A Week in Books: Ned Kelly and the internet

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The Independent Culture

For the tabloid papers – those ever-bristling watchdogs of the Queen's English – the chief interest of Peter Carey's Booker victory this week lay in the gift of a posh prize to a novel composed in rule-bending, grammatically "incorrect" speech. Light on full points, entirely comma-free, Ned Kelly's Aussie vernacular of the 1870s also breaks down the verb "to be" in the way that the street demands and the schoolroom forbids ("I were, you was, they was"). In Carey's hands, Ned's voice becomes a superbly expressive instrument, fit for every shade of sense as the wild colonial boy drifts towards his destiny like "a plump witchetty grub beneath the bark not knowing that the kookaburra exists unable to imagine that fierce beak or the punishment in that wild and angry eye".

On one level, True History of the Kelly Gang is a novel about the links between language and social exclusion. Ned's campaign for justice means a struggle to seize and control the words that carry prestige and authority. The outlaw grows as obsessed as any jobbing actor (or novelist) with his press cuttings ("it were still a shock to see my name so famous"); he cherishes his battered copy of Lorna Doone; and in one crucial scene, the outlaws hold up a printing-press to guarantee some positive media coverage. Well, it beats spin-doctoring.

Yet, as Ned battles to raise his tone until the memoir even quotes the "Crispin Crispian" speech from Henry V, we believe in him precisely because of his jaunty informality. Society rewards correct and "educated" language, but that language also bears the taint of dishonesty – an anomaly that Carey exploits supremely well.

Ned's own depositions exist in a semi-official no man's land between writing and speech. They capture his salty talk but also aim for the imposing gravitas that befits the "true & secret part" of his notorious history. This gives Carey's style not an archaic, but a very contemporary twang. For Ned's voice recalls all the new negotiations between rough and smooth speech that high technology permits. Far from being a mere period piece, True History of the Kelly Gang is a novel in tune with the writers and readers of the web. Like its hero, they often want to mix nonchalant eloquence with a creative approach to pedants' laws.

A new book by that indefatigable linguist David Crystal spells out these innovations with admirable coolness and clarity. Language and the Internet (Cambridge University Press, £13.95) shows with a broad sweep of examples that writing on the Net doesn't mean an anarchic free-for-all. On the contrary: fresh conventions arise all the time, and soon they vary subtly between e-mails, chat groups, web pages and so on. Language-users may love to break rules but – even more so – they love to make them, Crystal argues. "The arrival of Netspeak is showing us homo loquens at its best."

In a way, the net is making Ned Kellys of us all: eager to show off a matey authenticity but equally concerned to parade our status via a certain poise and self-control. Even the general tolerance in e-mail of what Crystal charmingly calls "radical graphological deviance" (ie, crazy spelling and punctuation) should count as "an opportunity, not a threat". He also supplies quite the most useful list of net abbreviations I've ever seen. They include "X!" – typical woman! – and "Y!" – typical man! – as well as the priceless "ianal" (for "I am not a lawyer, but..."). For Crystal, the wide wired world can extend our enjoyment of idiosyncratic speech patterns – whether they crop up in MUDs (multi-user domains) or prize-winning novels. And if that bothers the tabloids, well bfd. Which Carey's ever-decorous Ned Kelly would gloss as "big adjectival deal".

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