1. INTRODUCTION Undoubtedly the Internet has made a huge impact on our use of language over the last decade and will continue to do so. Our modern society has rapidly adopted the new ways of communication that evolved from email, instant messaging or social networking. As the most familiar and widely used mode of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), email is undoubtedly an influential force in contemporary communication exchange. Due to inexpensive pricing and accessibility, email is replacing both the telephone and the traditional letter as most convenient means of two-person discourse and according to a report that was recently published online by The Radicati Group (2011, online), the number of worldwide email accounts is 3.1 billion in 2011. The increasing level of electronic communicative exchange must necessarily affect the way users of email are interacting with each other which makes it particularly interesting to investigate email messages on a linguistic basis.
The purpose of this paper is to analyse the register and to discuss the linguistic features of several email messages and to see if those features could be used to form a specific email register. As Internet linguistics is a rather new branch of linguistic research the literature usually does not focus only on the language of email messages, but more likely covers the use of language in the Internet as a whole. Therefore, this paper is largely based on selected chapters of a couple of key sources which are particularly relevant. The second section of this paper provides a brief introduction to the theory of register analysis. Section three concisely investigates the question wether email can be seen as writing or speech, based on the used data. In section four an analysis of register of selected content of personal email messages is provided. The paper is then completed by a conclusion in section four. The data that has been used was taken from my own email messages and to limit the situational variation, registers that include interaction with an American friend (Ian) of mine were chosen.
2. THEORY OF REGISTER ANALYSIS According to the linguists Biber and Conrad (2009: 6), a register, in general terms, “is a variety associated with particular situation of use (including particular communicative purposes). The description of a register covers three major components: the situational context, the linguistic features, and the functional relationships between the first two components […].” So we can say that register is a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting, depending on context. The most important question now is, how can we analyse something as unique as a conversation, be it face-to-face or via email, when each conversation is as unique as its participants themselves?
Biber and Conrad (2009: 7, 50) provide a detailed description of how to analyse register in three steps, but in summary we can state that we can analyse register in terms of discourse participants, situational context and topic (i.e. who is speaking to whom, about what, where and why). The problem that we encounter when trying to analyse the register of emails is the difficulty of defining the linguistic identity of them. On the one hand we have a standardized software that provides us with a fixed discourse structure (in terms of header, body of message, and greetings), but on the other hand we are confronted with the difficulty to identify the purpose of email and the language that is most efficient and adequate to achieve that purpose. (Crystal, 2001: 94). Therefore, to get a better understanding of this problem I briefly want to discuss, wether language use in email messages is either more writing or speech based.
3. WRITING VS. SPEECH In the context of email, it is a common belief that the language use is a mix of features of speech and writing. Although text-based online communication is written, it partially resembles oral communication. From personal experience I can say that it sometimes feels like talking even though it is written, and based on the data I have used I can say that at least in some respects it even looks like talking, as some of its linguistic features resemble those of speech.
Sample 1 (sequence of three email messages) Ian: Me: Ian: So, you’re gonna arrive in Vienna at 5? yeah, i’ll then head straight to the venue. are you gonna be there that soon? Yeah, I’ll be around. See ya soon!
Sample 1 shows us that to some extend digital communication is dynamic and improvisational, as ordinary conversation. We can receive instant feedback to our message, if the parties both happen to be logged on (as it was the case in Sample 1). What we can certainly say is, that email conversation can be seen as “enhanced speech,” since, unlike ordinary speech, it leaves traces, and can therefore be re-examined as long as we are logged on, the program is open, and the text is retained in the computer’s memory. We can reread what the other person or we have just written. Among the speech-like features, that I have found in every email, are contractions and slang, as in “How’s things?”, and colloquial expressions such as “See ya!” or “Hope to see you soon!”.
All messages also contain many first and second person pronouns, reflecting high personal involvement. Similarly, we can speak of digital writing as “enhanced writing“, since email messages also have many writing-specific characteristics. Syntactically, sentences may be complex rather than simple or compound, showing evidence of editing and planning. Other writing-linked features are clear sentence boundaries (punctuation), rich and varied vocabulary, elaborate grammatical and lexical cohesion, and so on. (see Sample 2) Sample 2 (abstract of an email) I really appreciate your message. I too felt that the two of us were out on the road for months, not days. Due to this warped perception of time, I believe that this seemingly short adventure was able to effect both of us more than the average 8 day trip. […] After two weeks of debauchery, my mind is functioning very poorly, as I’m sure you can understand. Taking that into consideration, I will finish the message here with a thank you and you’re welcome.
Of course, this brief investigation into the question of wether the language of email is writing or speech based just scratches on the surface of the problem. However, it seems apparent that CMC, and email use in particular, draws from both oral and written forms of communication while retaining a distinct quality unachievable by any other language transaction. To conclude this section we can say that it is better to see Internet language “as writing which has been pulled some way in the direction of speech rather than as speech which has been written down.” (Crystal, 2011: 21).
4. ANALYSIS As we have already seen, “email is a general register, distinctive by the fact that it is sent via computer, from one mail account to another.” (Biber and Conrad, 2009: 178). To investigate the linguistic features, I compiled a mini-corpus of messages sent to me by Ian, an American friend of mine, and fellow musician. The corpus consists of 40 messages, whereby I have selected three emails that show the most significant characteristics. Sample 3 and 4 can be seen as the most common forms of email that I have received, in terms of style, articulation and layout. Sample 5, however, represents an extreme variety and serves as an example for the creative potential within the email register. Sample 3 hey philipp! i’m sorry for the delay but i’ve been in town for a couple days now and i’m still settling in. first, i couldn’t move into my apartment (where my camera cable was) for a week and a half because i was subletting it. then i couldn’t upload the pictures because there was a big storm here that broke our internet router. so cut me some slack…. swalls 😉 please remind me about uploading the pictures after the 1st of may. sorry for the delay, once again… see ya! ian
Sample 3 represents a message which was sent in response to a previous message from me, in which I asked Ian about pictures from a recent Austria tour we have been on together. The time frame for both messages was six days, which explains the apologies at the beginning of the mail. The overall purpose of this message is to explain the delay that has been caused, which is achieved by giving a short summary of the unfortunate events over the last few days. The most significant linguistic feature here is that everything is lowercased. We can assume that this style of writing is intentional, as everything is lowercased, without an exception. Furthermore, the extensive use of first person pronouns and the use of colloquial expressions, such as “cut me some slack” represent a definite conversational tone. Additionally, the use of a nickname (e.g. “swalls”) and emoticons express a close social relationship. Especially emoticons play an rather important role, as CMC lacks facial expressions and gestures “which are so critical in expressing personal opinions and attitudes […]” (Crystal, 2011: 23).
Emoticons were intended to remove attitudinal ambiguity and they supply missing information about non-verbal aspects of communication. Sample 4 Hey! yeah, the 26th is still on! when exactly is your easter break? it would be fun! I have no idea what’ll be going on then, but we can talk about it. how are you? have things calmed down with Julia? I broke up with Susanne two days ago. It’s all up in the air. your friend, ian is also a response, on a mail I sent, in which I asked Ian about a concert and if he would want to go on tour with me in the next easter break. His first sentence, is therefore just a response to my question. In general, sample 4 features mostly the same linguistic characteristics as sample 1, such as the lowercase. However, Ian uses interrogative sentences here, which establish a conversational style. The communicative purpose of this email is to ask and inform each other about a personal situation, so linguistic features include first and second person pronouns and a rather frequent use of lexical verbs, such as talk or calmed down, which are usually more frequently found in conversational discourse. Sample 5 sure ready go. any time. see you on the 26 th then talk when blabla interview. Love. Ian.
Sample 5 represents a response on the question, if he wants to make an interview for a film on a certain date, and it features a very unique style of writing. It may seem like a random collection of words, but in the situational context this chain of words makes sense and gives the recipient all the information that is needed. This style of writing is more likely to be found in text messages, but still it resembles conversational dialogue. This message is also a good example of how length plays a role in emails, as they tend to be quite short, when they are sent to friends. This is, because we can assume much more background knowledge, and therefore the context requires much less explanation. Another linguistic feature in this email is the inattention to or omission of punctuation, which is typical of most informal correspondence and suggests a more fluid, speech-like means of communicating. As Crystal has noted of email, “Punctuation tends to be minimalist in most situations […]. It is an important area, for it is the chief means a language has for bringing writing into direct contact with (the prosody and paralanguage of) speech” (Crystal, 2001: 89).
The suggestion here is that an informal or nonstandard use of punctuation brings text closer to speech by subverting traditional rules of letter composition. The function of punctuation may also be extended to exaggerate emotion or personal expression through excessive repetition of a particular punctuation mark. A general feature of email that can be found in all three samples is, that it still is influenced by traditional letter writing. For example, the pervasive influence of traditional letter writing upon email composition is the tendency to include both a greeting and a farewell signature, each element usually given its own line and separated from the main body message. Though with the sender usually revealed in the “From” header, a farewell signature may seem redundant. Linguist David Crystal (2001: 105), insists that the farewell signature serves two functions that are not found in traditional letter writing. Primarily, he claims that “it acts as a boundary marker, indicating that further scrolling down is unnecessary”.
5. CONCLUSION In the context of email communication the data revealed that the fluidity nature of email communication makes the distinction between written and spoken language rather vague. The interactivity of the messages, especially those in a chain (see Sample 1) influences the style of writing the emails in such a way that the interactants assume that they are ‘involved’ in the exchange of the information as though they are meeting face-to-face. Hence, the choice of language style will be that which is closer to spoken language or conversation. The findings in regard to the register analysis presented above describe common characteristics of email register (e.g. use of lower case, minimal punctuation) and distinctive features of email, such as message openings and closings and message length. However, I think that Email is more a moving linguistic target than a stable system, thereby complicating the problem of constructing a unified register of email. As with other types of language variation, there tends to be a spectrum of registers rather than a discrete set of obviously distinct varieties – there is a countless number of registers we could identify, with no clear boundaries.