An Investigation of the Linguistic Features of "Synchronous Online Chat" English

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An Investigation of the Linguistic Features of "Synchronous Online Chat" English

An Investigation of the Linguistic Features of "Synchronous Online Chat" English


Written by: Rami Al-Sa’di


            This piece of research aims to delineate a brand-new mode of English which has no analogue in many other types of discourse. This ultramodern mode is the English used in Internet real-time chat channels/rooms. This mode of communication is amongst the latest evolutions in Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC). The corpus of this study includes recordings of authentic chat sessions from the Yahoo Messenger and Internet Relay Chat public chat channels/rooms as well as recordings of private sessions.  Sessions of the latter type are taken up by two people each. These two domains of online chat, i.e. the Yahoo Messenger and Internet Relay Chat, have been selected for sampling since they are among the commonest nowadays. For brevity, they are going to be referred to with the two abbreviations Y! and IRC, respectively.

Among the interesting facts about Y! and IRC is that they are both manifestations of synchronous CMC, with IRC being almost a decade and a half old while Y! is almost ten years of age. The sheer fact that IRC was invented 16 years ago by no means entails a 16-year span of synchronous IRC lavish popularity, inasmuch as the publicity of IRC (and the same applies to Y!) came into being well after it had been invented.

            The dramatic evolution in Cyberspace* will certainly have its inalienable by-product: affecting, and even effecting, language. This effect will encompass language at all its levels: syntactic, semantic, morphological, and most importantly lexical. Halle**, in his desultory mentioning of the role of the Internet in language change, applauds the idea that the Internet is a distinct language domain with its own rules, vocabulary, and advantages.

            To exemplify the lexis of Cyber-English, look into the idiosyncrasies of pic and its two possible plurals picsa nd pix. In the 1984 edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD) or any older edition, none of these three items is recognised as an English word. The same applies to the older versions of Collins English Dictionary and Thesaurus (CED) and Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDCE). In the 1998 edition of OALD, the word pichas entered the dictionary as an informal synonym for picture, but it is still null of a plural form. The 1995 edition of LDCE has an entry for pix only as a colloquial plural word meaning pictures or photographs, but it lacks a singular form. Webster's Dictionary and Thesaurus (WDT), 1993 edition, states that pixel, which is any of a number of very small picture elements that make up a picture, as on a visual display unit (VDU), has its origin in pix (pictures) and elements. Therefore, WDT is a pioneer in clearly denoting that technology is the origin of pix and also pixel. The 1998 Oxford Talking Dictionary (OTD)*, in the entry for pic n3, evinces the idea that pic, having been a late 19th-century shortened form of the earlier piccy, means picturepainting, or photograph. For the plural form, however, it recognises the pix variant only. The three forms, pic and its two plural forms, all are credited by the 2000 edition of CED as existing English words that entered the language in the late 20th century. It is worth noting that this word is indigenous to Cyber-English, and the use of picturephoto, or photograph might in some instances be an indicator of inexperience with e-chat. Users of e-chat are likely to find out that Cyberspace levies conditions and demands on the type of language to use.

            A fact that is worth shedding light on is that there are two types of Internet chat users insofar as the language used by them is concerned: expert users and tyros. This observation readily tells us that there is generally a recognised type of language to embark on when logging on to chat channels/rooms. The tyros are called “newbies”. Crystal (2001) ingeniously takes the wraps off the stark difference between expert e-chatters and newbies. He demonstrates that in their desperate attempt to participate in a going conversation on any channel, newbies, because novices new to e-chat, are more familiar with the conventions of letter-writing. They regard the comparative brevity of e-chat, the lack of formal salutations, the use of “non-existing” words, and the erratic spellings and punctuation as an indication of ignorance or a lack of courtesy. Crystal posits that “this is a good example of one way that online and offline communications differ.”

            Being a means of synchronous communication, online chat may logically be perceived as a simulator of Real-Life (RL), face-to-face (FTF) conversation. This deduction which we can cherish for the time being would mean that “online chat” English resembles spoken English to a great extent. When using IRC or Y!, one types a message which would be received by one’s interlocutor(s) as soon as one presses the “Enter” button on the keyboard, and it is natural to expect an immediate reply. This process resembles turn-taking in extemporaneous RL conversations. There is immediacy and directness in giving one’s contributions to the conversation and in getting the other party’s responses.

            Another proposition bolstering up the speech-like nature of online chat English is that there is always room for “a slip of the tongue”, a drawback in speech which the written mediums do not esteem a real problem. In online chat, one might “say” something he does not mean to say, and accordingly either apologises, rephrases his statements to make himself clearer, or tries to thwart any impending misunderstanding by utilizing any possible means at his disposal.* Apparently, if one is an astute talker in RL, FTF conversation, one can facilely be an astute “talker” in synchronous CMC. In fact, it is palpable that synchronous online chat English is amenable to a plethora of the attributes of impromptu spoken English.

            Rinvolucri* demonstrates that a salient feature of spontaneous FTF spoken English is “the opportunity for repair and paraphrase”, employed auspiciously and instantaneously to avoid misinterpretation by the listener and so to avoid censure. The listener’s reactions and feedback do have immense impact on the shaping up of the text-producer’s wording, setting forth of ideas, speed of enunciating words and phrases, etc. In the written medium, however, there is no such immediate opportunity to monitor reader feedback and effect repair. Clearly, we can readily detect the relevant spoken English characteristics in the synchronous norm of CMC under investigation. True it is, the affinities between spontaneous spoken English and synchronous Internet chat English surpass our expectations, for what has been discussed is merely a thumbnail sketch of the similarity between spoken English in a verbal interaction that comes “off the cuff” and synchronous CMC English for Cyber-chat purposes.


 * The term Cyberspace was coined in 1984 by American writer William Gibson (Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2004, an electronic CD-ROM encyclopaedia). For brevity, this encyclopaedia is going to be referred to henceforth with the abbreviation MEE.


* Available only on CD-ROM to be installed on and run by a computer.

* Just a reminder to pose here is that a proponent of the feminism movement or a linguistics prescriptivist might conscientiously object to the discriminatory use of the masculine pronoun in places where the two sexes are meant. This sexist language is not deliberate, but is used sparingly to avoid the cumbersome “he/she”, “he or she”, or “s/he” constructions.



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