Broken Syntax in Cyberspace: The Future of Language?

I’ve been studying the broken syntax strewn around cyberspace seemingly like litter, and I’ve decided against my instincts as an editor that it’s not litter at all but an evolving language foreshadowed in the work of James Joyce.

When referring to Joyce it’s commonly called stream of consciousness, and I believe there is some justification for so calling this emerging syntax, but I think what is coming into focus is a major overhaul of the alphabet and the way we deploy it.

Our print conventions derive from the printing press and movable type. The left-hand margin, for example. Or the way words are arranged on a page. Over time, conventions have arisen, standardization has set in. We capitalize first letters of sentences, names, etc. We end sentences with periods or question marks or exclamation marks. None of this was originally cast in concrete. It evolved. Typeface affects our cognition. A word does not look the same in Helvetica as it looks in Garamond. Margins and other design considerations also directly impact the way we sense the meaning of words. And all this is changing in cyberspace. The hullabaloo about the iPad and other reading devices is not just about technological advances, it’s about sentience, the evolution of human sensibility.

We could, for example, capitalize a consonant in the middle of a word for emphasis or because visually it would create a kind of caesura, or for a number of other reasons. We could dispense with capitalization, as foreshadowed by the poetry of e e cummings, or we could abandon punctuation as foreshadowed by the poet W.S. Merwin. Lines of words could move from left to right and then right to left, as in Arabic or Hebrew, or top to bottom as in most Asian languages. Words and letters could blink, nod out and reappear elsewhere. We’ve hardly begun to explore the possibilities of hypertext or color. I can readily visualize poetics employing color and type that reshapes itself under the reader’s nose. Therefore I can visualize the reader as onlooker. And the collaboration of artist and writer in cyber-space seems almost limitless to me. Sometimes when I study cybertext I feel as if I’m in a planetarium or at the console of spaceship.

Humans have barely touched on the differences between a society that reads up and down and right to left and left to right. Few of us sense that a society that reads left to right in stolid Gothic letters might perceive things very differently from a society that reads right to left in fleet Kufic letters. And a society that pours diacriticals into an alembic of consonants, as in Hebrew or Arabic, might differ significantly in the way it perceives things from a society that puts accents over vowels. These far from trivial considerations are all being called into play as we give up deforestation and movable type for electronic ink in cyberspace. We differ not only in what we read but in how what we read looks.

We could forgo the familiar he said/she said form of attribution that denotes who is speaking, as in the fiction of William Gaddis and Jose Saramago. That too foreshadows the possibilities opening under our noses in communications. Gaddis and Saramago see certain conventions as impediments to the flow of language and meaning, whereas others see these conventions as commandments. The writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine thought nothing of planting forests of exclamation marks in his work, but today that might be seen as an affectation, a thought either being inherently exclamatory or not.

There are quickening, mercurial aspects to all the emergent devices in contemporary e-communications, such as e-mail, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, but we could also say these new modes of communication are characterized by a slovenliness that sometimes resembles the maundering of drunks or the strivings of quasi-literates. Perhaps I am overly optimistic to think the current food fight that texting has become will somehow become elegant and refined. Perhaps it will become ever more chaotic and contemptuous of precision, like louts chucking fast-food litter from pickup trucks. But I take the modernism of Gaddis and Saramago to suggest that excellence and assiduousness will prevail in some quarters just as it has always prevailed in the world of movable type.

Cummings, Merwin, Gaddis and Saramago all abandon conventional punctuation to advance the reader more fluidly through cross-currents of ideas and images. They enable the reader to swim rather than hack his way through the bramble. This is the antithesis of laziness, even though it’s obvious that the abandonment of punctuation and correct spelling in most texting is rooted in laxity. I certainly wouldn’t assert that modern texters are emulating these writers, but what they’re doing is rooted in the same desire to remove impediments.

It’s in the eye of the beholder. Where the human race is concerned I am a Pollyanna simply because the alternative may be so readily seen in every play yard and bar room in the land.

So far web software and hardware are heavily influenced by the conventions of print technology. Many writers have observed that the book is well-nigh perfect. I have no reason to contest that view, but I think in time design in cyberspace will depart from the conventions of movable type and linguistics and semiotics will change with it.

I think of this as I reflect on what the transition from Roman to Arabic numerals must have been like. It must have felt hair-raising, as if a world were being abandoned. And yet the reasons for making the transition were similar to our reasons now for adapting language to faster means than movable type. Arabic numerals are more agile, more amenable to rapid calculation and higher mathematics. Indeed they made higher mathematics possible.

Something like this may be happening in cyberspace. True, I wince when I see such hackneyed devices as LOL, ROTF, TTYL, and BTW, but this is the restless dawn of a new age, and I believe such cliches will give way in time to more sophisticated cyphers.

Do I see a breakdown in language? Yes, I find much texting both exhibitionistic and inane, much as children show off and test their independence, trying to find themselves. As they mature, one hopes, they begin to value restraint and refinement. If not, they remain uncouth. I even see strains of passive aggression in much cyber communication. But I hope it will acquire couth and reserve. I hope in fact that the culture will imbue itself with the underlying knowledge that silence is the matrix into which language is poured.

So, while I protect my eyes from time to time against the awful glare of quasi-literacy and vulgar showing off, against the pervasive childishness of web communication, I harbor hope for a fleeter language in the same way that Arabic numerals are fleeter than their Roman predecessors.

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller’s Room, in 1999.

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

Del’s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize:

His blog:

His mother’s art:

His aunt’s art: