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Captured after David Crystal @ BLC 10/23: A cardboard text message

Written By: daveski on October 27, 2009 5 Comments

In his 2001 book, Mediated Discourse: The Nexus of Practice, Ron Scollon began an exposition of discourse as action in the same way he began numerous presentations and, no doubt, other conversations with scholars, students and friends: with a cup of coffee. But this was no un-ordinary cup of coffee; he discussed what was, in fact, a very ordinary, actual paper cup from Starbucks–green logo, plastic lid, cardboard sleeve and the whole bit.

I remember the scene clearly from his keynote speech at the 2004 American Association of Applied Linguistics conference in Portland, Oregon: the very paper cup that he held in his hand, like he wrote in Mediated Discourse, was “an impressive semiotic complex of at least seven different Discourses”. In its materiality, the cup served as a sort of real-world guarantee for language, grounding the immaterial and reproducible expression “have a cup of coffee” in the steaming hot, portable, smooth, disposable containers so much a part of the lives of Starbucks and other coffeshop patrons. And now, 5 1/2 years later, that cup lives on, a tangible node for discursive movements offline, on and then off again; then, now and before; here, there, and in places beyond.

In his October 23, 2009 presentation at the Berkeley Language Center, “From Texting to Tweeting: The Brave New World of Internet Linguistics”, David Crystal argued that the “moral panic” about the pernicious effect of SMS messaging and other internet technologies on English and other languages was unfounded. The recent advent of the Internet, like the emergence thousands of years ago of the ‘technologies’ of speech and writing, he said, represents a revolution in language that is also a natural evolution, considering the mediatized circumstances of our times.

So far, so good, I suppose, but here’s where I started to get tripped up: according to Crystal, while the outcome of this ‘revolution’ of “OMGs”, “txts”, and “LOLs” is yet to be seen, the internet represents a medium of language that behaves according to fundamentally different principles than speech (which relies on feedback) and writing (which, in essence, does not change).

At this point, for some strange reason, my hand reached out and grabbed the empty latte cup sitting by my side (not Starbucks, but then what difference does it make, right?). Unable to find the stable 8 1/2″ x 11″ note pad that I had been using up to that point, words started to pour from my pen onto the cup’s cylindrical surface, wrapping around the bottom, turning upside down, running over the edge, intersecting, jumping into speech bubbles and, in general, doing things that written words just shouldn’t do.

Does language on the internet behave by fundamentally different conventions than it does when written or spoken offline? Are hyperlinks obligatory? Is there no simultaneous feedback in online conversations, as there is in offline speech? Does writing offline not move and change? Should we not be thinking about language in terms of what people can do with language, what language does in the world–processes of mediation and action–as well as whatever it is that language is?

And … what if the internet were a medium not for language, but for cups?


Thanks to the hand models and photographers at the lecture’s reception, as well as to David Crystal for a thought-provoking and entertaining talk!

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5 Responses to “Captured after David Crystal @ BLC 10/23: A cardboard text message”

  1. Victoria K. Williams on: 27 October 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Leo van Lier at MIIS wasn’t able to attend the lecture and was counting on having a digital audio recording that could be shared with students there. As you may have noticed, David Crystal doesn’t not permit his lectures to be recorded. What I propose is this: that as many as will pool our “take aways” from the lecture and pass them on to Leo. What do you think?

  2. daveski on: 27 October 2009 at 4:37 pm

    That sounds fabulous! I’d love to read or hear some other folks’ take-aways too.

  3. David Crystal on: 27 October 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Just a quick correction to Victoria. It isn’t that I don’t permit my lectures to be recorded. The point is that this lecture – or, at least, a version of it (because no two presentations are ever the same) – is already recorded and publicly available on DVD with an accompanying book commentary, along with two other lectures. You’ll find the details at http://www.routledge.com/9780415484909. Much as I’d like to be able to say ‘record away’ every time I give the talk, there’s a contract which says I mustn’t.

    Victoria K. Williams Reply:

    I stand corrected, David! Thank you for telling us about the package available from Routledge; I’m sure Leo and others will be gratified to know about it.

    Let me say again that it was a real pleasure to meet you and to hear you speak. You rock!

  4. Claire Kramsch on: 28 October 2009 at 9:50 am

    Hi Dave,
    Your posting really says it all – with eloquence, elegance, gusto and a boldness of thought that transcends linguists’fascination with acronyms, fancy spellings, and other purely linguistic features of the Internet. It’s a shame David Crystal didn’t have the time to get into blogs – their potential for poetic creativity, paper cups and clippings, and for seeing whole worlds in a bean of coffee. I love the juxtaposition of Scollon and Crystal. I personally drown in cups of coffee if I can’t see the coffee plantation and the black gold trade for the cardboard cup. So: thank you for writing this. I happen to be writing an introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Applied Linguistics that I am guest editing on the work of Ron Scollon. You have added water (or coffee?) to my mill.

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