Resisting Cyber-English

Document Actions
English must be practiced as an open field rather than a linguistic prisonhouse where involuntary anglophones do hard time behind the steel bars of alien grammar.
Joe Lockard

Issue #24, February 1996

The English language has been the linear tongue of colonial discoveries, racial cruelties, invented names, simulated tribal cultures, and the unheard literature of dominance in tribal cultures; at the same time, this mother tongue of paracolonialism has been a language of liberation for many tribal people.
— Gerald Vizenor

This essay is not entitled "Anti-English," as a few antagonistic essays have been. Rather, I argue that English must be practiced as an open field rather than a linguistic prisonhouse where involuntary anglophones do hard time behind the steel bars of alien grammar. English is a home, and English teachers like myself are not language prison guards. In practice, though, English is not home for increasing millions of cyber-citizens or cyber-wannabes who cannot access the nets easily or at all because their languages are not the net's primary operating language.

Cyber-english has arrived.

Cyber-english, the language of the nets, demands a common comprehension where no similar communicative need existed before. Born in the primitive command-and-control Arpanet and its Pentagonese argot, cyber-english emerged from the nuke-hardened military cellars and now projects American world power overtly. Other world englishes, the more modest englishes of orality and textuality, function as subsumed and minor epistemologies, as necessary preparations for cyber-english. English is local; cyber-english is global.

A superdominant english specifically intrinsic to a computer-mediated technology base, cyber-english has rapidly come to serve as a transmission belt for 'free market' ideologies. Free expression and free exchange, in one view, inevitably will be furthered by common linguistic understanding. In The Search for the Perfect Language, Umberto Eco points out that this consociation of commercial advantage and free expression with the English language has been current since at least the seventeenth century, arguably the most profoundly imperial century in European history.

The colonial pursuit of geopolitical rationalization has historically relied on over-languages to endorse a politics of subordination. Cyber-english, the first world English without a territorial base, has reformulated classic notions of universal imperial benefit. Viewed as a stage in this historiographic continuum, cyber-english is the latest extension of a centuries-long drive towards extinction of small tribal languages and consolidated expansion for a few languages of power.

One blunt conclusion arrives quickly: cyber-english has declared global language/class war. Learn it or else. Speak so 'we' understand you, or take a hike and be damned. Meaningful net participation requires both advanced semiotic manipulation and substantial economic wherewithal, joint and mutually reinforcing capacities that delineate and inform the concept of 'language/class.' This term specifies the intersection that creates what Edward Kamau Braithwaite calls "nation language," or the Caribbean and other englishes that are not standard imported English, but "that of the submerged, surrealist sense and sensibility."

In terms of social hierarchy, language/class describes the class divisions that separate standardized international elites from a yet-to-be-acculturated bourgeoisie and the technologically unassimilable masses. In terms of language hierarchy, language/class separates those whose online syntax and vocabulary fully embody metropolitan norms from those whose cyber-english remains more limited. And in terms of transglobal class architecture, language/class is coming to represent the delineation between textual nation languages and supra-national cyber languages, a class division where advantage steadily accrues to those with a widely-employed cyber language.

Under such a language/class regime, monopoly English online is no prettier and far more harmful than offline US English legislative initiatives. It is more pernicious because it globalizes relationships of domination and subordination between cyber and non-cyber languages, paralleling the New World Order's production hierarchies. After access capital, the net's overwhelming reliance on the English language constitutes its greatest barrier to electronic participation. This fairly obvious truism regarding the mismatch between the net's lingua franca and the overwhemingly non-anglophone world has been so widely overlooked as to become a comment in its own right on a willful mass blindness that characterizes cyber-english culture. After all, we speak English, so what's the big problem here?

Rationales for cyber-english monopolization generally proceed from what might be called the 'airline pilot argument.' That is, for the purposes of well-functioning and safe airspace, English has been designated as the international aviation language: French pilots land in Madrid using English, even though they may know Spanish well. The same argument extends to various professions, like neurosurgeons or travel agents, who need a common language either to communicate in scientific terms or serve extraordinarily diverse clienteles. This argument is entirely sane within reasonable parameters. The vast bulk of the world population, however, does not fit the communicative specifications of the 'airline pilot argument': they need and deserve domestic same-language communications on their own terms, for their own purposes.

Unfortunately, cyberspace and electronic text theory simply do not question or challenge the primacy of English in cyberspace. Where issues of language and access have been discussed, the prevailing assumption has been that ever-accelerating technological dispersion and software development would adapt computers to an expanding array of languages. This diffusion model of electronic development skews as heavily towards maintenance of the geopolitical status quo as do traditional economic development programs based on the same hand-me-down principles. English remains as irreplaceably central and monopolistic in electronic development today as it did fifty years ago when the first computer builders started their project in West Philadelphia. Anyone who has watched the weirdly funny sight of a high-speed printer belting out a semitic text the wrong way, from left to right, knows whose language code is running the show.

At the level of base production, the Internet's development has facilitated a speed-up in the commodification of English itself, shaping the language as a product that can be sped across international borders as customs-free bits. English text production processes are now being farmed out to keyboarding sweatshops in India and other English-speaking low-income locations. Caribbean women are keyboarding English text for pennies on the hour. We are in the midst of emerging regimes of low-value-added and high-value-added Englishes, where the production of English textuality is shifting to cheap labor economies while higher-paid Euro-American labor undertakes information design and reformatting. The global economics of English commodification recapitulate the classically imperialistic lines of production at the periphery and refinement at the metropole.

Negligible global transmission time sustains this production-consumption alignment. Online advertising that invites scientists with poor English to e-mail their scientific manuscripts for editing, promising to make the writer's manuscript "indistinguishable from that of a native English speaker," signals the emergence of the nets as a post-Fordist language production line. This represents a major change from international English production of the 1970s and '80s when, for example, specialty medical journals from the Netherlands or UN reports from Geneva relied on formatted diskettes sent air express to Singapore or Korea for cheap printing and distribution. Today the Internet obviates intermediate physicality and transfer to low-cost or appropriate production sites can be made direct. English, after all, is no different from any other information commodity that can be reduced to bits for global transfer.

English commodification on the nets involves not only such stratified language production regimes, but relies equally upon dialogic capacity. That is, a learned cyber-english semiotic ability denominates surplus value. An Indian woman who keyboards English texts has a severely limited role in cyber-english commodification because she cannot participate further in its production or interrogate its social purposes. The value of her Indian English lies in monologism, while surplus value attaches to an unavailable dialogism.

This dialogic freeze-out upon which cyber-english has been constructed differentiates cybericity from previous global forms of English production and mass consumption. Talkie-era Hollywood films, even as they were screened for colonial eyes in outdoor Phillipine theaters where the audience sat on logs, promised an opportunity to participate in American materialism if those English lessons were learned. Computer technology, whose economics rely on expensive capitalizations rather than inexpensive film tickets, has expanded the space of anglophone monologism by presuming a fascination with English online textuality instead of English-language entertainment. Cybericity and cyber-english limit dialogism to those high-end westernized consumers who can speak from within a technological paradigm that demands lexical participation. From this perspective, then, surplus dialogism in cyber-english can be described more succinctly as the domain of command and control.

Anglophone Triumphalism

Last month, when I was in Central Asia, the President of Kyrgyzstan told me his eight-year-old son came to him and said, "Father, I have to learn English." "But why?" President Akayev asked. "Because, father, the computer speaks English."
Vice President Al Gore

Cyber-english complexly manifests attributes of language, agency, product and ideological transmission belt. An ideology of anglophone triumphalism arrives together with this language commodification. The ideology has deep historical roots entwined about diverse origins, from Macauley's 1835 minute on Indian education that advocated civilizational English over vernacular culture, to preposterous assertions of linguistic manifest destiny based upon superior adverbial constructions.

Overcome with Anglo-American fraternalism while traveling in America in 1859, the English traveler Charles Mackay penned "In the English language only can the great thoughts with which the heart of the world is heaving be fully expressed; and those searching inquiries into all subjects of human thought and speculation — political, philosophical, and theological — which signalize our time, be carried on to any available purpose." If this sort of anglophone triumphalism sounds unfashionably dated in its styled phrases, little separates these Victorian sentiments from the exulting tones of Vice President Gore's report on the indispensibility of English in central Asia. Language triumphalism asserts an immanent, self-evident civilizational necessity (e.g. government, technology) for its conquests, rather than question what 'beneficiaries' lose or possible mutual accomodations.

To study and learn English beneath this new twenty-first century regime of cultural coercion is to be viciously missionized by imperial ghosts. Diverse discourses and their varied human perspectives are being forced into the confines of limited individual Englishes, where quasi-anglicized subjects have been compelled to accept quasi-expression as the condition for having even minimal online expression.

It's fairly common to watch non-native English speakers struggling to function in Usenet lists with limited English skills. Their sentences tend to be short, their syntax and punctuation poor. On occasion I have watched — and objected — as other list participants insulted their correspondents' English along with their opinions. Aside from their rude impoliteness, these occasions instantiate an inherent language power hierocracy. Most list discussants, particularly monolingual ones with a sense of the world's linguistic breadth, recognize the illiberality of these moments.

Yet we all function in a technological environment where a fully intelligible and idiomatic command of standard English has emerged as the authorization for a global opinion, an expression transmissible and comprehensible throughout the nets. We understand fractured English as linguistic inadequacy and assume that non-native speakers want better English, even that list participation is a form of language learning and self-improvement. Since English has so often been conceived as an imperial cement, however, might we also understand syntactically rearranged cyber-english as a counter-hegemonic gesture? This was the response of an Italian fellow after his English was insulted online:

I am sorry with purists but cultural domination of a language has always determinated in non-native or culturally dominated a development, maybe unconsciosly of riot, towards a strong contamination. In USA this is clear in blacks' slung and lationos like it happens for maya indigenous in Mexico, irish in Ireland, Catalanouse in Spain and others. I personally don't love english like don't love italian prefering usually talk in neapolitan.

My first reaction was to smile at the thought that they haven't built the computer fast enough to handle speed-of-light Neapolitan, but it might be more interpretively appropriate to remember Kamau Braithwaite's description of nation language: "It may be in English: but often it is in an English which is like a howl, or a shout or a machine-gun or the wind or a wave.......sometimes it is English and African at the same time." This passage of cyber-neapolitan in English does not wait for the authorizations of proper syntax; it asserts an expressive immanence that relies on a power within its originating language rather than conforming to net language norms. The speaker controls his cyber-english well, even though he speaks English poorly.

This sort of counter-hegemonic syntax on the nets is sufficiently unusual to attract notice, for it is medium-to-small language non-anglophones who are the permanent clueless newbies of the Internet, capable of functioning — if at all — only within the limited cyber-domain of their language. 'Clueless newbies' is an unkindly patronizing piece of net jargon, but one that appropriately echoes an originating imperialistic technological culture. Like Arawaks on a cyber-beach watching their world change, the first thing clueless newbies have to learn is net language. For anglophone users, that's as easy as their typing skills allow. It's estimated that over eighty percent of global net messages and data content are in English, as opposed to slightly more than a tenth of the global population that speaks English, including both primary and secondary-language speakers.


Despite the fantastic growth since World War II in international English and English studies at the primary and secondary level, however, the rate of English-speaking in the global population is actually declining. Instead, languages like Spanish, Chinese, and Indonesian are experiencing boom growth.

'Small' Cyber-Languages

The nets have become increasingly diverse in their languages, particularly since the introduction of Netscape's non-English web browsers. Consumer eagerness for and responsiveness to language options was evidenced in 1995 when Netscape releases began supporting Chinese and Japanese: Asian nets started expanding exponentially. There's now Chinese netsurfing on Taiwanese servers; solid numbers of Spanish, German and French discussion lists; Italian anti-nuclear campaigning at Cittá Invisibile; a well-ordered Dutch political pub; an electronic library of Vietnamese books; Papago poetry slams; and even Pig Latin search engines to find it all.

The few 'small' languages that have prospered on the nets are those with a long textual history, a dedicated corps of technically-skilled speakers, and backup access to a major language. One of the small languages that appears to be doing quite well on the Internet is Gaelic, which is being advanced by the tiny Sabhal Mor Ostaig (Scottish Gaelic College) on the Island of Skye, where one can take online Gaelic classes with barely a concession to English in sight. The BBC's Scottish Service runs one of the flashiest Gaelic websites, but even this de-anglicizing institutional gesture emphasizes a generative background of English-language privilege. Another language that fits this model of net adaptability is Yiddish, where one can visit a 'virtual shtetl' (a romanticized, deterritorialized oxymoron if one was ever invented) replete with a synagogue, library and an online kitchen with virtual cholent. Similar online Chinatowns and Little Saigons repeat this communitarian trope to frame their cyber-language protections. The electronic meta-organization of small languages can be found at the Less Commonly Taught Languages gopher, a site whose sheltering aspect emphasizes an all-pervasive English online environment in which small-language e-sites band together to project a greater presence.

The growth of an other-than-English presence does not change the basic picture of the nets as an English-driven and dominated fields of language practice. Rather, where monopoly English cannot prevail, an half-English bilingualism predominates. When netstar personality Reiko Chiba holds global court she performs in English, though she invites her admirers to take the unlikely step of importing a Japanese browser to see the native side of her site. English dominates in this bifurcated scheme, a code-switching model that renders her cyberpunk site structurally identical to the gray, staid website of the Japanese prime minister that makes available extensive sets of economic policy documents in English with the Japanese versions as authenticating originals. The welcoming face to the world is cyber-english, while Japanese netserver screens can be accessed as a native second choice.

English-language politics at political party websites are particularly interesting inasmuch as they must confront a direct choice between their power base in a local audience and the prominence offered by cyber-english. Northern European left-wing political party websites in Sweden, Norway, and Finland have built homepages in their own languages directed almost entirely towards domestic net users. Another model of language politics relies on foreign language cybericity to shape and project its message. The majority of Zapatista communiques, the voice of an insurgency celebrated for its net savvy, are posted in Spanish, with a minority available in English translation. Although these cyber-communiques are inaccessible to their Chiapas constituency, they are almost as inaccessible in the Mexican newspapers where they first appear inasmuch as most Zapatistas are not native Spanish-speakers. Rather, cyber-spanish and cyber-english divide the work of conveying the latest statements to hemispheric and international sympathizers.

Western European languages have the technological advantage of basically latin alphabets that permit such options, whereas Aristera, a left-wing Greek online political journal, publishes in English and 'Gringlish,' an informally latinized Greek for Greek-speaking net users. While in this region of the nets, visit the Western Thrace discussion list where nationalist Gringlish posts bump up against militant Turkish posts and English is reserved for incessant flame wars between the two sides. One of the continuing threads over the past several months has been the substitution of mandatory English for Turkish-language classes in Macedonia's Islamic minority schools, with Greeks defending the change as modernization and Turks fulminating over state-sponsored de-culturalization. And at the far end of the Mediterranean, the Israeli socialist party Mapam confronted the difficulties of non-existent Semitic webbing (in 1994) with a bitmapped Hebrew-Arabic welcome banner and all-English content.

As lexigraphic remoteness from the latinized world increases, English becomes more prevalent as a necessary language medium. A current countertrend on the World Wide Web has been to introduce downloadable small-language browsers, but use of these tools remains confined to a westernized technical elite, usually emigrés in America or Europe. Thus an exilic cybericity has arisen, a cybericity of American-designed Vietnamese and Amharic/Afaan Oromo web browsers that have not been deployed in their countries of linguistic origin. In the entirely textual portions of the nets, exclusive reliance on latin lexigraphy generates palpable and extreme non-anglophone frustration, as at sites discussing the overwhelming technical problems of Arabic e-mail. Despite such pervasive frustrations, very few people seem to query whether there might be rather fundamental flaws in a system that can generate copious technical support for Old English literature and runic texts, but not the common languages of humankind.

Non-English speakers have remained the permanent clueless newbies of the Internet, a global class of linguistic peasantry who cannot speak technological Latin. The overt language/classism that shapes the US English advocacy of mandatory English has long been an unstated, de facto policy throughout most of the Internet. Moreover, even among ESL net users, quality of English distinguishes between classes of users, their acceptance in net groups, and their ability to participate. Like those obsessed English-only policy enforcers who automatically identify English with Americanness, net culture presumes English as a necessary condition for effective cybericity.

Right-wing social theorist Dinesh D'Souza exemplifies this sort of glib and cyclical neo-imperial argument for monopoly English in his loathsome book, The End of Racism, where he argues "(W)e risk an American Babel, a breakdown of communication, if everyone does not speak a shared language. For reasons of practicality, this language must be English, which is rapidly becoming the global medium of intercultural communication." The impracticality of monolinguism, whether in global nets or American communities, is a more relevant reason for multilingual practices.

English Resistance and Anti-Colonialism

D'Souza's "practicality" is a death sentence for cultural subalterns. Colonial histories and anti-colonial resistances justify many people who have an intense suspicion of the English language. Given the catastrophic effects of English-language legal documents and treaties on Indian life, for example, Seminoles believed that English held such potential for treachery that their tribal taboo against learning to read or write the language lasted well into this century. Anti-English sentiments have been acute, real and internationally widespread since at least the early nineteenth-century, and much earlier in the British Empire's practice-fields of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Ngugi wa Thiongo's well-known abandonment of English in favor of Gikuyu as a gesture of self-decolonisation emblematized the anti-English counter-reaction of anglophone Africa.

English rejectionism hasn't been limited to those under direct imperial administration. It has appeared continually as a protest against undue political or economic influence, as when Egyptian nationalists blew up a British Council-sponsored high school in 1944, or when Peron banned public English teaching and disbanded university English departments during the contested nationalization of British-owned Argentinian railroads in 1947. In its most extreme and xenophobic modern version, language rejectionism reached genocidal heights when the Khmer Rouge routinely executed any Cambodian with even a minimal knowledge of French or English.

The rejection of imperial languages does not simply register in occasional outbursts; it is a feature of everyday life in societies in the midst of prolonged colonial encounters. At this more mundane and less cataclysmic level, English rejection often has nothing to do with any liberatory project; rather, it can become a tool of cultural conservatism, masculinism and political reaction. Druze women teachers whom I taught English literature reported a common social attitude that boys could profitably learn English because they would have contact with the world, while village girls need not bother since they would remain cloistered at home. These Druze teachers valued English as a deliberate counter-rejection, as a quiet tool against women's domestic isolation and male supremicism.

Politically contextualizing English rejection as an expression of patriarchalism and gender oppression does not mean accepting global English as a progressive development; rather, it underlines a need for cross-cultural communication towards empowerment. Sometimes English can serve that need; sometimes it cannot. An English-dominated Internet cannot provide the language selectivity to support non-anglophone empowerment. Or more concretely, without an Arabic-language web browser and plentiful Arab women's e-addresses, how will those same Druze women discuss their problems within a comfortable milieu?

English monopolization cuts deeply into the Internet's potential for social empowerment, as a linguistic prior condition for access ensures that anglophone technology controls the contents of subaltern mouths. Ngugi argues that "a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history." Cyber-english acts as a cultural filter from this perspective, a filter that sifts out cultural particularisms and standardizes expressive experience.

Resistance to cyber-english does not oppose cross-cultural communication: to the contrary, it affirms cultural respect and specificity as necessary conditions for accurate comprehension. Lakota children at the Carlisle Indian School and Welsh schoolchildren during the 1920s who were disciplined for speaking their parents' tongues understood that burning desire to spit out English, to taste the sweetness of familiar words. English, though it came to be spoken and spoken well, emerged through a modernizing DuBoisian double consciousness that remembered the ethnic familiar and that first alien bitterness of English.

The advent of cyber-english comes during a period when ascendent American political forces are demanding that coercive language requirements be instituted forcibly. The past two years have seen three major English-only bills in the House of Representatives alone — the National Language Bill (H.R. 1005), the Declaration of Official Language Bill (H.R. 739, with 94 congressional co-sponsors), and the Language of Government Bill (H.R. 123) — together with a concurrent resolution that with ahistorical sanctimony characterized English as "the language which is not identified with any single culture or ethnicity" in America. The Language of Government bill, which remains in committee at this writing, would repeal the Bilingual Education Act and the bilingual ballot requirements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Congressionally-sponsored monolinguism that disenfranchises Hispanics springs from the same mentality that endorses cyber-english triumphalism.

America prefers a blind insistence on the integrative social neutrality of its English. Massive English rejection percolates into mainstream American consciousness only rarely, as when francophone Quebeçois voters nearly succeeded in dismantling Canada last November to emphasize their demand for cultural autonomy. English resistance appears more regularly in the form of a derogatory news briefs after the ancien regime at the French Academy invents a French neologism for 'diskette,' or an isolated state like Iran promulgates some minor anti-English measure. The anglophone world favors understanding English rejection as a measure of technological backwardness, as national socioeconomic suicide in the face of anglophone-based international market competition. The degree of English-speaking in a non-anglophone country's population serves as a rough measure of its integration into the global capitalist economy, as well as its preparedness for further integration.

A high level of middle-class ESL education reassures international capital that national social investment is being directed into ensuring a technologically competent labor force conditioned to passively accept the demands of capital as economic natural law. Foreign university English departments have been reinvented as entire Faculties of English and the Soros Foundation, promoting an anglophone "open society," has funded extensive ESL programs and all-English business schools in Central Europe in an embrace of this ideological equation. Singapore, that wired and repressive mini-state ruled by Ivy League graduates, supplies perhaps the prime model for such anglophilic mercantile visions.


Yet English supplies a false hope, a hope which believes that even if national unemployment is over 50 percent and wages are depressed through the goddam sidewalk, 'good English will separate me from the crowd, will get me a decent job.' In economies like those of Egypt and India, English has become the demarcation line between middle-class straits and working-class desperation. Parental pressure to enter children into English-language classes and educational frameworks can be crushing. ESL acquisition becomes familial and self-capitalization rather than one means among many for social and self-actualization. Resisting English under these circumstances becomes a form of cultural validation and autonomy, an affirmation of rootedness in local popular culture.

Counter-Hegemonic Software

"............I kept my Larousse and my Leutseligkeit
and I heard that machine translation never happened:
language defeated it. We are a language species."
— "Employment for the Castes in Abeyance," Les Murray

Software means English, and software development radiates from English outwards. Or as Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers, responded incredulously to a query about French software from Francoise Mitterand on a Silicon Valley tour, "Who writes software in French!?" Although software may exist that has been created in another language and translated to English, none of us are likely ever to meet it. Rather, by grace of anglophone birth, we inhabit the comfortable side of Microsoft's hegemonic culture that can advertise "Windows is available in over twenty languages." This virtually unidirectional flow of software from English into other languages announces the language of instruction for the New World Order.

In software development generally, the slow processes of translation and localization have caused major applications to come to market often only years after the English original. Translated anglophone-origin software was obsolete even as it reached non-anglophone users. That internationalization lag is now being addressed by software platforms like Zinc Application Framework that enable multiple-language versions, including non-latin character Asian and Middle Eastern languages, to be published simultaneous with the English version. However, such solutions do little or nothing to address the basic question of language directionality and its inherent power.

In terms of net culture, one solution that may make multilingual discussion lists (and also websites) more accessible to the non-English-speaking majority lies in coupling server software with the increasingly sophisticated new generations of automatic translation software. Thus a user could set a personal language preference option while subscribing and expect to receive Spanish translations of English postings, or write in Spanish and post to other list participants in English. Machine translation, which does not perform as well on complex texts and has concentrated on large European languages for market reasons, is still not yet sufficiently accurate to facilitate this sort of hybrid software. Under controlled conditions using pre-tested texts, current machine translation technology is only eighty percent accurate, with abysmal syntax and style.

Nonetheless, it would seem that the major barrier to breakthrough polylingual listservers and websites within possibly the next five years lies in the English-only mentalisms manifest in the current social architecture of cyberspace. Video On Line recently has begun to prise open the English-only mentality. VOL, a commercial net service headquartered in Sardinia, has established multilingual services "which respect the language and culture of the nation or area of presence" in over thirty countries. The company has also produced twenty web browers that accommodate latin, irregular latin (Czech, Hungarian, Polish), and non-latin alphabets and languages. Despite its idealistic professions, VOL does not escape the cyber-english paradigm; rather, it has created a model of single-layer multilingualism as a commercial come-on. For example, Turkish readers who step off a single Turkish-language homepage find themselves back in cyber-english content. Linguistic software diversity provides the icing atop a basic English cake.

Anglocentricity in translation technology has been around as long as this class of software. It originated in 1968 when Yorick Wilks designed the first acceptable machine translation program, which produced French from brief simple English prose paragraphs. The descendants of that prototype program are beginning to become available online through small firms configured for the 'global marketplace.' From the very first, natural language software has been conceived as a tool for business translations and global commerce, a market that has configured the software and its Eurocentric language choices. Commerce continues to drive translation technology, although slowly, inasmuch as anglophone language/class better serves international capital through an inherent personnel selection.

One major experimental project to overcome electronic language barriers, sponsored by the Japanese government, is the Asian Multilingual Machine Translation System, in development since 1987 and still not publicly available. The system, designed to handle multidirectional online translations between Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Malaysian and Thai, represents perhaps the only major software development I have encountered that attempts to reformulate cyber-language political paradigms. While it might be read in one sense as opposing anglophone dominance, the project's geostrategic formulation and state sponsorship also subtlely reiterate memories of the pre-war Greater Asian Economic Co-Prosperity Sphere. This project suggests, disturbingly, that linguistic diversity in cyberspace may receive its greatest technological boost from competing economic power formations. Further, it forces a recognition that non-English software is not intrinsically counter-hegemonic inasmuch as it likely reproduces the language and social power of its developers.

Small-language browsers and translation programs can both be viewed as adaptive mechanisms rather than effective counter-hegemonic software. As Geoff Sauer suggests, since capitalism operates fundamentally by market segmentation and differentiation, the net sub-markets for local languages are not evidence of counter-hegemonic software development. Rather, these language adaptation tools represent an extension of net imperialism into yet-immature markets. At present, they confirm rather than challenge anglophone language/class dominance.

"Writin in light....."

Here we go English-style. Vaipe-style. My style.
Leaves of the Banyan Tree, Albert Wendt
("Vaipe-style" means "lame" in Samoan.)

To summarize, the overwhelming predominance of cyber-english establishes, through language/class, a monologic and declamatory relationship with the other-than-anglophone world rather than a dialogic and supple relationship. Maintenance of online language/class structures recapitulates offline English-only monologism, which has encountered historic resistance. For those seeking alterity, the character of trans-language software has been configured by marketability rather than communicative needs. Grassroots non-anglophone cyber-access and empowerment hover temptingly at the horizon, but remain vastly distant.

What do progressive electronic politics say to this? At best, these politics have placed their faith in a delusory comfort that cyber-english can be rendered into an oppositional vehicle against the political interests it advances. Reading online correspondence between critic John Berger and commandante Marcos might illuminate social repression in the Chiapas, but cyber-english continues to serve an elite discourse. This sort of thinking still confuses English with progress, an otherwise discredited conflation from which most modernist ideologies and aesthetics have suffered.

The paradoxes of monologic colonial English refashioned as a language of anticolonial assault by writers like G.V. Desani, Edward Kamau Braithwaite and Anna Castillo might invite some to speculate on cyber-english as a linguistic Trojan horse, to hope it will allow denizens of powerless peripheries to slip into and subversively transform the center. A tempting thought, perhaps, but the accomplishments of oppositional orality in inverting colonial textuality do not promise the same future at this, the latter end of the print age. Localisms that situate playful paradoxes, that enable the subversions of dialect, now disappear beneath the global electronic traffic jam. In the transition to cybericity the field of contest has not only been transformed, it has disappeared into a largely unaffordable technological invisibility.

dutch pub

In practical terms, English rejectionism in cyberspace without any acceptable substitute is a self-defeating exercise in purposeless autonomy. That leaves anglophones pursuing Gramscian 'badness' in the paradoxical binds of a double consciousness, an awareness of the repressive effects of cyber-english even as we benefit from its use. Double consciousness, fortunately, is a very productive site of practice. It was from this lucent, imaginative site that Braithwaite, using his curser (a computer tongue) in X/Self, wrote of

...a sittin down here in front a dis stone
lectrical mallet into me
chipp/in dis poem onta dis tablet
chiss/ellin darkness writin in light
like i is a some/is a some/is a some/

Joe Lockard is a doctoral student in American literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He thanks Mike Mosher, Geoff Sauer and Joel Schalit for helpful comments on this essay.

Copyright © 1996 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

Personal tools