The other day, a young author was being interviewed on the radio about his new book. The book sounded darn dull to be frank, but the way he answered call-in questions really caught my ear. “Hey, that is a cool question,” he told one caller. “So go to my blog and comment it and I'll Reply.”

“Comment it?” He was obviously imagining his blog home page as he spoke and mentally hitting the “Comment” button and then the “Reply” choice. The architecture of that Internet page was actually shaping his spoken language. “Do you suppose that has become his only response template”? I wondered. “Has every conversation for him become a matter of clicking on that preset number of options? Has his every thought likewise been structured and stunted, too?”

Of course, personal data devices and cell phones create an even tighter box for language with their teensy-weensy keypads and their tiny screens. In fact, they have spawned a whole lexicon of language shortcuts to reduce the number of keystrokes it takes to tap out a message.

There are many glossaries of Internet shortcuts out there to help the uninitiated (like me) learn to whittle whole phrases down to a few letters. For example, go to http://netforbeginners.about.com and you can see more than 100 Internet abbreviations, a veritable decoder ring of Internet slang. Here are just a few: RTM for Read the Manual, CMIIW for Correct Me If I'm Wrong, BIF for Before I Forget, ATSL for Along The Same Line, CUL8R for See You Later, and ISWYM for I See What You Mean.

To add a little emotional punch to this potentially sterile shorthand, there are also “emoticons” available, symbols designed to express the mood, attitude or emotional state of the writer. Take a look at the Computer High-Tech Dictionary at www.computeruser.com/resources/dictionary/emoticons.html, for instance. This site will take you hundreds of symbols past that well-known “smiley face.” I can't resist giving you a preview: :- l meaning indifferent, bored or disgusted; :-v for shouting; :C for astonished; :{ for having a hard time; Q:-) to indicate a college graduate; and d:-o for hats off to you! Pretty clever, I admit.

So what do you make of all this anyway? Have we slammed on the literacy brakes and punched language into reverse? Are we backing up to a technology-enabled form of grunting and pointing once again? I honestly don't know.

There is certainly much to be said on the other side of this issue, too. For one thing, more people are writing something than ever before thanks to the Internet and e-mail. Apparently a new blog is launched every few seconds these days. Does that perhaps signal the creation of a worldwide sort of electronic town center where we all meet and mingle and trade ideas? Is it the virtual backdoor to a democratic society for everyone?

In the interest of full disclosure, I also have to tell you that my own work has been made easier and even better by the Internet. In years past, I spent hours at the library pouring over books and microfilm and making cold calls trying to track down information on a given subject. Now most of my research is done on-line. Without leaving my desk, I can find current information on any subject and contact experts from all over the world.

Most of all, I suppose, I hope that serious thought and discussion really will flourish in this new environment rather than be gradually replaced by a few off-the-shelf, standard responses. That would be a very happy ending indeed. =^ D (big grin).