The Virtual Speech Community: Social Network and Language Variation on IRC


  • John Paolillo

    1. John C. Paolillo is Assistant Professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington. His interest in CMC focuses on the Internet as a global theater for contact among languages and cultures. His past research includes ethnographic and quantitative linguistic analyses of Punjabi use in Usenet and Internet Relay Chat.
    Search for more papers by this author


Many scholars anticipate that online interaction will have a long-term effect on the evolution of language, but little linguistic research yet addresses this question directly. In sociolinguistics, social network relations are recognized as the principal vehicle of language change. In this paper, I develop a social network approach to online language variation and change through qualitative and quantitative analysis of logfiles of Internet Relay Chat interaction. The analysis reveals a highly structured relationship between participants’ social positions on a channel and the linguistic variants they use. The emerging sociolinguistic relationship is more complex than what is predicted by current sociolinguistic theory for offline interaction, suggesting that sociolinguistic investigation of online interaction, where more detailed and fine-grained information about social contacts can be obtained, may offer unique contributions to the study of language variation and change.