Need a cyber dictionary? Welcome to Grammar 2.0

“Can a dog be twins?” So reads the meme, a tweet composed by the nameless heroine, five words that soon go viral. Global. “The post had recently reached the stage of penetration where teens posted the cry-face emoji at her. They were in high school. They were going to remember ‘Can a dog be twins?’ instead of the date of The Treaty of Versailles, which, let’s face it, she didn’t know either.”

Some of the new emojis available. Credit:Unicode Consortium

The heroine hails from Patricia Lockwood’s novel, No One Is Talking About This (Bloomsbury Circus, 2021). A maverick mosaic, the book shadows our vaunted ‘poster girl’ through real life and ‘portal’ life, from bedroom to chatroom, all distinctions blurring into a single on-life of likers and followers.

Lockwood, an American poet, has a rare gift for phrasing. Cancel culture gains real lustre in her hands: “Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, towards a new person to hate.”

Likewise, the gnaw of web addiction: “this metastasis of the word next, the word more.”

Her humour is equally wild. Take the emoji-blindness of her mother, who sends recipe texts that read like porn. The daughter has to pounce. “NEVER SEND ME THE EGGPLANT AGAIN MOM, she texted. I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU’RE COOKING FOR DINNER!”

Any book dealing with the net is about communication. More than Beowulf or the telephone, the web is reshaping English. Gretchen McCulloch, a Montreal linguist and author of Because Internet (Riverhead, 2019), attributes the impact to “weak ties”, where a tribe’s cohort of adjacent outsiders relay new grammar to distant platforms.

That’s the net, in a nutshell. Each post we send, each quip we share, is a raindrop striking the big pond’s surface, dimpling and radiating from my space to yours. At one point in Lockwood’s novel, the heroine is feted at a literary festival, thanks to her “doggerel”. She shares a panel debating which is funnier: sneezing or sneazing.

Tellingly, even in chatrooms, such slang-centred discussions seldom occur, usurped by adoption instead. As Lockwood writes: “Spellings of the word baby that the portal had lately cycled through: babey, babby, bhabie. Middle English had seen similar transformations: babe, babe, babi. Yet in every variation, the meaning shone through, as durable as a soul, wrapped in swaddling clothes.”

Other books, such as Emmy Favilla’s cool e-manual A World Without Whom (Bloomsbury, 2017), wrestle head-on with the new usage. Here is a book that spends 1000 words pondering whether dick-pic is hyphenated, or warrants an additional k in its gerund form. Is it LOL-ed, LOLed, LOLLed, lolled and so on? Welcome to Grammar 2.0.

Not that Lockwood loses sleep arbitrating. Her novel is swift and eagle-eyed, skewing midway as a crisis demands, her web-life capsizing. For readers wanting a more direct analysis of how social media changes us, as well as our language, then try Jia Tolentino’s dazzling essay collection Trick Mirror – Reflections of Self-Delusion (4th Estate, 2019).

Hailed as i-Gen’s Joan Didion, Tolentino considers the ever-presence of the unseen audience, likening the net to a panopticon, where visibility is constant and the self a performative animal. “The web has already built an ecosystem that runs on exploiting attention and monetising the self.”

One false move, the fish will turn. One timely post – be that dog riddle or a sneazing bahbee GIF – and the crowds will come, passing the sneaze onto their own schools, our spelling changing if not the universe. Or in Lockwood’s words: “That’s when everything got a little chihuahua and started starring in its own show.”

davidastle.com; twitter.com/dontattempt

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