The Internet & the English Language

Anthea Fraser Gupta

School of English
University of Leeds


© 1997 by Anthea Fraser Gupta

Paper submitted for the Online Conference on Postcolonial Theory


This is a new genre for me. I have tried to keep my text as brief as possible, to enhance on-screen readability. I have also included hypertext links to exemplify some points.


Dominance of English
Access to the Internet
World distribution of English users
Socio-political implications

Dominance of English

The dominance of English in the Internet needs no arguing for. Computers are in any case English-oriented. Netscape and Java are in English, the vocabulary of computing and of the Internet is overwhelmingly English, and most of the texts that are accessed through it are in English. The search engines are in English and are in the US. The reasons for the dominance of English are firstly historical -- the Internet began in the USA, which is still the leading user of it, and the USA is an English-using nation. The norms of the Internet are established in ASCII texts, and even now texts transmitted unaltered from (for example) Francophone keyboards may produce garbage on English-favouring keyboards. To avoid this from happening, those who post, for example, French on ASCII lists, must omit diacritics, as in this French posting on the LINGUIST list (LINGUIST List 7.1639, Thu Nov 21 1996):

Ces troisiemes rencontres, organisees par les etudiants de l'Atelier des Doctorants de Linguistique, se veulent un lieu de contacts et d'echanges fructueux entre doctorants et jeunes chercheurs relevant de differents cadres theoriques et de differents domaines de recherche en linguistique. Chaque communication sera suivie de 10 min. de discussion. D'autre part, des ateliers-debats seront organises le samedi 7 au matin.

There are many accents missing here. It should begin, "Ces troisièmes rencontres, organisées par les étudiants...".

Two things constrain the use of languages other than English on world-wide web documents and communications:

The first of these constraints can be overcome (as in the case of Tamil), though not necessarily with ease. The second constraint, however, means that most documents in languages other than English, including those in countries where English is little used internally are mirrored by English translations (e.g. the pages of the French Ministry of Culture).

The world wide web is in the position of a permanent international conference, where papers are either in English or are accompanied by English translations. The role of English reflects the dominance of English in cross-national communication.

Access to the Internet

Access to the Internet is empowering. It gives access to uncensored material of enormous variety. Access to a world-size (though rather messy) encyclopedia. Access to almost instant communication with individuals located thousands of miles away. A person using the Internet can adopt a new persona -- you can change gender, acquire beauty, lose disability, develop aggression....... There is information available, entertainment, insight into other cultures. Various governments (including those of the USA, France, and Singapore) have attempted to control some of this information, either in terms of what can be placed in URLs or in terms of what can downloaded. But so far no effective way of controlling the reading of documents placed on the web has been found. We may be in a Golden Age of Net use -- when controls become more effective and when more sites are either commerically motivated or no longer cost-free, we will lose the present sense of uncernsored liberty.

However, this empowerment has on the whole been extended most to those who are already most empowered. To gain good access to the web three things are needed:

There was a time in the early 90s when many countries did not possess servers that were linked to the web. Now, this access at a national level is so widespread that the progress of Balkan politics can be followed on the web. Some countries are still not listed, however. De Mello's College and University Home Pages lists universities in the following 87 countries:

Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bermuda, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guam, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Kuwait, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Macedonia, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Palestine, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, Zambia

Given that universities have been leaders in Internet access, absence from this list suggests a country either has no university, or has little or no Internet access. Even many countries on this list (e.g. China) have relatively limited access. The poor representation of Africa is noticeable, with only Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Zambia present. Europe, both East and West, is well covered (Albania is missing, however), as is both North and South America. In Asia, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam do not appear. In other words, the poorest countries of the world still are deprived of Internet access.

In many countries which do have Internet access, large portions of the population live in rural areas away from the electricity and telephone provision that supports this basic access, or are not wealthy enough to have such facilities themselves. Even within wealthy countries with effective electricity and telephone systems, the nearest service provider may be sufficiently far from some rural users to make accessing the web prohibitively expensive, due to the cost of long distance or satellite telephone calls.

After the establishment of the Internet by the military in the USA, it was universities that first took advantage of the web. To this day, academic users of the web (mostly on edu and ac servers) are especially privileged. They have unusually free access to the Internet, seldom paying for their own access time, and seldom accountable for their use of it. In some universities there may be corporate constraints on the Internet-users' freedom to develop their own sites (the University of Leeds has more constraints than the National University of Singapore, and most US universities impose even fewer constraints on their staff). Users in commercial organisations and governmental organisations generally experience less freedom. In many countries (including Singapore, UK, and India) access through educational, commercial and governmental bodies preceded the availability of private Internet accounts, and corporate users still dominate the Internet. France is in the unusual position of having been a pioneer in giving private access to computer link systems, through the hugely popular Minitel system, developed (in 1980) long before the Internet became available on the scale it has been in the 1990s. The success of Minitel (with over 7 million access points in France) is one of the factors that has made access to the Internet in France rather low, as so many people had become accustomed to using the cheap and familiar Minitel. This has presented an economic, technological, and cultural obstacle to the widespread use of the Internet in France. Minitel is still the dominant text based communication system in France, although it is now linked to the Internet.

Private access to the Internet has developed over the 1990s, although there are still technical and commercial problems in private accounts, as the recent blocakages at America Online have shown. Many countries have been slow to provide private access to the Internet. Even where private access is possible, it is costly, with rental fees and telephone costs being added to very substantial hardware costs. In the UK, for example, the average cost of a computer is around £2000. The average weekly earnings of full-time employees on adult rates is £336.30 (1995 figures, from Office for National Statistics). Thus someone in full time work would have to spend 6 weeks' salary on a computer. The lower the national and individual salary, the more this cost becomes out of reach. In countries with lower average salaries, computers tend to be more expensive both in real and proportional terms.

The first two things needed for Internet access make it an advantage:

These requirements, essentially economic in foundation, point to countries with high GNP, and to an urban environment within them.

World distribution of English users

However, the third thing helpful for Internet access, the ability to use English, divides the world into rather different groupings. Sociolinguists (e.g. Moag) have traditionally grouped countries into three categories according to the dominant pattern of English use within them:

Due to patterns of migration (voluntary and forced) and colonisation involving people from the British Isles (Gupta fthcg) the ENL and ESL countries are predominantly countries which were formerly British territories or (in the case of the Philippines) territories of one of Britain's former colonies. These countries are geographically widespread. EN/ESL countries are however poorly represented in Europe, where only the UK and Ireland (both ENL) historically represent this kind of intimate involvement with English. In Europe, only the Northwestern countries (especially Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands) have achieved an extent of English use comparable to that in most former colonies.

The difference in knowledge of English between ESL South Asia and ENL Southern Europe was illustrated in December 1996 when a boat full of would-be immigrants to Europe from South Asia sank off the coast of Greece. Some of the survivors came ashore in the Poloponnese Port of Ermioni. The British newspaper, The Observer (12 January 1997), quoted the (presumably translated) description of their arrival by a local woman, Iphigenia:

I thought it was a tour party or something, but could not understand why they looked so bad... They were queueing up in the supermarket, buying food as fast as they could. I think they were starving. And gathering round the harbour, trying to find someone to speak English.

This is the new face of East meeting West, with the Anglophone Asians and the non-English speaking Europeans.

Within the ESL countries a high level of use of English is virtually universal among precisely those socio-economic groups who have access to the Internet. In these countries, being educated and knowing English go hand in hand. Within most of the ENL countries, however, a privileged, highly educated position is no guarantee of access to English. Thus, in practice, the usefulness of English in the Internet places someone from a poor ESL country who has access to the Internet at a considerable advantage over someone from a much richer ENL country who does not know English or does not know it well.

In national terms, the factors that matter are:

high GNP / low GNP

Socio-political implications

In the literature on sociolinguistics, the differences between the ENL, ESL, and EFL countries are described in terms of centre and periphery (eg. Kachru). Similarly, the vocabulary of political and economic patterns (first world / third world, North / South) is expressed in terms of centrality and privilege on the one hand and periphery and poverty on the other. In economic terms, this simplistic division has already broken down.

The Internet was established by, and still is dominated by, that most rich and central nation, the USA. Much Internet communication is routed through US servers, as all of us outside the US are only too aware. The centre of the Internet is the US. However, access to the Internet does weaken the geographical sense of centre in a number of ways. Although accessing a site overseas may be slower than accessing a local site, there are times of day in all locations when overseas sites are as fast to access as local ones, thus equalising the cost of access all over the world. E-mail, unlike telephone, fax, and postal mail, gives equally fast and cheap access to correspondents anywhere.

Finally, the sense of centre is weakened by the economic disparities within countries being greater than the disparities between them. In all countries, however wealthy, access to the Internet is unevenly distributed, and in those countries which are anglophone postcolonial, the widespread knowledge of English among those who have Internet access places them at an advantage over equivalent people in ENL countries.

The culture of the Internet is still a predominantly American one. Users of the Internet become acculturated to its norms and to a style of presentation of self and of discourse which is essentially still American (and, it has been suggested, male (e.g. CMC Dec. 1996). At the same time, as more Internet users from outside the US participate in the Internet, the culture of the Internet will in part internationalised. A major factor in determining the extent to which acculturation or internationalisation prevails will be the participation of users in ESL anglophone postcolonial settings. If more people in the Anglophone countries of Africa could participate, this would be a major contribution to a balanced internationalisation.

In discussion groups and irc lines (Tan), users create communities which have local norms, or in which a local identity can be created, and in which participants can be acculturated to peripheral norms. The participation of the non-Anglophone countries of Europe in the internationalisation of the Internet is at present limited in part by lack of knowledge of or confidence in English. The Internet is one of a number of pressures on those countries resulting in increasing learning of English. However, in those countries (and even in the countries of North west Europe where English is more widely known) English is not indigenised -- it is not seen as a local possession in the way that it is in the ENL and ESL countries, in both of which English can be part of an expression of a cultural identity. Thus, participants in the Internet from EFL countries have no vested interest in re-locating the dominant American-led culture of the Internet. The knowledge of English in the ESL countries allows them to be brokers, who, along with the non-American EFL countries, could re-culturate the Internet to a more genuinely international environment.


Gupta, Anthea Fraser. fthcg. 1997. Colonisation, migration and functions of English. In Edgar W Schneider (ed) Englishes around the World, Vol I, Old Englishes and Beyond. Studies in Honour of Manfred Görlach. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins [Back to point in text]

Kachru, Braj B. 1985. Institutionalized second-language varieties. In Sidney Greenbaum, ed. The English Language Today. Oxford: Pergamon, 211-226. [Back to point in text]

Moag, Rodney. 1982. English as a foreign, second, native and basal language: a new taxonomy of English- using societies. In John B Pride, ed. 1982. New Englishes. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 11-50. [Back to point in text]

Office for National Statistics. 1996. Key Data. London:HMSO. [Back to point in text]

Tan Ban Hock, Earl. 1995. English in Cyberspace. Honours thesis. English Language & Literature, National University of Singapore. [Back to point in text]

Author's e-mail:

Date: 15 February 1997.

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By short titles:
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Abstracts of other papers (by short titles):
Come into My Web | Hawaiians in Cyberspace | Becoming Modern | Calligraphy and Dialogics | Virtual Spaces

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