Date: Sun, 5 Jan 1997 09:55:31 +0100 (MET)
From: Geert Lovink

Language? No Problem.

Geert Lovink

McKenzie Wark’s brilliant piece on the ever changing role of the English language in the age of the Net was being posted in the dark days before Christmas of 1996. But then people rushed to do the shopping, and gathered with friends and family. In most of Europe it started to freeze and snow. Life slowed down and so did nettime too, at least for some days. I and many others might have forgotten the computer for a while, but the ‘language problem’ remained. Have you also tried to discuss recipes with friends, feeling socially disabled because you never learned the English names for all those kitchen garnishes, deluxe herbs and flamboyant birds? For gourmets, language can be a true obstacle in the enjoyment of the self-made haute cuisine. The careful pronunciation of the names is a crucial part of the dining pleasure. Naming is the social counterpart of tasting and a failed attempt to find the precise name of the ambitious appetizer can easily temper the mood.

McKenzie Wark has introduced the term ‘Euro-English’, being one of the many ‘Englishes’ currently spoken and written. It’s a funny term, only an outsider (from Australia, in this case) could come up with it. Of course, it does not exist and Wark should have used the term in the plural, ‘Euro-englishes’. The term is also highly political. If you put it in the perspective of current Euro-politics in Great Britain. Is the UK part of Europe, and if so, is their rich collection of ‘Englishes’ (Irish, Scottish etc.) then part of the bigger family of Euro-english ‘dialects’? That would be a truly radical, utopian European perspective. Or is ‘Euro- English’ perhaps the 20th century Latin spoken on ‘the continent’?

Continentals can only hear accents, like the extraordinary French-english, the deep, slow Russian-english or the smooth, almost British accent of the Scandinavians. It seems hard to hear and admit one’s own version. One friend of mine speaks English with a heavy Cockney accent (not the Dutch one) and I never dared ask him why this was the case. Should he be disciplined and pretend to speak like they do on BBC-World Service? I don’t think so. What is right and wrong in those cases? Should he speak Dutch-english, like most of us? Switching to other Englishes is a strange thing to do, but sometimes necessary. If you want to communicate successfully in Japan you have to adjust your English, speak slowly and constantly check if your message gets through. Mimicking Japlish is a stupid thing to do, but you have to come near to that if you want to achieve anything.

BBC World Service is my point of reference, I must admit. The BBC seems to be the only stable factor in my life. It’s always there, even more so than the Internet. In bed, I am listening carefully to the way they are building sentences, and guess the meaning of the countless words with which I am not familiar. A couple of years ago they started to broadcast ‘Europe Today’ where you can hear all the variations of ‘Euro-english’, even from the moderator. Sometimes it’s amusing, but most of the time it is just informative, like any other good radio program. Would that be the ‘Euro-english’ McKenzie speaks about, beyond all accents and apparent mistakes, a still not yet conscious ‘Gesamtsprachwerk’?

According to McKenzie, within this ‘bastard language’ one can ‘sometimes see the shadows of another way of thinking.’ This might be true. We all agree that we should not be annoyed by mistakes, but instead look for the new forms of English that the Net is now generating. But for me, most of these shadows are like the shadows in Plato’s cave story. They are weak, distorted references to a point somebody is desperately trying to make. We will never know whether the ‘charming’ and ‘strange’ outcomes are intentional, or not. Non-native English writers (not sanctioned by editors) might have more freedom to play with the language.

Finding the right expression even makes more fun, at least for me. At this moment, I am writing three times as slow as I would do in Dutch or German. Not having dictionaries here, nor the sophisticated software to do spell checking, one feels that the libidinous streams are getting interrupted here and there. On-line text is full of those holes. At sudden moments, I feel the language barrier rising up and I am not anymore able to express myself. This is a violent, bodily experience, a very frustrating one that Wark is perhaps not aware of. He could trace those holes and ruptures later, in the text. But then again we move on and the desire to communicate removes the temporary obstacles.

How should the Euro-english e-texts be edited? At least they should go through a spell-checker. Obvious grammar mistakes should be taken out, and they should not be rewritten by a naive English or American editor. If we are in favour of ‘language diversification’, this should also be implemented on the level of the printed word. ‘Euro-englishes’ or ‘Net-englishes’ are very much alive, but do they need to be formalised or even codified? I don’t care, to be honest. At the moment, I am more afraid of an anthropological approach, an exotic view on Net-english, that would like to document this odd language before it disappears again. But our way of expression is not cute (or rare). It is born out of a specific historical and technological circumstance: the Pax Americana, pop culture, global capitalism, Europe after 89 and the rise of the Internet.

Globalisation will further unify the English languages and will treat local variations as minor, subcultural deviations. As long as they are alive, I don’t see any problem, but should we transform these e-texts onto paper, only to show the outsiders that the Net is so different, so exciting? I would propose that the Book as a medium should not be used to make propaganda for the idea of ‘hyper-text’ or ‘multi-media’. A discussion in a news group, on a list or just through personal e-mail exchange is nothing more than building a ‘discourse’ and not by definition a case for sophisticated graphic design to show all the (un)necessary cross references.

McKenzie Wark didn’t want to speak about the right to express yourself in your own language. He agrees with this and I guess we all do. His native language is English, the lucky boy. But we do have to speak about it. Specially US-Americans do not want to be bothered about this topic. I haven’t heard one cyber- visionary ever mentioning the fact that the Net has to become multi-lingual if we ever want to reach Negroponte’s famous ‘one billion users by the year 2000.’ It is not in their interest to develop multi-lingual networks. OK, the marketing departments of the software houses do bring out versions in other languages. But this is only done for commercial reasons. And the Internet is not going to change so quickly. Still 90% of its users are living in the USA. Rebuilding Babylon within the Net will be primarily the task of the non-natives.

[...] Languages are neither global nor local. Unlike the proclaimed qualities of the Net, they are bound to the nation state and its borders, or perhaps shared by several nations or spoken in a certain region, depending on the course history took in the 19th and 20th century. Countless small languages have disappeared in this process of nation building, migration and genocide. But in Europe we still have at least 20 or 30 of them and they are not likely to disappear. So communicating effectively within Europe through the Net will need a serious effort to build a ‘many to many’ languages translation interface. A first step will be the implementation of unicode. Automatic translation programs will only then become more reliable. At this moment, French and Hungarian users, for example, seriously feel their language mutilated if they have to express themselves in ascci.

But let’s not complain too much. Once I saw a small paper in a shopwindow in Amsterdam, saying ‘English? No problem.’ Rebuilding the Babel Tower together should be big fun and I am ready to spend a lot of time in the construction of a true multi-lingual Net. If you are also interested in this, I would like to do some practical proposals, for nettime and beyond...


Edited by McKenzie Wark

Editor’s note: I was tempted to change ‘flamboyant birds’ in the first paragraph, by substituting in its place either ‘exotic birds’ or ‘exotic fowl’. Flamboyant conotes showy and ornate — its something one would say of a Las Vegas stage show. Exotic conotes rarity of occurance, as well as a less specific quality of unusual appearance. The justification for making the change would be that, as the editor, I am getting closer to the ‘author’s intention’.

[...] I’ve made minor changes elsewhere in Geert’s text. With one exception, sentences ending in prepositions have been recast. Possessive apostrophes have been added. Spelling is now more or less OED, except of couse the ‘net-neologisms’ that don’t yet exist in any recognised dictionary. For example ‘newbie’. Here one follows standard net-usage. If I was editing for printed publication, I’d be inclined to eliminate unnecessary net-speak — but that’s another issue.