“I say, can anyone hear me?”. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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How capital letters became internet code for shouting

And why we should lay off the caps-lock key.

The rules of “netiquette” are not exactly static or undisputed. Are emoticons appropriate in formal emails? Are “trigger warnings” thoughtful or over-the-top? Are you irritating everyone you email with your “signature”? The uncertainty that typically surrounds these questions makes it all the more remarkable that there’s one convention that is incontestable: Typing in all caps is internet code for shouting, and it is rude.

People have long used capital letters to set text apart and convey its importance, but upper case letters haven’t always signified loudness. The first bloggers may be responsible for that development: Linguist Ben Zimmer pointed me to old “Usenet newsgroups” – the precursors of the forums and Reddit threads that dominate the Internet today – where people hashed out what capital letters would mean online. In 1984, one user had to explain: “if it’s in caps i’m trying to YELL!” In one of the best clues into the evolution of this convention, another user, Dave Decot, summed up the situation as he understood it in 1984:

there seem to be some conventions developing in the use of various emphasizers. There are three kinds of emphasis in use, in order of popularity:

1) using CAPITAL LETTERS to make words look “louder”,2) using *asterisks* to put sparklers around emphasized words, and 3) s p a c i n g words o u t, possibly accompanied by 1) or 2).

We’ll probably never know exactly why it was convention number one that caught on, but there may be something intuitive about using capital letters for emphasis. Professor Paul Luna, director of the department of typography and graphic communication at the UK’s University of Reading, told me we’ve been using caps to convey “grandeur,” “pomposity,” or “aesthetic seriousness” for thousands of years – at least since Roman emperors had monuments inscribed, in all caps, with their own heroic accomplishmnets. Writers have used capital letters to convey anger in print, too. Linguist John McWhorter pointed out two examples from the days of typewriting. It becomes apparent in pianist Philippa Schuyler’s biography, Composition in Black and White, that she “was quite fond of using caps to yell” – as early as the 1940s. In the 1970s, Robert Moses used all caps to convey his rage at a draft of Robert Caro’s biography, The Power Broker. “I myself would have used caps to ‘yell’ on a typewriter when I was a kid in those years, also,” said McWhorter.

“All-capitals provide visibility – maximum size within a given area,” said Luna. And that works online, too. “All-caps in an email looks like shouting because when someone is shouting, you’re aware of the shout, and not the nuance,” Luna told me over email. “ALL-CAPS FILL THE SPACE, so there’s an element of feeling that the message is crowding out everything else.”

If typing in all caps is a lazy way of yelling – a crutch for the angry and inarticulate – then the keyboard is complicit: The “caps lock” key makes it unreasonably easy for us to be rude (even, sometimes, inadvertently). “Caps lock” has, in fact, inspired more controversy than most keys. Getting rid of it is one of Matthew J.X. Malady’s top suggestions for improving the keyboard. “The key is a nuisance, its prime real estate leading us to depress it unintentionally and often unwittingly,” he complains at Slate. The “caps lock” key has inspired larger-scale protests, too. In 2006, Belgian software developer Pieter Hintjens launched the “CAPSoff” campaign, aiming to get the offending key kicked off the keyboard altogether. Though the project was welcomed by outlets like The New Scientist, Wired, and The Chicago Tribune, “That campaign ended many years ago,” Hintjens told me over email, admitting that it “didn’t make any real change.” The CAPSoff campaign may not have achieved its mission, but it’s never too late. I say we should revive Dave Decot’s third suggestion: spacing words out to show anger. Not only does it take more time – upping the chance that you’ll calm down before you press “send” – hitting the space bar between each letter is kind of therapeutic. It fits with the new, nicer internet of 2014 – the internet of Upworthy and Viral Nova, cute cat videos and eBay altruism.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times