representative of "authority."
The last article in this issue is co-authored by Siriporn Panyametheekul, a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, and Susan Herring, a professor of Information Science and Linguistics at Indiana University, Bloomington. Panyametheekul and Herring analyze gender in relation to turn-allocation patterns in a popular Web-based Thai chat room (pictured at right), in an attempt to determine whether participation in chat interaction follows patterns previously identified for face-to-face conversation. They find similarities as regards turn allocation, but unexpected gender patterns emerge: females make greater use of strategies like those found in face-to-face conversation, and enjoy greater power in the chat room, chatting with whom they choose and receiving more responses to their messages than males. The authors also analyze flirtatious initiations, finding them to be infrequent and generally lacking in sexually explicit content. They interpret these findings in relation to the gender demographics of the chat room, the norms of the Web site, and Thai cultural values of politeness and respect—all of which, the authors suggest, favor female participation.
Future DirectionsThese eight papers are a small start at an ambitious enterprise: to map the multilingual Internet, its emergent patterns of communication, and their social, cultural and political implications. As exciting as the present collection may be, it is limited in many respects. First, most of the articles are about asynchronous CMC—BBSs, newsgroups, etc. Only Palfreyman and Al Khalil analyze instant messaging, and the only article that deals with chat, by Panyametheekul and Herring, analyzes the material quantitatively, with few examples of Thai chat conversation. Future studies should direct both qualitative and quantitative attention to synchronous forms of CMC, such as chat and instant messaging, as well as to SMS (text messaging on mobile phones), which is extremely popular outside North America. Second, all of the articles in this issue are case studies of individual languages or geographically-delimited multilingual situations. While this is a useful point of departure, there is a need for comparative studies that use the same methods and concepts to investigate socioculturally different situations online, holding the mode of CMC constant. This would enable us to parcel out the effects of language and culture more systematically than when a study focuses on one sociolinguistic situation alone. Finally, a more thorough review of existing research on the multilingual Internet is needed, including work that is not in English (e.g., Anis, 1999; Beißwenger, 2001). Conversely, we would be pleased if this publication were to be translated into other languages, so that readers outside the English-speaking world could know of the research reported here.
Moreover, many important topics listed in our Call for Papers are not among those covered here. For instance, code-switching and code-mixing, a major topic of research on bilingual and multilingual conversation (Jacobson, 1998; Milroy & Muysken, 1995; Muysken, 2000, Myers-Scotton, 1993a, 1993b), is probably extremely common online (see, e.g., Georgakopoulou, 1997; Paolillo, 1996), yet it is touched upon only briefly in this issue, in the article by Durham on language choice in a Swiss mailing list, and in Su's discussion of the use of Chinese characters to represent English expressions in Taiwanese BBS. Another topic listed in our Call for Papers and not adequately addressed in this issue is the potential clash between requirements of formality in off-line writing traditions, and the trend toward informal speech-like patterns in email, well-documented for English-language email (e.g., Baron, 2001, ch. 9; Crystal, 2001, ch. 4; Danet, 2001, ch. 2; Yates, 1996), but not for email in other languages. Oliveira suggests that the academic users in her study of a Portuguese discussion list were more informal than they would have been in formal face-to-face situations, an interesting twist on the problem, although formality is not the primary focus of her article.
Of special interest are cultures, such as the Portuguese, that traditionally place great importance on signaling social status linguistically. Another example is Japanese, which conventionally requires different registers of formality depending on who is speaking and who is being addressed. Recall Nishimura's finding that young Japanese BBS users employ colloquial language online as if conversing offline. When they grow older, will Japanese young people, heavily involved in the Internet, use colloquial language even in more formal situations, both online and offline? What happens when older Japanese people, more rooted in traditional requirements for the expression of deference in both face-to-face and written communication, go online?6 These questions have implications not just for social interaction, but for communication in institutional contexts, in which organizational hierarchies conventionally play an important role. Research on the online communication of users from status-oriented cultures is needed to begin to answer these questions.
Another area in need of research is online multilingualism in international organizations. The European Union recognizes 11 official languages (Phillipson, 2002; Translation Service, 2002), and its Translation Service provides elaborate translation facilities for the distribution of written documents as well as several forms of "live" translation for speech. Official Web pages of the European Commission and European Union offer a great deal of information about these services, but say nothing about email or other forms of communication on the Internet.7 Similarly, Phillipson's (2002) book on the prospects for English as the lingua franca of the European Union mentions the Internet only in passing and not in connection with the EU at all. To what extent are EU employees using the Internet, and in what languages? Via what media and in what languages do citizens communicate with EU institutions? What issues and problems arise in connection with the anticipated EU enlargement from May 2004 on? What role does the increasing importance of the Internet play in the debate about whether to pursue a lingua franca for the EU, or to accommodate to multilingualism online? Because of the number of languages and countries involved, the issues are likely to be even more complicated than in the situations discussed by Durham and by Climent et al. in the present issue. This same set of concerns also pertains to the United Nations and other international organizations.
Accommodating to multilingualism on the Internet requires that the writing systems of the world's languages be representable in digital form. Earlier in this Introduction, we discussed the nature of the ASCII code and its unintended consequences for communication online. Speakers of many languages besides Arabic and Greek, two languages discussed in this issue, have had to cope with limitations of the ASCII character set when trying to communicate online. This includes most European languages. For instance, the last three letters of the Swedish alphabet, (ĺ, ä, ö), cannot be represented in ASCII. What are the consequences for Swedes of the absence of these letters in email and other forms of computer-mediated communication?
Fortunately, by 2003, we have moved beyond the limitations of the ASCII code in some respects, although millions have not yet benefited from recent developments. Word-processing is available in an increasing number of the world's languages, and many languages besides English have become usable online, as this special issue begins to attest. To a great extent, progress is due to the development of Unicode, a major expansion of the original character set. The Unicode Standard is "a character coding system designed to support the worldwide interchange, processing, and display of the written texts of the diverse languages and technical disciplines of the modern world."8 As Unicode has progressed, the number of characters that can be represented in word-processing and on the Internet has vastly increased. Unicode 4.0, recently announced, can accommodate over 96,000 characters in the world's languages (Davis, 2003).9
Yet simply making it possible to type contributions in many languages will not ensure effective global communication via the Internet. Online communication is dependent not only on whether typists can enter their contributions in the language and script desired, but on whether recipients of messages have the technical access to receive them, and the literacy skills to read them, which in turn depend on socio-economic factors. Not all of the world's approximately 6,000 languages will be effectively represented, for these reasons. Nor will everyone understand and be able to communicate in all the languages in use, given that individual competence in more than a few languages is difficult to achieve. Thus, there will still be a need for lingua francas. In this connection, as Climent at al. suggest, machine translation may yet offer the greatest promise of enabling smaller languages to survive online in a world increasingly dominated by English (Crystal, 1998) and by large regional languages such as Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Hindi (Graddol, 1997). However, a considerable investment of time, money, and technical expertise will be needed to develop systems to translate effectively both in to, and from, small languages, so that their speakers can participate fully in online communication.
In the meantime, there is a growing need for sociolinguistic research on how people actually communicate on the multilingual Internet. The languages and cultural contexts studied so far comprise only a small fraction of those in the world today; more contexts must be studied before generalization becomes possible. In order to perform well, machine translation algorithms intended to work on the Internet must take into account actual communication patterns, which can only be revealed through analysis of online communication. These needs will become even more pressing as speakers of more of the world's languages go online. We look forward to reading future scholarship in response to these and other challenges raised by the multilingual Internet.
Footnotes1. Note the absence of Arabic, the official language of Morocco, in this sign. Photographs by Brenda Danet.
2. For more information, see, e.g., http://www.usefulcontent.org/adlocum/dest/foldoc/foldoc.cgi?ASCII; http://www.instantweb.com/D/dictionary/foldoc.cgi?ASCII; both retrieved September 29, 2003.
3. Early in this process, we decided to omit papers dealing primarily with educational issues and applications, since this seemed a distinguishable subfield, deserving to be treated in its own terms.
4. We worked closely with authors to make the papers as readable as possible to non-specialists. Transliterations are supplied in all papers presenting text examples from online communication, so that readers who do not know the languages in question can have an idea of how they sound.
5. Photograph by David Palfreyman.
6. On status and politeness in Japanese society, see, e.g., Hendry (1993), Nakane (1970); on the socialization of Japanese young people and the transition to adulthood, see Dickel Dunn (1999).
7. See, e.g., "Frequently Asked Questions about the Directorate-General for Translation (DGT)," http://europa.eu.int/comm/dgs/translation/navigation/faq/faq_en.htm, retrieved October 5, 2003; Translation Service (2002). Web pages themselves are available in all EU languages, but this is not our focus.
8. This definition comes from http://www.unicode.org/standard/standard.html, retrieved October 5, 2003.
9. A list of currently supported scripts (for word-processing, albeit not yet necessarily for the Internet) is available at http://www.unicode.org/standard/supported.html, retrieved October 13, 2003.
AcknowledgmentWe would like to extend special thanks to JCMC Editor Margaret McLaughlin and her editorial assistant Bradford Owen for their help in meeting the challenges raised by the multiple fonts and the varied display formats used in the articles in this collection.
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About the AuthorsBrenda Danet is Professor Emerita of Sociology and Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she held the Danny Arnold Chair in Communication. She is currently a research affiliate of the Department of Anthropology at Yale University. She has been researching linguistic, visual and social aspects of communication and culture on the Internet since 1991. Her book, Cyberpl@y: Communicating Online (Berg, Oxford) appeared in 2001. She is now writing a sequel to Cyberpl@y, tentatively titled Pixel Patchwork: An Online Folk Art Community and Its Art.
Susan C. Herring is Professor of Information Science and Linguistics at Indiana University Bloomington. She has been researching CMC, with special attention to gender and discourse, since 1991. In the mid-90s she began integrating this work with other language-focused CMC research in a linguistic approach known as computer-mediated discourse analysis. Currently, she is focusing on expanding the CMDA paradigm to multilingual and multimodal online communication. Her publications include Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-cultural Perspectives (Benjamins, 1996) and Computer-Mediated Conversation (Hampton, in press).
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