Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist, the “Resident Linguist” at WIRED Magazine (Best. Title. Ever!), the co-host of the Lingthusiasm podcast, and the author of the new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, a smart, loving, pun-filled look at the evolution of language in the internet age.
In the interview, we discuss:
- A behind the scenes look at the book writing process and timeline, the trials and tribulations of typesetting emoji, and why creating Because Internet is akin to having quintuplets!
“I cannot recommend writing a book, but I can very much recommend having written a book!”
- How quickly internet language changes and how hard it is to write a book on a moving target (e.g. the rise and fall of Yik Yak, Snapchat, etc.).
- The surprisingly fascinating topic of emoji, the similarities between emoji and gesture, why emoji will never completely replace the spoken or written word, and how they differ from ideophonetic Chinese characters and hieroglyphs.
- Why writing is a technology.
- How to tweet in Cuneiform or Hieroglyphics.
- Gretchen’s language learning tips in a world of resource overwhelm.
- Why Gretchen doesn’t hyphenate “email” or capitalize “internet,” “lol,” etc.
- Why English is not devolving, contrary to popular belief.
- Why Gretchen and I prefer descriptive linguistics over prescriptive linguistics, and why loving languages does not have to entail criticizing the language usage of others.
“There has been an idea for a long time that the way to engage with language is to be the most persnickety about it. And the way that you show you love language is by hating other people’s ways of talking. But the way that you show you love language can just be to like all languages and all the ways of talking. You don’t have to love it by hating it or love it by smothering it to death . . . It’s a lot more fun in terms of a way to live.” —Gretchen McCulloch
“From a linguistic perspective, all varieties [of language] are equally worthy: every language and dialect is just as much a manifestation of the incredible human language ability that is our birthright as a species. You wouldn’t say that some birds aren’t singing right just because they’re lower in the (ahem) pecking order. No more are certain ways of speaking inherently inferior. Could we not put our tremendous computing power (both human and mechanical) to better use than upholding the prejudices of a bunch of aristocrats from the eighteenth century?” —Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet
- The ins and outs of recording the audiobook version of Because Internet.
- Why seemingly random keysmash actually has meaningful patterns and what this says about human communication.
- Gretchen’s thoughts on how studying linguistics has helped her learn foreign languages, but how it’s no substitute for the need to practice communicating.
- Why machine translation cannot (yet) completely replace human translation.
- What’s next for Gretchen.
Concepts, People & Resources Mentioned
- Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language ‒ Gretchen’s new pop linguistics book about internet language)
- The Lingthusiasm Podcast ‒ “A podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. Make your boring commute or chores feel like a lively, nerdy, language-y conversation with real linguists!”
- David Crystal ‒ A British linguist, academic, and author. I recommend starting with his excellent book How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die.
- Emoji (Wikipedia) ‒ Ideograms and smiley faces used in text messaging, social media, web pages, etc. Emoji is borrowed from the Japanese word 絵文字, which literally means “picture character.”
- Emojicon ‒ A conference created to “discuss and celebrate all things emoji.” The event is organized by Emojination, a grassroots community dedicated to democratizing the approval of official emoji.
- Lauren Gawne ‒ Co-host of the Lingthusiasm podcast, a linguist focused on how people speak and gesture, and a David Myers Research Fellow at La Trobe University.
- Lingthusiasm Episode 34: Emoji are Gesture Because Internet ‒ “Emoji make a lot of headlines, but what happens when you actually drill down into the data for how people integrate emoji into our everyday messages? It turns out that how we use emoji has a surprising number of similarities with how we use gesture.”)
- Trevor Noah: Son of Patricia (Netflix) ‒ Daily Show host Trevor Noah explains why there is “nothing more American than tacos,” runaway snakes, camping, racism, and lessons he learned from his mother growing up in apartheid.
- Chinese characters (Wikipedia)
- Egyptian hieroglyphs (Wikipedia)
- Cuneiform (Wikipedia)
- British Museum (Wikipedia)
- The Rosetta Stone (Wikipedia)
- Proto-Germanic (Wikipedia)
- Associated Press Stylebook
- Descriptive linguistics (Wikipedia)
- Prescriptive linguistics (Wikipedia)
- Linguistic bigotry
- The ablative case in Latin (Wikipedia)
- Phonetics (Wikipedia)
- Coronal consonants (Wikipedia)
- “Sun” and “moon” letters in Arabic (Wikipedia)
- Automaticity (Wikipedia)
- Declarative vs procedural memory
- Machine translation (Wikipedia)
- Google Fixes Translate Tool to Correct Gendered Pronouns (The Independent)
- Master Japanese: How to Learn Japanese through Anywhere Immersion