What Was the First Internet Language?

Written by Dyami Millarson

Does it make sense to say in 2019 that the internet is largely the domain of the English language? Although it remains difficult to quantify this, it is a credible claim that the majority of the internet’s content today is written in English and that English is unmatched by any other language in this regard. English was arguably the first internet language. English had a favourable head start. The World Wide Wide – take note that this is an English name – became available to the public in 1991, which is three years before I was born, and although it may be problematic to define what the internet is exactly and when it precisely began, it can be said that the internet as we know it was first developed in the USA, which is the largest Native English-speaking country. The first message ever sent over the internet – at the time known as ARPANET – was in English.

The fact that English was the first internet language is no surprise when one considers the aforementioned fact that the internet was invented in the English-speaking world. The developers were English speakers and so they would naturally use English. It is a credible claim that English was used almost exclusively on the internet in the beginning. However, it would be interesting to investigate when language diversity began to appear on the internet and to investigate how other languages have started to catch up. When did other languages start to appear? How did they grow? These questions are hard to answer at this point because the internet has grown exponentially and it may be imagined as an ever-expanding universe where the starts are millions of websites, but it is nevertheless important to ask these questions and to try to come up with an answer.

Although we have established that English was the first language known to be used online, it would be interesting to know when other languages made their first appearance. If other languages started being used online quite early on, soon after the internet became open to the public, this is significant. I do currently not hold the answer to this question, because I have not yet investigated deeply when other major languages started appearing online, but I pose this question to explain its importance in relation to the claim that the English language is the first online language.

If it is the case that other languages appeared online almost simultaneously with English, i.e. soon after the internet was made available to the public, then it raises questions about whether English was truly the ‘first internet language’ as it would share that status with other languages. Therefore, even if the online presence of other languages was small in the beginning, it is significant to know when they made their first appearance.

Tracing the first appearance of languages online will be a huge challenge that will likely be based on a lot of guesswork, but this guesswork about linguistic diversity online is important for gaining a better understanding of what it means to be the ‘first internet language’. After all, when the internet became available to the entire world, it would have been logical for individuals or organisations already starting to experiment with having their own languages make an entrance on the online marketplace.  I can hardly imagine it did not cross anyone’s mind and therefore I believe that it makes sense to look into the idea that language diversity might already have made its entrance quite early.

The development of the internet was based on gradual evolution, which is what makes it hard to define. The history of the internet can be compared to the history of writing, for I think that adopting of the internet for language has its parallel in the adopting of writing for language and that the development that people have started to adopt the internet for language is essentially the continuation of the development that people have started to use writing for language, i.e. written language was a prerequisite for internet language.

Although it is hard to say for sure which language was the first written language ever because early written languages may have been lost or we may even not yet recognise them as written languages because it is hard to decide whether symbols of some ancient obscure culture that we hardly known anything about are written language or pieces of art, Sumerian is the first known written language in human history.

When writing was first developed, it took a while for other languages to catch up as well, but eventually a whole host of languages were written. Human beings are masters of imitation, which is adaptive behaviour in the light of competition between human individuals and human groups, and therefore, when confronted with another group of humans with better technology, humans feel the need to quickly adopt the same technology for their own group in order not to be outcompeted by the other group.

In the coming months and years, I will continue my research on the ‘first internet language’ and the first appearance of linguistic diversity online.  I hope to find concrete answers to my questions about the history of the internet and language diversity. I am genuinely intrigued by this topic and whenever I am curious about something, I want to find satisfying answers to my questions. The reason for my curiosity is practical, because if I can find satisfying answers to my questions, I will be able to use the answers to solve a myriad of other practical problems related to the preservation of endangered languages. I have read scores of articles online about the internet and language diversity, but these did not provide satisfying answers to my questions, while they kept repeating the same points over and over again based on questionable data, and so I will do my own research and make my own calculations in order to get a better picture.

11 comments

    • What do you mean by ‘English’?
      English has changed a lot over the last 1000 years and if we go back far enough, it is no longer ‘English’, but it becomes ‘Frisian’ (or at least Ingvaeonic) and then ‘Germanic’. At one point, Frisians and Angles spoke the same Anglo-Frisian language.
      Modern English is descended from Middle English, which is descended from Anglo-Saxon (Old English), which is descended from Anglo-Frisian (Ingvaeonic), which is descended from Proto-Germanic.
      2000 years ago, no one spoke Modern English. This is why I wondered what you meant by ‘English’.

      Liked by 1 person

      • English has been the standard for 2000 years in business is all I said, it would be common sense that the internet was programmed with binary numbers to convey English. The internet was created in the 90s, American-made. The Climate king Al Gore even claimed he created it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • English in its current form didn’t exist for 2000 years. It was Anglo-Saxon just a 1000 years ago. If we go back further in time, it was Anglo-Frisian. If we go back even further in time, it was Proto-Germanic.
        The language you would find 2000 years ago wouldn’t be English. So English couldn’t have been the standard for trade for 2000 years.
        Moreover, at that time, Latin was the most widely used language for trade because the Roman Empire still existed at that time. (The Roman Empire reached as far as Britain and therefore Latin was used as a dominant commercial language in Britain as well, which would later become the home of English.)
        However, Proto-Germanic, the ancestor language of Anglo-Frisian and consequently of Anglo-Saxon, was used in its own cultural area for trade.

        Liked by 4 people

  1. I guess the answer to your question will depend on at what point you want to start. Do you start with ARPAnet or later? There would have been emails in various languages, and later there were definitely usenet groups in multiple languages. Back in 1995 I was trying to get access to the French ones at my work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When Arpanet was first developed, it was in fact after the innovation of binary (machine language) so therefore, the keyboard was determined as an axiom in which the machine would always operate within given parameters. It was quite important to maintain that consistency, and as coding evolved, it now with the very same English principle of binary interpretation, may accommodate all language and scientific notation with the same qwerty keyboard. This is not to do with English, but with the evolution of on or off.
    if/or etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That English is primary language of internet and international business, science and communication still has not changed what I consider the foolish requirement in American high schools and colleges that two years of foreign language must be taken. In high school I struggled with Latin and with Spanish in college. My D’s and F’s destroyed my GPA and I wasted so much study time that could have been applied to my major course of study and in taking more career oriented courses. If the whole world is learning English why do I need another language ? I concede Americans are very insular this way but I contend taking a foreign language as part of graduation requirement should be a choice not a requirement. American curriculum “experts” don’t seem very expert or at least pragmatic to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The school method has disssuaded many people from learning languages. Being autodidacts, we support language-learning as a self-improvement activity. We publish articles on this blog about our efforts to learn lesser-used languages. Many of these languages are on the verge of extinction. I think that if Americans do not learn any foreign languages because the rest of the world learns English, this creates a situation where Americans have an asymmetrical relationship with the rest of the world, which puts America at a severe economic disadvantage. Much of the information contained in languages is cultural. Non-English speakers have a cultural advantage over Americans when they speak English yet also have intimate knowledge of their own language and culture while Americans do not. Languages are useful tools in the arena of economic competition, and this is what international organisations such as the EU and countries such as China recognise. The EU policy of maintaining linguistic diversity while also using English is an economic strategy that harvests the cultural-linguistic power of Europe for economic competition. The world is learning English and the world is catching up with America, this is actually a sign that America might do well to reciprocate with equal interest in all the languages of the peoples and nations that are learning English diligently. While studying Latin, I became very interested in Roman history: The Roman Empire spread Latin particularly in the Western provinces (while the East was primarily Greek-speaking), and Latin was learned diligently by the locals, as they were adopting Roman technology, and eventually they used their knowledge of Roman culture, language and technology to outcompete the (Western) Roman Empire, which led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. I think that this demonstrates the importance of linguistic-cultural knowledge for maintaining the socio-economic balance of power.
      – Ken Ho

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