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.