In the early days of the Internet majority of my friends was so overwhelmed by the opportunity to hop from site to site, from country to country, from continent to continent (we’ll have to wait for the ‘planet to planet’ part) that nobody was paying much attention to the fact that the newly found ‘unity’ was based exclusively on the new L atina Lingua , English. Only a handful of other languages, strong enough to resist, were an umbrella wide enough for significant patches of the URL map to emerge. Even these languages (such as French, German, Spanish…) were not completely immune to the lightning-fast charge of English through Web. The new technologies, previously unknown, kept appearing overnight and evolving so fast that the non-English media could not cope with the speed, and had to simply take over the signifier together with the signified concept.
This all is about to change very fast now. As the BBC reports below, the first non-Latin URLs are now introduced. What this means is that, for example, the Arabs do not have to type in the Latin URL for the site of their favourite newspaper, but can do it in Arabic. So can the Chinese readers for their Chinese sites, etc. This makes it practically impossible for the English-speaking users to access such sites. If you are using a Mac, you have the needed fonts on your machine, but who would bother trying to do it — except professional readers, such as research experts and spies.
I am rather ambivalent about this. On the one hand, I am against the dominance of any one language and/or culture. On the other hand, it was nice for a few years (almost twenty, realistically) to believe that the world could really come to a better place through improved understanding. Some seed that has already been planted will probably remain: NGOs from different continents and within different language spheres will likely continue to work together, some interest groups (geeks, terrorists, peaceniks, criminals, evangelists of all kinds — you name it) will keep talking because they have to or want to. However, the beauty of stumbling upon something interesting from another culture will at least partially be lost.
And, imagine the Web in another 20 years from today: it is easy to see how the trend of diversification will grow. There will be large areas of cultures foreign to your own (whichever it is), and — to make things worse — due to a different set of signs pretty much inaccessible to you.
How will we remember this first period of the Internet?
As the era of hope, probably. And as the decades that at the same time helped the English language and endangered it. Visit any chat, or any discussion group, and you will know what I mean: the language pretending to be English, on those sites, is so heavily distorted that it is not even a ‘lost in translation’ situation. It is more a ‘never found in English’ phenomenon.
Look, even I was encouraged enough to start writing in English. What an utter catastrophe.