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Hybrid ways of making sense

ANAT’s CODE RED speakers McKenzie Wark and Geert Lovink debate the implications of an English language dominated internet

Geert Lovink (Netherlands) is an editor of nettime; a writer and critic who specializes in developing media in Eastern Europe. McKenzie Wark (Australia) is a writer and cultural theorist specializing in the media and emerging technologies. His new book, The Virtual Republic, will be launched in October.

The conference component of CODE RED will take place at The Performance Space, Sydney on November 25. It is being curated by Julianne Pierce (new media artist and Project Co-ordinator at the Performance Space) and organized by the Adelaide-based Australian Network for Art & Technology (ANAT). CODE RED will include highly regarded specialist Australian and international speakers who will debate and discuss media power, communication and information technology. CODE RED will investigate how artists are shaping communication and the vital role that artists can play in developing the future of the new media.

Geert Lovink is an editor of nettime, which declares itself “a semi-public, collaborative text filter for net criticism, cultural politics of the net and international co-ordination of meetings, conferences and publishing projects; it started in June 1995 after a meeting at the Venice Biennale and functions as an exchange between media activists, artists, theorists, philosophers, journalists, technicians and researchers from all over the world with many European and East European subscribers.
Nettime [expired]

On ‘netlish’
McKenzie Wark

You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language.
Caliban, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

On the net, one is forever coming across versions of English written as a second language that are at once charming and strange. It’s a temptation, as a native speaker, to think these usages are 'wrong'. But I think there's a better way of seeing it. What the net makes possible is the circulation of the very wide range of forms of English as a second language that have existed for some time, and which are, via the net, coming more and more in contact with each other.

When non-English language speakers start writing in English, elements of their native grammar and style come into it. This can enrich English immeasurably, so long as the way in which English is being used in a given non-native context is reasonably coherent.

Take the notorious 'Japlish'. At first sight, it’s extremely strange. But after a while, it makes sense. And you can start to see it as a distinctive kind of writing. A fantastic hybrid of ways of making sense and making a self in language. A wacky footnote to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

This was the idea that each language makes possible certain conceptual structures, and makes others most unlikely. For example, ancient Greek was a language extremely rich in articles, so it lent itself to the formation of the discourse of philosophy. What is being? It’s a thought that Greek—and English—can express easily, but that can't occur in certain other languages. Those other languages, needless to say, are no doubt rich in other kinds of thought.

What happens when non-native writers use English is that the reader sees the shadow of another way of thinking, as it meets the ways of thinking that English shapes. One sees the English shape, and beyond it, the shadow of another shape. Even better, one sees a third shape, not belonging to either language, emerging at the point of contact of the two.

All of this is more obvious in netwriting than in printed matter. On the net, nobody pays too much attention to grammar and style. On the net, one sees the shape of language through the little mistakes and fissures that in printed texts editors remove. What emerges is a whole range of ways of writing 'Netlish', where non-native forms of English writing come in contact with each other, and with native forms, without being passed through a single editorial standard.

Which leads me to the question of how Netlish should be edited, when net texts are published in printed form. Perhaps editing has to be looked at from two sides. On the one hand, it helps to think about it from the point of view of kinds of native English use (of which there are several). It matters that English has conventions, so that it is clear to readers what a writer intends.

But that doesn't mean there has to be one convention of usage—be it Oxford or Webster. As a speaker and writer of a minority English, I'm all in favour of recognising distinct forms of the language. Australian-English is different. We have our own dictionary, our own style guides. So too does Indian English—and there may be more people speaking English as a first language in India than in the whole of the British Isles. I think this principle can be extended to the various emerging kinds of Netlish.

Print is the place to codify things like language usage, so print can become a device for propagating, not just writing's content, but also its forms. Including forms of Netlish once they become relatively stable and recognisable. This is not as easy as it looks. I've struck a similar problem with Aboriginal English in Australia. You can translate it into standard Australian usage, but then you lose sight of the otherness of the shape of thought behind it.

English was always a bastard language. It’s a bastard to learn—for every rule there seems to be a swarm of exceptions. But there's a reason why it is so: it’s the mix in it of everything, from Pict to Pakistani. Its prehistory in the British Isles is a small-scale model of what's happening to it now on a global scale. The Romans, the Saxons, the Normans and the Norse—everybody came and brought something to the mix. "We will fight them on the beaches"—pure Saxon. "We will never surrender"—the abstract noun is Norman. Different shapes of thought, superimposed on top of each other, making something else. As Saxon becomes Norman, Norman becomes something else—English.

Language is a machine that produces, as one of these effects, subjectivity. As the philosopher Gilles Deleuze said, "What is the self but this habit of saying 'I'?" The net makes English habits of writing one's self come in contact with other habits of self, making them become something else. And making English as it proliferates across the net—Netlish. Adding richness to the language of potentially Shakespearian proportions. That is more a blessing than a curse.

The netletters were originally written 'live' for the listserve group Nettime: [expired]. This is the edited version.

Language? No problem
Geert Lovink: edited by McKenzie Wark

Have you 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 appetiser 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 English’s 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 moreso than the Internet. In bed, I am listening carefully to the way they are building sentences, and guessing 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 be 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-English’s' or 'Net-English’s' 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. Especially 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.

Of course, many of us have found our way in dealing with the dominance of the English language and think that newbies should do likewise. But this attitude seems shortsighted, even a bit cynical. If we want the Net to grow, to be open and democratic, to have its free, public access and content zones, then sooner or later we have to face the language problem. Until now, this has been merely one's own, private problem. It depends on your cultural background, education and commitment whether you are able and willing to communicate freely in English. This 'individual' quality goes together with the emphasis on the user-as-an-individual in the slogan of cyber-visionaries about the so-called 'many to many' communication. But the language from 'all 2 all' remains unmentioned.. 'Translation bots will solve that problem,' the eternal optimist will tell you. Everything has been taken care of in the Fantasy World called Internet. But so far nothing has happened. At the moment, the number of languages used in the Net is increasing rapidly. But they exist mainly separately. It can happen that a user in Japan or Spain will never (have to) leave his or her language sphere, or is not able to...

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 ASCII.

But let's not complain too much. Once I saw a small paper in a shop window 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.

Anyone using this awful phrase 'global communications' without mentioning the multi-lingual aspect of it, seems implausible for me. Let's change this and put the translation on the agenda. Separated, bi-lingual systems, though, remind me of 'apartheid'. The linguistic Islands on the Net should not become closed and isolated universes. Our own cute bastardised Englishes has no future either. There will never be one planet, with one people, speaking one language. 'Das Ganze ist immer das Unwahre' and this specially counts for all dreams about English becoming the one and only world language for the New Dark Age. Still many netizens unconsciously do make suggestions in the direction of 'One language or no language.' (In parallel with the eco-blackmail speech 'One planet or no planet'). The pretension to go global can be a cheap escape not to be confronted anymore with the stagnation and boredom of the local (and specially national) levels. Working together on language solutions can be one way to avoid this trap.

Editor’s note
McKenzie Wark

I was tempted to change 'flamboyant birds' in the first paragraph, by substituting in its place either 'exotic birds' or 'exotic fowl'. Flamboyant connotes showy and ornate—it’s something one would say of a Las Vegas stage show. Exotic connotes rarity of occurrence, 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.'

It’s worth noting that 'bird' is also unusual in this context. It’s used colloquially in Australia for a fowl meant for the table—but I don't know if the expression is so used anywhere else. The OED is not enlightening on this subject. 'Fowl' is more correct, as the term fowl includes chicken, duck, geese, turkey and pheasant—but not quail. But 'fowl' sounds no more natural. So while 'exotic fowl' seems to me to be both a correct expression and closest to the author's intention, it isn't something that looks quite natural—hence I see no net gain in such a change.

I've left 'flamboyant birds' because, quite simply, there's nothing grammatically wrong with it. It’s just an unusual usage. But this often happens in Euro-English’s: neglected areas of connotation for particular words get reactivated, or extensions of connotation that don't yet quite exist in English-English come into being. I think that is, historically, how English develops and changes—just look at the remarkable richness that’s crept into standard English-English through Irish English. The example here may seem trivial—all editing decisions are in the end trivial—but I've expounded on it in order to show the kind of things that happen.

The editorial solutions can head in one of two directions—the instrumental or the formal. Geert's preference is instrumental—the text is a means to an end. I'm inclined to a slightly more formal approach—the surface of the text, as a distinct artefact in its own right, ought to be respected.

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 course 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.

The netletters were originally written ‘live’ for the listserve group nettime.
These are edited versions.

Geert Lovink received two responses from Japan on his article, Language? No Problem. One comes from a Japanese book editor, the other from an American translator involved in video activism and documentary film. The first commented: “Japanese are always frustrated by English in Net (reading, writing, sending mail) and this situation divides people. When I sent mail to my Japanese friend in London, I used English-Japanese like ‘konnitiwa, Yano desu’; because his internet server didn’t accept 2-byte characters.” He added, “But Japanese never questions this problem There is the situation which push us not to think about that.” This was a theme explored by the second writer:

“I got your piece on the English language problem, and enjoyed reading it. We have faced with some of the same issues at Yamagata since we established our WWW site. As a rule, we put everything in English and Japanese, but we seriously realize that to fulfill our role as a promoter of Asian documentary, we have to also start putting out some of the information in Korean and Chinese (at least). For that, however, we have no money.

It was hard enough just producing everything in Japanese and English. The people who ran the site insisted we could just have Japanese volunteers translate material into English because in their own "cyber-visionary" fashion they insisted that Internet will give birth to a diversified English no longer controlled by white Anglo-Saxons. I sympathize with their goal, but at the same time, their statements can be easily co-opted within various ideologies about the Japanese language. The feeling that Japanese do not need to learn to be fluent in English, to produce it on their own in a communicative situation, but only be able to read it, has been central to state education policy and reinforces the construction of the Japanese nation through the language. Japanese have been crucially defined through their language, to the degree that Japanese children raised abroad who speak fluent Japanese and English are somehow considered "non-Japanese." The inability or lack of necessity to produce good English then provides the insulation through which the discursive "community" of Japanese can articulate an homogeneous national identity. I sometimes then wonder what would happen if more Japanese could speak and write ‘good’ English."

Reproduced with the permission of the authors and nettime from[expired]

Geert Lovink (Netherlands) is an editor of nettime; a writer and critic who specializes in developing media in Eastern Europe. McKenzie Wark (Australia) is a writer and cultural theorist specializing in the media and emerging technologies. His new book, The Virtual Republic, will be launched in October.

RealTime issue #21 Oct-Nov 1997 pg. 14-15

© McKenzie Wark; for permission to reproduce apply to

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