Book Week 2019: Gretchen McCulloch's Because Internet

Welcome to the final review post of Book Week 2019. In the intro to Book Week 2019, I explain what I'm doing. The 'week' has turned out to be eight days. If you're perturbed about that, I'm happy to offer you a full refund on your subscription fees for this blog.

On with the show. Today's book is:

Because Internet

Understanding the new rules of language (US subtitle)
Understanding how language is changing (UK subtitle)

by Gretchen McCulloch
Riverhead, 2019 (N America)
Harvill Secker, 2019 (UK)

Gretchen McCulloch describes herself as an internet linguist: writing about internet language for people on the internet. She actually does a lot more than that, with daily blogging at All Things Linguistic for years and being one half of the Lingthusiasm podcast team and writing on all sorts of linguistic themes for all sorts of publications. So, I expect many readers of this blog will already know her and have heard about this book. 

US Cover
I expected Because Internet to be good, knowing Gretchen's work, but I also probably (in my grumpy, middle-aged, oh-do-we-have-to-talk-about-emojis-again? way) expected it to be faddish. There have been too many just-plain-bad, (orig. AmE) jumping-on-the-bandwagon books about emojis, and I've got(ten) a bit sour on the topic. 

This book is so much more than I expected it to be. 

I should have known better. Having read and heard much of her work, I should have expected that this would be a truly sophisticated approach to language and to general-audience linguistics writing. So far in Book Week 2019, I've recommended the books as gifts for A-level students/teachers, science lovers, and language curmudgeons. This book is good for all those groups and more. 

UK cover
The key is in the subtitle(s).* This is not just a book about emojis and autocomplete (and, actually, autocomplete isn't even in the index). This is a book about the relationship between speech and writing and how that's changed with technology. It seamlessly introduces theories of why language changes, how change spreads and how communication works in a time when the potential for change is high and the potential for changes to spread is unprecedented. 

That seamless introduction of linguistic concepts is the reason I've started this book from the beginning and not skipped around (unlike for other books in Book Week—where the rule is that I don't have to read the whole book before I start writing about it). In most books about language for non-linguists, I'm able to skim or skip the bit where they talk about the basics of how language works and the classic studies on the topic and the ideas springing from them. McCulloch covers those issues and those studies (the Labovs, the Milroys, the Eckerts), but since this is intertwined with looking at how language is changing in the 21st century—because (of the) internet—it was worth my while to read straight through. The great thing about the language of the internet is: even when it looks really different from non-internet language, it's still illustrating general principles about how language, communication, and society work. But it also shows how society is changing because of technology, particularly in changing who we are likely to interact with or hear from, In the process, it gives a history of the internet that's enlightening even for those of us who've lived through it all. (I've just flipped open to a section about  PLATO at the University of Illinois. One of my student jobs was working in a PLATO lab, playing Bugs-n-Drugs [aka Medcenter] while signing people in and out. That game was not good for my hypochondria, but I have awfully fond memories of PLATO.)

Another thing to appreciate about McCulloch's book is how unreactionary it is. She doesn't set up her discussion as "You've heard people say these stupid things about the internet, but here's the TRUTH." (A style of writing that I can be very, very guilty of.) She mostly just makes her case gracefully, based on what the language is doing, rather than reacting to what other people say the language is doing. Rather than 'This, that and the other person say emoji are a new language, but they're not', she just gets on with explaining how emoji fulfil(l) our communicative need to gesture. It's a positive approach that academic linguists will have had trained out of them by the requirements of academic publishing.

This is a bit of a nerdview 'review'. Usually reviews tell you some fun facts from the book they're reviewing, whereas I'm telling you what I've noticed about its information structure. That's because that's what I really look for in books as I prepare to write a new one. In terms of information, in this book you'll learn, among other things:
  • which "internet generation" you belong to and how your language is likely to be different from other generations'.
  • what punctuation communicates in texting/chat and how that differs from formal writing
  • how language change can be traced through studying strong and weak social links and geographic tagging on Twitter
Inevitably, the book is mainly about English, in no small part because English rules the internet. But it does make its way to other languages and cultures—for instance, how Arabic chat users adapted their spelling to the roman alphabet and how emojis are interpreted differently around the world.  In the end, she briefly considers whether space is being made for other languages on the internet.

It's a galloping read and you'll learn all sorts of things.

So, on that happy review, I declare Book Week 2019 FINISHED.

* I love the transatlantic change in subtitles, since it completely illustrates the point of chapter 8 of The Prodigal Tongue: that Americans like to talk about language in terms of rules, and Britons in terms of history/tradition. I've also written a shorter piece about my personal experience of it for Zócalo Public Square.


  1. Jumping on the bandwagon may be originally AmE, but to my AmE ears, the adjectival form "jumping-on-the-bandwagon" sounds completely forgeign.

    1. I was referring to the original form, really, without which we would not have the adjectival Lynneism.

  2. I have had this on my wish list since my friend Sian (who's a translator) read and enjoyed it, and this just cements the fact that if it's not in my Christmas and birthday incomings, it's going to be top of the book token buying list. Thank you for sharing all these wonderful books!


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)