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Literatura y lingüística

Print version ISSN 0716-5811

Lit. lingüíst.  no.14 Santiago  2003 

Literatura y Lingüística Nº14


Claudio Andrés Jara C.
Universidad Católica Cardenal Raúl Silva Henríquez


El propósito de este artículo es el de explorar un discurso emergente, como es el de conversaciones en salas chat en el internet. Intenta esquematizar las relaciones conversacionales de los hablantes en un medio escrito y aplica un punto de vista pragmático basado en principios cooperativos dentro de conversaciones.

Palabras claves : discursos emergentes - salas de chat
00000000000000 - análisis pragmático


The purpose of this article is to explore an emerging discourse, that of Internet chatroom conversation. It tries to schematize the conversational relationships of the speakers in a text based medium and apply a pragmatic point of view based on cooperative principles within conversations.

Keywords: emerging discourses - chatrooms
000000000- pragmatic analysis

The following paper deals with the pragmatic aspects of an emerging discourse, chatroom conversation. Since the early 1980's the world has witnessed the growth of one of the newest ways of communication, the Internet. We have witnessed how, at first, we heard of modems, and how, through the telephone lines, they were capable of sending letters from one country to the next, in a way similar to the telegraph but these letters did not arrive at an office and then forwarded to our addresses. We receive these electronic letters directly to our own computers; and, in some cases, to any computer in the world we wish. In this manner the internet grew; at first only few individuals and companies had access to it, but now, it is considered one the fastest forms of communicating in the world, reaching anyone with a phoneline (as the most basic form of internet connections) and a computer or access to one.

Considering how much the internet has grown over the past two decades, it is not surprising that the e-mail has become an important way of communication. But it lacked one thing, instant reply. Due to this flaw, programs and web pages appeared offering realtime chat. Real time chat on the net means that, when one writes something, the other person is able to read it immediately on his or her screen or within brief seconds after you press the enter button. Programs such as ICQ, Microsoft Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, CheetaChat, and the IRC variations, (Mirc, Ircap) have become widely popular among internet users.

If one considers how widespread the use of Internet is, and its growth rate (the existence of these programs, the development of technologies that enable faster connection and navigation), it becomes evident that we have come across a situation for social interaction which is by far one of the strangest we can imagine. People writing to each other, instantly reading what the other writes, yet, because they are writing, elegant extensive writing is impossible. They wish to communicate quickly, and not to have to read 10 minutes each time a message arrives. Instead, they chat, have conversations, but these conversations are not oral, they are sentences appearing on a screen. They do not have intonation, body language, silences, etc., to give them clues about the conversation they are having.

So this is where the question arises: Can you have a conversation, without having it? We consider a conversation as an oral interaction between 2 or more participants. So, if the oral part is taken out, each member of the interaction is separated and placed in different rooms, with a means of communication that resembles passing notes under the door. Do we consider it a conversation? Do the same pragmatic rules apply in this type of conversation? If not, how do we modify these rules that govern our conversations? How do we manage to communicate when so much of what is needed in this definition of a conversation is missing?

These are the questions, some of them at least, that are intended to be answered through this paper. Very little bibliography is available on this emerging discourse. Very few have written anything about the internet at all. So, in light of this, the present investigation is exploratory, yet it does intend to give some insight as to what is occurring in the chatrooms on the internet, and how humans are communicating through them.

The specific problem that this investigation wishes to deal with is that of how members of chatrooms are following the established pragmatic patterns of comunication in an environment that is reduced to a screen with letters and graphic symbols, yet remaining efficient in terms of clear communication.

This problem is derived from the elimination of traditional paralinguistic aspects, that leave the speaker as a writer, without classical methods of clarifying aspects, such as turn taking, indirect speech, cues to different conversational intentions, etc. The speaker or writer in this case is left with only the written language and its characteristics to fend with.

To develop this paper the work of H.P. Grice (1989) has been taken as the basis for seeing how conversations that are devoid of any paralinguistic elements as we know them, continue to be effective.

Conversational maxims

The success of a conversation depends on the willingness of the speakers to abide by certain rules that will allow them to communicate efficiently. For this purpose they adopt a "cooperative principle" when engaged in a communication. They try to be succesful within their communciation by following certain conversational maxims:

  • The maxim of quality states that the speakers' contributions to a conversation ought to be true. They should not say what they believe to be false, nor should they say anything for which they lack adequate evidence.
  • The maxim of quantity states that the contribution should be as informative as is required for the purposes of the conversation. One should say neither too little nor too much.
  • The maxim of relevance states that contributions should clearly relate to the purpose of the exchange.
  • The maxim of manner states that the contribution should be perspicuous _ in particular, that it should be orderly and brief, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.
  • These maxims are the basic pragmatic elements people apply while engaging in any given conversation, and the non compliance with any of these maxims leads the speaker to look for the non-literal implicatures of what is being said.

    It will be through the analysis of these maxims and their usage that will allow this investigation to gather insight on the conversational conducts of the speakers within an Internet chatroom.

    It is also necessary to consider certain aspects of the Internet and considerations of chatroom protocols before continuing directly into the development of the investigation.

    An Internet chatroom is a place where any person, regardless of sex, creed, colour, nationality, education and social standing may enter. The Internet does not discriminate on these elements. Nevertheless, Internet users have to meet certain requirements in order to use it and an etiquette has been developed by the very same users and is respected among most of Cybernauts. These conditions are:

    1.- All Internet chatroom users must have all 4 basic language skills, especially reading and writing, but listening and speaking give them their schemata of what a conversation consists of.
    2.- Users must have access to a computer with Internet connection.
    3.- Certain rules apply to a chatroom of things that are allowed, and things that are not. To ensure that these rules are followed there are people within the rooms called moderators or operators and ircops, the former having "jurisdiction" within the room, and the latter "ircops" having "jurisdiction" over the server.
    4.- The moderators/operators and ircops have certain abilities given to them such as the use of specific commands, some of these are: "kick" which expells a person from the room, "ban" which prohibits the person from entering the room again once he or she has been expelled and "kill" which expells the user from the server.
    5.- Some of the rules to follow are:
    a) Do not use high cap letters (e.g. YOU CANNOT WRITE LIKE THIS). Within Internet protocol, it is considered shouting. b) Spamming is not allowed (spamming is advertising webpages, or products in the rooms).
    c) Do no repeat yourself more than 3 times, this rule is room sensitive, some rooms do not allow something to be repeated more than twice. Others allow it much more, it is also known as flooding, or textflooding.
    d) Rude or offensive nicknames or comments are not allowed unless the room has that purpose (i.e. rooms for specific sexual inclinations).
    e) Abuse towards any member of the room is also forbidden.

    The abovementioned rules apply generally to most chatroom situations, and for the newbie or novice chatter, they are a good, do-and-dont guide. The chatrooms also have certain specific characteristics, terms, and paralinguistic replacements that have been developed through time.

    Examples of chatroom resources:

    To the left of the log you will see "***" asterisks, these mark certain functions, three asterisks mark functions within the room, such as joins, parts, quits, and name changes. One asterisk (*) will generally be followed by an action of one of the speakers, this is done through a command called emote. (e.g. *John drinks water) and it will be in this way that John or any user indicates an action towards the room.

    A second aspect is that of faces, due to the fact that people have no physical contact while in a chatroom, certain paralinguistics tools have been developed by chatroom users to denote emotional state. These are generally referred to as smiley faces, but do not restrict themselves to just smiles, but to a wide range of emotions, the most common being:

    =) :-) :)

    = happiness, smile, the main difference being the use of different symbols for the eyes.

    =( :-( :(

    = sad

    ;) ;-)

    = wink

    These are only three of the vast possibilities presented in the usage of a chatroom.

    Finally it is necessary to explain that the conversations registered or "logs" were captured from actual chatrooms. The age, race, education and economical background of the speakers are not an issue in the present investigation therefore they were not considered. There is also the issue of number of speakers. A chatroom may vary from 2 to over 200 speakers, depending on its popularity. Therefore the "logs" presented in the analysis have been cleaned of server messages and elements that do not affect the ongoing conversations so that it may be clearer. For this paper only one such log will be presented. For this specific investigation, a specific program was selected among the many available, this program is of the IRC variation, and the program used to obtain the data was Ircap. The data was retrieved from an IRC server on the Internet so all users mentioned in this investigation are users of that server. Two chatrooms from this server were used #Australia and #England. All speakers or chatters are speakers of English, although in some circumstances they are speakers of English as a second language.

    The analysis of the "log" (recorded online conversation) will be done, firstly by identifying the main speakers in the exchange. Secondly, the flow of the conversation will be schematized using line number and nickname of the speaker, presenting only the relevant lines within the conversation. Due to the fact that conversations are different in written forms, sometimes, secondary speakers will add themselves, with different topics, or dealing with a specific part of the topic presented. These will also be considered.

    The conversational maxims will only be pointed out if one or more of these is broken. If not then the reader will consider all 4 maxims are being adequately applied within the conversation.

    The different speakers will be identified by different colours, but everytime there is an initiation of a new topic, or a new step in the existing topic it will be marked with dark blue.

    Analysis of the data

    1. [04:23] <Mandi_Pie> Puppet :-) how ya doing?
    2. [04:23] <twister787> u too
    3. [04:23] <Dark_Trinity> thx
    4. [04:24] <Puppet_Mistress> not to bad thanx Mandi_Pie HOWS U
    5. [04:24] <Dark_Trinity> hi Puppet_Mistress
    6. [04:24] <Puppet_Mistress> HI Dark_Trinity
    7. [04:24] <Ricky-SKY> hi all
    8. [04:24] <sapphire_> hi ppls
    9. [04:24] <Puppet_Mistress> HI Ricky-SKY
    10. [04:24] <Mandi_Pie> doing ok ...........had a bad headache all day but it's lots betta now
    11. [04:24] <Puppet_Mistress> HEY sapphire_
    12. [04:24] <Justin17M> any girl with pic care to chat?
    13. [04:24] <sapphire_> hi Puppet_Mistress
    14. [04:24] <Mandi_Pie> hey sapphire :-)
    15. [04:24] <sapphire_> hi Mandi_Pie
    16. [04:24] <Puppet_Mistress> glad to hear it Mandi_Pie


    [04:25] <Dark_Trinity> Puppet_Mistress and Mandi_Pie knew each other ?
    18. [04:25] <viky> one more wonder of the viky here (18 m blore) is online in this room from past onehour still i couldfind even one person interested in chattig with me.what happened to all of [ them.forget about them .do u like to chat with me.only gals plz
    19. [04:25] <Puppet_Mistress> yer whats so surprising about that Dark_Trinity
    20. [04:25] <Dark_Trinity> it's no surprising... i only ask...
    21. [04:25] <Mandi_Pie> :-) i come here all the time Dark_Trinity
    22. [04:26] <Puppet_Mistress> yer ya a regular now hey Mandi_Pie :P
    23. [04:26] <viky> one more wonder of the viky here (18 m blore) is online in this room from past onehour still i couldfind even one person interested in chattig with me.what happened to all of them.forget about them .do u like to chat with me.only gals plz


    <Mandi_Pie> hehehe u could say that :-)
    25. [04:26] *Puppet_Mistress : please viky stop repeating it is annoying and likely to get you kicked from the channel thanx
    26. [04:26] <Justin17M> any girl in sydney with pic care to chat?
    27. [04:26] *Mandi_Pie comes here to share her boring life with u all lol
    28. [04:27] <Puppet_Mistress> hehehehe better than keeping it to ya self Mandi_Pie :P
    29. [04:27] <Dark_Trinity> LOL
    30. [04:27] <greeny007> hey room whats kicking?
    31. [04:27] <Mandi_Pie> :-) yep i'm so nice to share it all with u


    <AdamTall> <- bule
    33. [04:27] <Puppet_Mistress> ummm feet kick last time i checked :P
    34. [04:27] <Dark_Trinity> LOL
    35. [04:28] <Puppet_Mistress> hehe its the highlight of our days Mandi_Pie :P
    36. [04:28] <^dhena^> hi...
    37. [04:28] <Dark_Trinity> hi dhena
    38. [04:28] <greeny007> :P
    39. [04:28] <sapphire_> sooookiieeeee
    40. [04:28] <sooks> saphhh
    41. [04:28] <Mandi_Pie> :-) i can sense some sarcasim there can't i Puppet ?? lol
    42. [04:28] <Dark_Trinity> lol
    43. [04:28] <Mandi_Pie> hey sooks
    44. [04:28] <sooks> hey mandi pandi


    <Puppet_Mistress> from me never :P


    <Puppet_Mistress> sooooooooooooooooks
    47. [04:29] <sooks> puuuuuuuuup


    <viky> one more wonder of the viky here (18 m blore) is online in this room from past onehour still i couldfind even one person interested in chattig with me.what happened to all of them.forget about them .do u like to chat with me.only gals plz
    49. [04:29] * Mandi_Pie doesn't know what to have for dinna ........... it's such a major decision
    50. [04:29] <Dark_Trinity> lol mandi
    51. [04:30] *** viky was kicked by Puppet_Mistress ((5 minute ban) Learn to type another line then come back)
    52. [04:31] <LookinForLove> is robo op human?
    53. [04:31] <LRG_> hiiiiiiiiiiiiii
    54. [04:31] <careing-guy> 19 m asian with pic ping me girls who have there pic too
    55. [04:31] <Puppet_Mistress> ya can make mine too if ya want Mandi_Pie :P


    <Dark_Trinity> i dont hink so LookinForLove
    57. [04:31] <Dark_Trinity> hink = think
    58. [04:31] <LookinForLove> seems like "it" isn't
    59. [04:31]

    <Dark_Trinity> yeah



    <Mandi_Pie> ok i betta go have a look what i cook up :-)
    61. [04:31] <LookinForLove> 16/f/u.s. here
    62. [04:31] <Mandi_Pie> bye all and have fun
    63. [04:31] <AdamTall> <- bule
    64. [04:31] <Puppet_Mistress> okies Mandi_Pie enjoy ya dinner
    65. [04:32] <Mandi_Pie> ty and i leave ya some :-)
    66. [04:32] <Mandi_Pie> and i will leave ya some even sheesh


    <Mandi_Pie> lol


    <Mandi_Pie> byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
    69. [04:32] <LookinForLove> they need that in the teen rooms
    70. [04:32] <Puppet_Mistress> ya better :P

    Schematization of chatroom conversation

    As we can seet the previous conversation begins on line 1 and ends on line 70 (Main speakers Mandi_Pie and Puppet_Mistress). In this conversation has two breakdowns in the use of maxims, One produced by the secondary speaker whose participation is limited to the breakdown. And the second one produced by Puppet_Mistress. The first breakdown was that of the maxim of relevance, where the main speakers are forced to make a clarification after a specific question asked by a secondary speaker, and the second, produced by Puppet_Mistress' use of irony. We can see here the need of the speakers to maintain all 4 maxims functioning, and at the breakdown of one, the need for it to be rectified even if indirectly. Both main speakers were compelled by the first breakdown to answer the secondary speaker's question so that the flow of the conversation may be restored. With the second breakdown we see the case of Mandi_Pie making Puppet_Mistress' irony evident and the subsequent reinforcement of the existing irony by Puppet_Mistress in line 45, with the use of an internet paralinguistic feature (the face :P) used to clarify the presence of a joke in this case.


    In the introduction it was mentioned that this new form of commu-nication has no, or little investigation. Most literature available deals with e-mail messages and web page design, but very little has been said about the communication within internet chatrooms as far as my knowledge of the literature allows me to see. Through this exploratory research paper, I have intended to see and prove that the dynamic relations and the pragmatic rules we follow in everyday oral conversation are followed to some extent in these chatrooms. The medium for communicating has been changed. Instead of speaking we are using letters on a screen to send our words to different places in the world. But, even though we are using the written form of the language, we are emulating the oral conversational environment, adapting this environment to the new medium. A page, some may say, is empty of paralinguistic elements, we have no eye contact, body language or intonation to guide us through our conversation. But need is the mother of invention and the necessity to communicate has allowed Internet to produce its own set of paralinguistic elements. Faces, actions, etc. These are the elements used in conversation through chatrooms today.

    The most important point is the fact that although we have introduced these elements into the chatroom, we are still bound by the same pragmatic rules that govern our oral communication. These become evermore important within this new environment. Grice's maxims guide our oral communication, and explain many of the things that occur in it. But through the analysis of these logs, these conversations, we see that, when one of these maxims is transgressed, the speakers immediately work to restore it, whereas in oral conversation, the speakers would not necesarily do so.

    The conversational maxims are fundamentally important, for though this new form of communication has developed some tools with which to help itself, it is still the naked language, and it requires a directness that is not usual within our everyday conversations. Few social conventions have managed to survive within this medium, the world within the net is larger, realer to its users than reality sometimes, it seems sharper, more vivid. Noone is forced to do anything because of the existing conventions. They are hidden behind the cloak of anonimity, free to use the language.

    But humans are social creatures, so they do gather into places where they can have social interaction, and in these places they emulate their everyday lives, but without seeing a face or hearing a voice. The breakdown of any of the maxims is an intolerable situation. The maxims of quality and quantity are sacredly guarded by the chatroom members, for they are never broken. Relevance is perhaps the most common breakdown considering the results seen in the analysis of the data, but everytime the breakdown occurred, it was for a reason, a new speaker, a point that required clarification. There seem to be coincidences, but one can not generalize at this point. This is only the tip of the iceberg, hopefully in the near future more studies will be performed in this emerging discourse.

    At this point in time, we can say that there is a tendency for the maxims to be rigourously followed, and in the event that one of these is being broken, there is an immediate attempt by the speakers to repair the damaged maxim. Their form of communication depends on having more explicit, direct and overt messages. If people fail to cooperate in order to communicate, saying what needs to be said, in the sufficient amount to be understood, directed towards the specific situation dealt with and in a way that makes it clear enough for the other to understand it, then this means of communication is doomed to die.

    Yet we see the server from which the logs were extracted, 27872 chatrooms on a single server, of a single program. Apparently, this is not a phase, or a fashion, but the newest means of communication that is massifying at a rate that makes it difficult to estimate how many users world wide we have. The users are from different backgrounds, but are managing to communicate efficiently, forming social groups within the net, and applying the same rules we apply in our everyday lives to this artificial environment. What is more, they are succeeding.


    Cristal, David, (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English language, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.         [ Links ]

    Grice, Paul, (1989) Studies in the Way of Words. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London.         [ Links ]

    Julio, Maria Teresa and Ricardo Muñoz, (1998) Textos Clásicos de Pragmática, Arco/ Libros, S.I, Madrid, España.         [ Links ]

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