Three Languages

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
25 December, 2018
Editorial: 267
Fecha de publicación original: 15 mayo, 2001

Better to prepare for the future than argue about the past

Relationships between the languages we use on the Internet and the cultures they represent are becoming more and more complex. Many societies, including our own, feel that their future as cultural entities and the preservation of the most characteristic features of their identity, depend, to a large extent, on what happens to their languages on the Net and on just how firmly these become established in cyberspace. Despite the vital importance of this issue, there is still very little reliable data available on what is actually happening in this regard. For a start, statistics on language use don’t give us a clear picture of the linguistic map of the Net. Secondly, the latter, as a virtual space, is constantly coming up with new ways of communicating which decisively affect the languages used in this process. In addition, we are, in fact, on the brink of technological changes that will turn everything we have said so far about Net languages on its head.

These were some of the topics under discussion at the X Conference on Sociolinguistics held in Alcoy (Alicante, Spain) on the 11 and 12 May. At the conference, entitled “Global Languages, Local Languages”, a group of experts examined cultural interaction between languages, the possibility of establishing linguistics policies and the ever more invasive impact of the audiovisual within the context of the emerging global space the Net provides. I was asked to talk about languages on the Net, which was, in fact, the subject of’s very first editorial called “The Intelligible Tower of Babel”.

Although many of the predictions made in that article have not yet come to pass, there is no doubt that that we are getting closer and closer to a space of the same characteristics we set out there. The only thing is, that the virtual world where we are capable of negotiating our cultural presence in our own languages has become increasingly more intricate and complex. As predicted, the Net is weaving a unique virtual space that is universally and simultaneously shared by all the languages and cultures that access it. This incredible Babel, a conglomeration so phenomenal that it has no historical precedent, is all set to become a cultural melting pot with the capacity for absorption of a black hole. It is not going to be at all easy to adapt to this new set of circumstances –new because it is a new environment, because of the time-speed involved, and also the extent of its interactions– and, at the same time, clearly distinguish where the evolutionary advantages for each of our cultures lies thus making it possible to sustain them in this maelstrom of encounters.

As a result, figures on language-use based on purely quantitative analyses are obviously inadequate. They don’t tell us much about the demographic structure of the Net, the role of English (as a language of substitution or exchange), about the “translation effect” and, above all, what goes on in those parts of the Net which are getting harder and harder to measure, such as e-mail, electronic distribution lists, forums etc., where according to some figures, not easily corroborated, 70% of all the information circulating on the Internet is to be found. Drawing up linguistic maps –let alone cultural ones– based on the number of webs in one language or the other is of very little real value unless accompanied by an analysis of a much wider range of variables.

So, what are the languages of the Net? For a start, there are three. First and foremost there is “the unique language”. It is without doubt the predominant language in the world today, the most important of them all: the one made up of zeroes and ones, the digital language of chips. This is the language that without us seeing or knowing it, without writing or speaking it, we all use one way or another. It is the language that allows us to demarcate, among other things, virtual space, cyberspace and its content. Thanks to this language we are able to cohabit in the virtual space created by networks of interconnected chips. We meet, introduce ourselves, interact, express our ideas and create communication flows which in turn transmit, negotiate and convert them into information and knowledge. Moreover, manipulating this language determines to a large extent the way we use our own languages (oral, written or audiovisual, either together or separately, etc.) and via exchange imbue each of them with a particular value. The impact of this digital language is clearly illustrated in the joke about the the two dogs sitting in front of a computer connected to the Internet. One dog says to the other, “The great thing about the Internet is that nobody knows you’re a dog”. That is exactly it, we are all just zeroes and ones and if we want to relate to one another we have to use zeroes and ones.

Fortunately, engineers have made it possible for us to express ourselves in our own particular languages. This is where the second most important language comes in, English, the “global language”. The pre-eminence of English on the Net is due, in part, to the fact that the Internet originated and grew in the US for almost three decades, and partly because it is being used more and more as a “lengua franca” all over the world. In this sense, English is as much the language of the Anglo-Saxon world as the language of Swedes, Nigerians, Latin Americans, the Chinese or Spaniards.

This is why this second language is the fuel that drives the “translation effect”, in other words, the constant increase in the volume of information on the Net appearing in its original language as well as the language of common exchange, namely English. This is also the reason why it is a global language with certain intrinsic limitations, as it depends on the bilingualism of non-English speaking societies to consolidate its position on the Net. It seems likely that, as these non-English speaking populations on the Internet increase on the one hand, and as simultaneous translation systems of some kind develop on the other (either oral, written or both), the third language, the “local language”, will take on greater importance. Although their importance will depend on the cultural circumstances of each of these local languages and the way they are used on the Net.

The way I see it, this is the context within which we can begin to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of languages on the Net, as well as their projection on the basis of, above all, the way they express different cultures and the exchange this allows. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the “one and only language” could have a devastating effect on the real possibilities of local languages to operate in virtual space, in global space. As we will explain in the next two editorials, cutting edge research into the Internet points to the introduction of the “semantic web” or “intelligent web” and this will have a direct bearing on languages used on the Net, particularly local languages and, consequently, on what we have considered to be the relationship between culture and language up until now.

Translation: Bridget King