Keeping it offline: the metadiscursive erasure of Standard English from the internet

Lauren Marie Squires

University of Michigan, United States of America


The semiotic process of erasure has proven a useful tool in understanding how language ideologies emerge and are maintained in various sociolinguistic settings (Irvine and Gal 2000). Erasure is a process whereby some aspect of a linguistic situation - whether a social group, linguistic feature, or style/variety - is rendered invisible to speakers, creating the image of a situation that is consistent with speakers’ language ideologies. Typically, the practices or existence of subordinate groups have been those shown to be the objects of erasure. As Bucholtz (2001) has noted, we have not commonly seen in-depth discussion of dominant languages, linguistic features, or sociolinguistic groups made to seem absent or irrelevant. Such erasure may happen in different ways, or for different ideological reasons, than the erasure of non-dominant language aspects.

This project addresses this kind of erasure through an analysis of metadiscourse about language and the internet. I examine a pair of public comment threads from the internet, both representing readers' responses to a published college newspaper column about the internet's negative effects on the English language. Examining the metadiscursive construction of "Netspeak" (Crystal 2001) as a language variety, I focus on how Netspeak is conceived by speakers as related to English, written English, and Standard (in folk terms, "correct" or "good") English. My paper will home in on two main aspects of the discourse in the data. First, Netspeak is framed as a distinct variety that is used online, which is also negatively valued in juxtaposition to Standard English (echoing Thurlow's [2006] findings about mass media reports on computer-mediated communication). Second, while Netspeak is generally looked down upon, commenters often claim that it is acceptable so long as it is contained in the online sphere and does not leak into other domains of linguistic practice, including formal writing or spoken language.

I argue that such discourse erases any association of the internet with Standard English, and I suggest that what enables this erasure is the very existence of "Netspeak" as a linguistic artifact (after Preston 1996). The concept of "Netspeak" equates the variety strictly with online discourse: Netspeak happens online, and conversely, Standard English happens offline. The dominant ideology that values Standard English (see Milroy 2001) is reinforced by Standard English's erasure from a specific field of discourse, protecting "good English" from the internet. I discuss the intersection of two sets of relevant ideologies: ideologies about language, wherein Standard English is to be valued and change is seen as socially threatening, and ideologies about the internet, which is considered a frightening or anomalous social space (Paradis 2005). This intersection is locatable in metadiscourse, a crucial mechanism in processes of erasure and ideological production.

Session: Paper session
Digital Language 2
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 01