Timothy Jarrett’s essay on “The Linguistics of Cyberspace” focuses on the question of a language user’s identity, in general and in the highly specialized world of cyberspace. It is in effect a thoughtful comment on a New Yorker cartoon that neither of us had seen when he submitted his paper to my course in the history of the English language: a dog sitting in front of a computer screen says, “The great thing about the Internet is that they don’t know I’m a dog.”
The human sciences in the twentieth century have dealt a serious blow to our culture’s inherited notions of who we really are, our individuality, and our understanding of human behavior not in terms of freely-willed individual actions but, instead, as the product of heredity and environment that takes place in systems of meaning quite beyond an individual’s power to control. Intellectually, we may in some sense be learning to accept this “disappearance of the individual,” but it still comes as a shock to realize that we are who “the system” says we are and that the things we say and write mean no more than those who hear and read us think they mean.
Mr. Jarrett attempts in this essay to use the insights of Ferdinand de Saussure’s structuralist semiotics to explain how meanings and identities develop in the disembodied “world” of the Internet. One thing to observe about this world, which he and others call cyberspace, is that there is very little non-verbal context in cyberspace. In contrast, when we learn native languages and other cultural systems we do so in a rich environment of things and sensations that serve as the vast universe of referents for such sparse utterances as “like this,” “that one,” “over there,” “yes,” “no,” “beautiful,” “let’s go.” It is entirely otherwise in cyberspace, where a language user is known only by written utterances of a highly explicit sort in an exclusively linguistic context. Unless you write like a dog no one will think you are one. What is beginning to interest some writers is a debate about whether a person’s “real” identity in his particular society is “more real” than his “virtual” identity in cyberspace. What Tim Jarrett seems to be telling us is that while exactly the same cultural systems are at work in both worlds the worlds themselves are such different contexts that we are, in terms of semiotics, reborn in cyberspace.