Aisha Walker

Thinking onscreen



impson and Walker (forthcoming)  use the term ‘technolects’ to describe varieties of language used in digital contexts.  We proposed this as an alternative to words such as ‘netspeak’ (Crystal 2006)  in order to reflect the fact that different digital contexts have their own language conventions.  Walker and White (2013) take the term a little further and write about “digital technolects” (p20).  We did not coin the word ‘technolect’, it means “the technical language of a subject field; jargon” (  However, it seemed appropriate to extend this meaning to include the language conventions of a digital communications context.  Simpson and Walker cite two examples of digital contexts: fan posts on the Facebook page of the pop group One Direction and a semi-academic Wikipedia article.  I still believe that ‘technolect’ is a useful word for digital language but it is probably most useful for words that are used in narrow, domain-specific contexts.  For example FlyerTalk writers and members use words/phrases such s ‘FA’ (Flight Attendant) and ‘DYKWIA’ (‘do you know who I am’ = a passenger with a exaggerated sense of self-importance who demands/expects special treatment).  FlyerTalk writers/members also use airport and airline codes rather than names.  Other contexts have their own field-specific language.  For example, users of parent blogs and forums typically use ‘DH’, ‘DD’, DS’, ‘MIL’ and other abbreviations to refer to family members.   Posters on Yachting Monthly forums, on the other hand, tend to speak of their partners as SWMBO (“she who must be obeyed”; most yachting posters seem to be male).  Tubenetters  are somewhat obsessed with MPs (also known as MPCs).  In none of these cases is the jargon difficult to learn but it can still be baffling to newcomers until they become familiar with the technolect.  A feature of digital technolects is that they overlap with the more general language of the field.  For example, aviation professionals and frequent flyers are likely to know that MAN = Manchester, UK; BKK = Bangkok and LAX = Los Angeles even if they have never read or posted on FlyerTalk.

However, true digital technolects are additional to ‘netspeak’.  Whilst different digital discourse communities use language in different ways there will be some features that similar communities hold in common.  For example, it is likely that fans of boybands will use the same types of language as the fans of One Direction cited by Simpson and Walker.   One of the problems of thinking/writing about digital/online… anything… is the tendency to see the digital world as a cohesive entity, for example, cyberspace.  However, as Myers (2010) points out when writing about blogs, there are many cyber-subspaces.  Myers argues that rather than a ‘blogosphere’, in reality there is a myriad of blog “sphericules” (p24) each with its own discourse conventions.  Fashion blogs, for example, typically contain large numbers of photographs whilst academic blogs tend to contain very few.   Language is one of the main ways that people signify their membership of digital sphericules and discourse communities and this has led to the development of digital dialects: digialects.

Digialects are the result of two forces.  The first of these dates back to early instances of computer-mediated communication, such as email and  Internet Relay Chat in which users wanted to type quickly and communcate expressively in a low-bandwidth text-based medium.  This led to the types of features identified by Herring (1999) including emoticons and abbreviations such as LOL.  Incidentally, some abbreviated CMC phrases seem to have been coined in order to be abbreviated online, for example, ‘roll on the floor laughing’  (ROFL) is not commonly used in real life. The second force is mobile phone SMS where the awkward T9 keyboards and the constraints of both message length (160 characters) and screen size meant that messages needed to be brief and easy to type.  This led to the use of ‘textisms’ such as ‘C U l8r’.  However, technological developments have removed some of these constraints.  For example, smartphones, and many feature phones, have full keyboards, predictive text and large screens which means that it is easier to type words in full and messages can be longer.  Wood et al (2014*), citing a range of relevant studies, note that ‘textism’ abbreviations seem to be used less frequently nowadays but there appears to be increasing use of digialect forms such lengthening syllables/words for emphasis or use of multiple punctuation marks!!!!!!  They argue that online language forms are now more about expression and affect than economy (of space and effort).  The need to express themselves in ways that are appropriate to the context and community means that people need to learn and become fluent in the digialects used in the digital sphericules where they visit or reside.

Herring, S. (1999) “Interactional Coherence in CMC” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 4/4
Myers, G. (2010) Discourse of blogs and wikis London, New York: Continuum
Simpson, J. and  Walker, A. (forthcoming) New technologies for language learning and teaching in Constant Leung and Brian Street Handbook of English Language Studies. London: Routledge
Walker, A. and White, G. (2013) Technology Enhanced Language Learning: connecting theory and practice Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wood, C., Kemp, N. and Plester, B. (2014*) Text Messaging and Literacy – The Evidence Abingdon: Routledge

* is the date in the front of the book so this must be an advance copy

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