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Book review: Because internet: understanding how language is changing, Gretchen McCulloch

by Andrew Pelechaty

The internet is everywhere. We use it for working, playing, socialising, keeping up with the news, studying, shopping and watching our favourite shows on streaming services. Our virtual world can be a daily distraction: how many times have you fallen down Facebook and YouTube wormholes, only to surface hours later?

Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch’s book Because internet discusses the evolution of internet language. She breaks down a potentially overwhelming subject and makes it entertaining. 

McCulloch co-hosts the Lingthusiasm podcast with Melbourne’s own Lauren Gawne (who helped McCulloch with Chapter 5, ‘Emoji and other gestures’). On the podcast, McCulloch is passionate about linguistics and unashamedly nerdy. This spirit transfers to the book, as she talks about her research and dives into linguistic history. As a Canadian, she discusses how she started using the ‘colour’ and ‘honour’ spellings and ‘zed’ pronunciation, linking her experiences back to the research done by linguist J K Chambers.

McCulloch covers a range of topics, including:
  • formal language versus informal language
  • sorting internet users into categories: old internet people, full internet people, semi-internet people, pre-internet people and post-internet people
  • the evolution of internet typography (in this chapter, McCulloch creatively plays with various forms of typography)
  • irony and sarcasm on the internet, including the rise of Urban dictionary
  • the linguistic styles of Twitter and Tumblr
  • emojis, gestures and GIFs
  • phatic expressions, such as ‘Hi, how are you’, and other social niceties we indulge in with friends, co-workers and family
  • the evolution of conversations
  • online chat (especially from a technological standpoint) and the internet as a ‘third place’ to socialise outside of home and work
  • memes (Doge, snek, lolspeak, Advice Animals, Scumbag Steve).

The great thing about this book is its accessibility: McCulloch has written Because internet for a general audience, so even linguistics novices can enjoy it. They may even become inspired to explore linguistics further. 

Readers who are familiar with linguistics will appreciate the deep linguistic history and research discussion. Those who want to explore further will appreciate the near-40 pages of notes at the end, where McCulloch lists all her sources, broken down by page number and chapter. 

At the very least, reading this book will make you a bit more conscious of why you’re using a smiley face or ‘lol’ in your next Facebook message.

[Photo credit: Helen McConnell]
Andrew Pelechaty is the Web Content Editor for
Nothing But League, and a beta reader.

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