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June 19, 2006

Language Evolution in the Digital Age

Language Evolution in the Digital Age

What does The Dictionary mean to you? What makes a real word?

Scarequotes, in a comment on Open Source, May 17, 2006

We are intrigued by the questions that Scarequotes posed last month, and we’d like to see where we can go with them.

Lurking in the background is an old (and tired?) debate among linguists, anthropologists, and lexicographers about what constitute ‘real’ words and the authority to determine them. Prescriptive linguists argue spoken or written language ought to follow established rules; descriptive linguists are more concerned with understanding language as it is used. Most readers and scholars fall somewhere in between, embracing both consistency and flexibility, but the pendulum seems to have swung descriptive-ward.

Look it up

Look it up [djbones / Flickr]

The more immediate context for this show is our relationship to verbal authority in a time of user-generated dictionaries — of user-generated everything. Scarequotes wrote that he’s been “thinking about our relationship with The Dictionary. That mythical tome that determines What’s a Real Word. Because our casual references to and belief in The Dictionary seem to continue unhindered by the emergence of Wiktionary, Urban Dictionary, and Double-Tongued Word Wrester.”

We’re wondering how true this is, and why, if it is true, the dictionary hasn’t suffered the crumbled-faith fate of other powerful top-down institutions (like The Paper of Record, the The Encyclopedia, or The TV News).

Much has been made of web searching as a new standard for our current lexicon. The Internet has spawned its own vocabulary (“website” seems almost quaint after about a decade and a half) and hastened the adoption of others (“text” as a verb). Microsoft Word can’t keep up: it accepts “blog” but flags “podcast,” which was the New Oxford American Dictionary‘s Word of the Year in 2005 and today yields 282 million Google hits.

So are lexicographers simply trying to keep up with the descriptive power of search engines? Does the prevalence of new words signify the downfall of dictionaries, or merely that they have been supplanted by new authorities? Is Wiktionary, ever-changing but organized, the answer?

Put another way: how many hits do you need before you’re legal?

Update, 2/21 12:31pm

We thought we covered most of these bases in December with our Word of the Year show, but if this comes up again we’ll resuscitate it.

Extra Credit Reading

Language Evolution in the Digital Age, The Lexicographer’s Rules, June 19, 2006

Jargon Talk, The Word of the Day is…, Lexidiem, July 3, 2006

How to Make a Dictionary, Collins Word Exchange

Adam Gorlick, Mouse potato needing bling? Check Merriam-Webster’s new entries, Associated Press via The Boston Globe, July 5, 2006

Merriam-Webster Open Dictionary

Grandma Merriam Ain’t Getting Her Groove Back, Media Orchard by Idea Groove, November 19, 2005

Oxford English Corpus: infested with eggcorns, Language Log, May 1, 2006

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  • http://www.doubletongued.org/ Grant Barrett

    I made a long comment about this on my blog. For some reason, I couldn’t leave a trackback.

  • http://civilities.net/people/JonGarfunkel Jon Garfunkel

    Well, when Judge Rushing of the 6th Appellate Court of California needed to find some definitions of new media terminology, he turned to Wikipedia. For the definition of “webzine”, he quoted some appropriate words… which I realized that I wrote into Wikipedia one year ago!

  • http://www.dirtyfrenchnovel.com/ Scarequotes

    Mark Peters’ Wordlustitude is an excellent site that records nonce words — one-off coinages like “tentaclicious” and “go psycho bugnuts” and “pillow-fighting-esque.” I don’t think he’d say he’s competing with any print dictionaries, but that he’s recording the kind of thing they deliberately don’t.

    And I forgot in my original suggestion to mention Paul McFedries’ Word Spy, “devoted to lexpionage, the sleuthing of new words and phrases.” Definitely worth a visit when talking about new words.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    Perhaps the presence of the internet and Wikipedia-type tools is only erasing the gap between the formal and the informal. I suspect that there has always been a vast swath of common usage words and phraseology that simply didn’t get recorded as quickly – and, therefore, many lost – but were accepted in common speech.

    Language is ever changing. Now, its simply documented more readily. Prescriptionists can argue with descriptionists all they want. Most of us simply speak and write to one another as the words come to us. Certainly, with education, we are told to follow rules. But often, knowing the rules is when you feel most empowered to break them.

    And then there is the classist aspect of things. “Proper” language usage is often a way of separating the educated from the uneducated. If the internet is putting ‘street’ language into the mouths/fingers of a larger sector of society, perhaps is taking away that little classist tool.

  • rahbuhbuh

    i can’t track down Erin McKean’s, an edtor of the Oxford American Dictionary and the fabulous “Verbatim: the language quarterly,” criteria for adding new words to the publication. It had something to do with citing five-ish published uses from separate writers or speakers in different publications or public events, implying the sources are valid and widely circulated. That logic could hold true on the web if anyone wanted to be so uselessly thorough in investigating validity: X quantity of unique IP addresses viewing the word in question on Y ammount of websites.

    Allan Metcalf’s (“Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success”) FUDGE scale for testing new words’ staying power:

    F frequency of use

    U unobtrusiveness (seems and sounds familiar, as if already in the dictionary)

    D diversity of users/publications/situations

    G generation of new forms/derivatives

    E endurance of concept which it stands for

  • http://www.dirtyfrenchnovel.com/ Scarequotes

    PETA’s latest effort — to get Merriam-Webster to redefine “circus” so that the word “cruelty” appears in its definition — shows how, despite anyone-can-edit efforts like Wiktionary, changing the print dictionary carries a certain cachet. Even if you’re just interested in PR.

    And Allan Metcalf’s book is excellent, and he’d be another great person to talk to about language evolution just about any time.

  • rahbuhbuh

    A coder with too much time could write a filter to move timely buzz words from online dictionaries into “Slang of Yesteryear” editions. If an annual Google sweep for each entry yields nothing posted/published in a certain number of years, it’s ejected and no longer “official.” Traditionalists wishing to own a physical copy of this populist reference as an adjunct to the Oxfords and Websters could just order annual editions from online digital printers like Lulu. A compromise between the De/Prescriptive camps? Years into the practice, linguists would have searchable dated material and authors writing period pieces could be all the more authentic, seeing the word’s birthdate and (possible) issued time of death beside its definition.

    In terms of classisism mentioned in Allison’s post, language has to be viewed as sacred in all classes and sub cultures. Intentionally anti-academic street slang (contemporary and historic) is positioned as a buoy. If you’re on the right side and comprehend it, you’re accepted. If you’re stumbling with that cocked-head puzzled dog look, you’re obviously an outsider or old. The internet spreads these subcultural jewels and exposure turns them useless to the originators, especially after being resurrected as a fidgeting zombie in Disney movies years after the term died on the street. What would take a year of repetition in broadcast media now probably takes less than a month on blogs. How do slang originators feel when their private term is adopted by the world and sticks? I remember MTV news aired a funeral for the word “def” and someone dropped a dictionary into the coffin due to the term’s published acceptance.

    In terms of big P Proper language, much of this conversation goes beyond the dictionary and into qualifying online validity en masse. There have to be academic standards and style manuals regarding digital references, each probably scaled to a specific district or school, but what are those? I would like to hear from educators on how they handle the web in thesis and term paper bibliographies?

  • http://www.birds.cornell.edu/BOW/ANNHUM/ Anna Calypte

    This show’s air date given above is the 5th. Is it instead scheduled for Thursday, July 6th? Thank you — trying to plan my radio listening for tomorrow. :-)

  • http://www.dirtyfrenchnovel.com/ Scarequotes

    Geoffrey Pullum wrote a Language Log entry the other day where he forcefully disagrees with the idea that language is a “big bag o’ words.”

    I do not believe a language is a BBoW at all. To me, it is a structural system, the particular words deployed in the structure being an independent (and much more rapidly varying) matter.

    Lexicography may get a lot of attention (even from me), but the underlying grammar’s what makes English English.

  • http://studio-nelson.com plnelson

    “Prescriptive linguists argue spoken or written language ought to follow established rules;”

    ARE there any prescriptive linguists these days, or are they just a theoretical concept? Can you get one on the show?

    I’ve ALWAYS assumed that dictionary definitions are DEscriptive, not prescriptive. I’ve never heard anyone take a seriously contrary position on the matter.

  • Old Nick

    Just this past week I discovered (thanks to Potter) two (unfortunately) new definitions of old – no, make that ancient – English words:

    Flaming: “Flaming is the act of posting messages that are deliberately hostile and insulting, usually in the social context of a discussion board on the Internet. Such messages are called flames, and are sometimes posted in response to flamebait. Flaming is said by some to be one of a class of economic problems known as The Tragedy of the Commons, when a group holds a resource (in this case, communal attention), but each of the individual members has an incentive to overuse it. Flamers usually call their flames justified attacks…

    “Sometimes, flamers are attempting to assert their authority, or establish a position of superiority. Occasionally, flamers wish to upset and offend other members of the forum, in which case they are trolls. Most often however, flames are angry or insulting messages transmitted by people who have strong feelings about a subject. Finally, some consider flaming to be a great way to let off steam, though the receiving party may be less than pleased.�

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flame_wars

    Troll: “In Internet terminology, a troll is someone who comes into an established community such as an online discussion forum, and posts inflammatory, rude, repetitive or offensive messages designed intentionally to annoy and antagonize the existing members or disrupt the flow of discussion…

    “Example (one of several):

    – Opinionated statements: Posting messages expressing their own opinions as generally accepted facts without offering any proof or analysis.â€?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_troll

    Now, lord knows (I am, however, an atheist) that I’m guilty as sin myself of partaking in ‘flaming’; and more than one blogger who might qualify as a ‘troll’ has suckered me in to his smarmy little trap. That said, it strikes me now, on discovering that these cyber-behavioral patterns aren’t unique but common, that ALL users of this wonderful public resource we call ROS ought read the two Wikipedia articles and do their best to neither ‘feed the trolls’ nor ‘fan the flames’. (Especially in light of the inferno raging within our current Mideast thread.)

    Anyone for making the article on ‘flaming/flame wars’ mandatory reading for ROS users?

    Brendan, is it a stretch to recommend that ROS add the links to those two articles to the Commenting Guidelines? ( http://www.radioopensource.org/commenting-guidelines/ )

  • duplicity

    I find it interesting to watch digital language evolve in the context of language as class distinguisher: one of the primary functions of diversity of dialects (and establishments of dictionnaries, I would propose) has been to provide a way for different groups of people to discern members of in- and outgroups.

    There have long been prescriptive linguists establishing ‘proper’ discourse, maintaining traditional languages, spellings, and punctuation patterns. What distinguished ‘proper’ from improper was most frequently which usages had been longest available. New words worked their ways into the upper class slowly as they became more widely used by the people.

    What might make our current state of language unique is that with technological expansion there seem to be more new words around and available than ever before. Whether this is an actual increase in the number of words in the English language or more due to our ability to keep track of more words with more technology (I assume it’s mostly the former), the new marker of class or status is one’s ability to absorb and fluently use emergent idioms and words.

    13375p34k, anyone? The nature of our communication is determining our syntax and spelling, but has anything significantly changed about language? We still learn at least superficial qualities about people via their language use. Whether or not someone proofreads their posts, for example, provides a clue to the character of a writer, as do emoticons, usernames, and the frequency of internet-based idioms. With these clues we prepare ourslves to respond, argue, or flame, and I suppose we even somewhat subconsciously determine how well the writer fits to our own ingroup (which will influence our reactions to the post).

    I guess my question about language at present is whether or not a sea change in its evolution is actually going on right now, or whether it’s an illusory change. Will English as I knew it remain English, or will it become Modern English in the OED, replaced by something like Post Modern English?

  • http://web.mac.com/catucker altartifacts

    Every time I hear or read something about changes that the “digital revolution� is bringing about I immediately start mentally flipping backwards in time to find examples that point to other forms of the same activities being done in the past. In this case I landed in New Mexico several thousand years ago.

    If you’re ever in Albuquerque, New Mexico you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Petroglyph National Park. It and the surrounding area referred to as the West Mesa Escarpment is among other wonderful things a repository of incredible images carved into stone. The petroglyphs are mostly from the Puebloan people (mistakenly called the Anasazi by the scholars of the past) who have lived in the area for thousands of years but there’s also images left by the Spanish (think Coronado) and people to the present who unfortunately for archeologists and others in some cases wanted to add their own. In essence it’s a huge dictionary made up of over 15,000 images which represent concepts that mattered to the people of the time and even now can be understood in many cases. Many of the same images can be seen throughout the Southwest, Mexico, and into South America. Think of it as an environmental version of Flickr with mostly universal understanding at the time and a great a deal more permanence. In some cases these images represent diversions from the standard concept used throughout the area. In other cases the Spanish were using the stone surfaces to do a little propaganda work. Of course there are examples of concepts that fell out of favor and were replaced by new ideas as can be seen by their alteration over time.

    We humans find new ways to express ourselves but EXPRESS ourselves we do!

    Note: The last time I was there a History vs. Social Well-Being battle was being fought about the plan to place a highway right through the area mentioned above. — Oh heck, now I’m going forward in time thinking about how this relates to the impermanence of material on the web.

  • http://jurisdynamics.blogspot.com Jim Chen

    The question of description versus prescription in linguistics has arisen in the context of Jean-Paul Nerrière’s “Globish” proposal. See my post on this issue at http://jurisdynamics.blogspot.com/2006/08/marketplace-of-words.html.

  • tbrucia

    Emotionally, I sympathize with Bill Safire (whose name escaped me until I googled ‘NYT + grammarian’) . It pains me when I see folks use ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ interchangably. But now that I’m studying a scripting language for the first time, I’m learning new words: typecasting, vector, Euler, quaternion, codeblock, event handler, and so on… We have emotional relationships with the old, but we are cold-blooded in our creation and maintenance of the new. Such is life, learning fine distinctions in an ever more complicated reality — as other fine distinctions are lost. I suspect these two processes are adaptative responses by human animals trying to cope with a complicated and increasingly faster world. The throughput is accelerating, but the process is as old as the hills.

  • http://www.jasonnorris.com Jason Norris

    Language changes. Grammar rules will never stop that, no matter how strictly enforced. It seems to be part of our design as human beings.

    As for verbal authority, any that is established will eventually change, too.

    I would definitely place myself on the “descriptive” side of the issue. You should hear the discussions with my prescriptivist, librarian wife. (I think I’ve persuaded her to think differently about some aspects of the issue).

    When it comes to communication, however, you have to consider your audience. If you truly want to communicate, you have to speak their language. If they think your “unique” way of expressing yourself is really just bad grammar and silly use of “non-words,” you’ll never get your point across.

    So, where is our authority when it comes to words? The latest dictionary will tell you how most people are using language, so I’d suggest you go with that. But don’t be afraid to innovate if you think you have a receptive audience.

  • theananda

    It is interesting that while the “digital age” has democratized the process of deeming words legitimate, in some ways our real world use of American English is more homogenized than ever. While some regional accents or dialects persist, TV English dominates the scene.

    Which gets at another aspect of this question. What or who drives the creation and usage of these new words? Podcasting is a brand-based term, much like making a Xerox (copy). Is this evolution in language truly democratic, or just the masses responding to clever marketing?

  • Sopper14

    Two disparate thougths:

    -I’m curious if/how the change in the physical process of writing may be affecting how our brains are wired with respect to language and expression. From a more deliberate and careful process of pen and ink on paper, to the immediately – almost subconciously – correcting and editing use of a keyboard for word processing; from a one handed and one brain-sided physical process to an ambidextrous one. Does this affect how we, or particularly how modern children, process, construct, and convey ideas and information?

    and now for something completely different . ..

    -Several years ago when I lived on the Oregon coast, a local DJ of a R&B radio program (Straight Street on KLCC/KLCO) read a correspondence exchange he had with Microsoft after finding that spell-check did not like “Aretha”. It was quite funny, but it made a difference. If you go to Word and type in “Aretha”, it will not highlight it as a mis-spelled word. Thanks to John Glassburner, Microsoft Word now recognizes that the name of the Queen of Soul is legitimate.

  • Pingback: The Word « Disparate

  • http://officeofgreatideas.com Michael Schwab

    I wrote some thoughts about this topic in the first section of my senior essay. If you like, take a look at http://officeofgreatideas.com/public/view/argument/40 .

  • sLowhAnd

    There has never been such a thing as a true authority so far as language goes. The lexicographical and grammatical choices we make are regulated only to the extent that we must use words and grammar the knowledge of which we share with those with whom we wish to communicate. Individual language choices define our social world – there is no other real significance to them.

    Historically we can see that this is true. “slang”, code words of various kinds, colloquial expressions, some grammatical constructions, even languages themselves are all markers we use to “flag” someone as a member of this or that social group. Internally such devices are used to restrict communication between those inside and those outside the group. We all are familiar with the phenomenon of finding our vocabularies and manner changed depending on who we happen to be communicating with at the moment or who we are “around”.

    There is no room for the prescriptive view in the area of language: thinking otherwise is simply delusional. There may be, as Kant would say, a “hypothetical imperative” to make certain language choices, in the sense that it is most likely in your own self interest to make word choices and grammar choices that other people are familiar with if you wish to be understood, but there is no other reason to make such choices.

    Whether a word or grammatical construction is “legal” depends entirely on whether you know the meaning: if you do then it is “legal” FOR YOU. The “legal” status of a given language structure to a person says nothing at all about what other peoples’ views should be on the “legality” of the structure.

    The Urbandictionary.com model is an excellent example of what language is truly like, and what dictionaries SHOULD be like, if they are not only to reflect common usage but also that of the many and various subcultures. There are many different definitions that often directly contradict one another. You, as the user of YOUR language get to pick whichever definition you prefer, assuming you do not wish to communicate with someone who has chosen a different definition. We are living in a Humpty-Dumpty world my friends, and the sooner we all come to grips with it the better.

  • hurley

    For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

    Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

  • hurley

    J.R. Firth also worth contemplating in this context:

    You shall know a word by the company it keeps.

    Go ahead, try and forget that…

  • veryoldhippy

    The following words from your introduction stimulated my comments:

    “Prescriptive linguists argue spoken or written language ought to follow established rules; descriptive linguists are more concerned with understanding language as it is used. Most readers and scholars fall somewhere in between, embracing both consistency and flexibility, but the pendulum seems to have swung descriptive-ward.”

    I agree, the academic pendulum has swung descriptive-ward. But if everyone writes in the same manner that they speak—that is, without giving it any thought—we could be in dire straits. In fact, we are in dire straits, hip deep in the big muddy, and no one is accountable because no one has any common sense.

    The whole mess got started by accident, more that half a century ago.

    Riding of the backs of its founders—Boas, Sapir, and Bloomfield—modern linguistics (the study of human language independent of culture) broke free from the academic grip of anthropology in the late 40s. The schools of linguistics at most American universities date from that era.

    Noam Chomsky’s groundbreaking work in the late 1950s accelerated the legitimacy of linguistics as an independent discipline and sounded the death knell for the study of “prescriptive” English grammar.

    Chomsky’s work fell into that category of knowledge that is manifestly obvious once you think about it. Clearly, the effortless acquisition of language by a three-year-old child could not possibly be the result of simple mimicry (which had been the prevailing theory). The fact that infants can absorb the syntax, vocabulary, and rules of grammar currently prevailing in the language spoken by those who raise them suggests some form of genetic predisposition. In other words, we all come pre-wired for language.

    Chomsky’s work had some unexpected side effects in academia. They launched a now half-century-old quest for the “universal syntax” that informs this predisposition for language. The recording and analysis of casual conversations in different languages provided the meat for much of this work. The consequence has been that the literature of linguistics is awash with theories of “descriptive” grammar. These theories also make up much of the curricula in modern schools of linguistics.

    Unfortunately, much of this work appears to outsiders as nonsense. It is laden with inappropriate-sounding nomenclature, impenetrable jargon, and obscure references to earlier milestones in the literature of linguistics. In other words, it suffers from the standard curse of most advanced work in the social sciences—only other members of the cognoscenti can make heads or tails of it.

    When professors of linguistics communicate with those outside the inner circle, however, they form their sentences and paragraphs in accord with the relaxed modern “prescriptive” rules of English grammar. Their language is straightforward and concise. They write in the active voice, using concrete nouns and verbs familiar to their non-specialist audience. When unusual terminology is unavoidable, they provide readers with plain language definitions. When plain language alone won’t suffice, they use examples and analogies to make themselves understood.

    Languages evolve for a number of reasons and any language that is not undergoing constant change is a dead language. Modern English is the largest language on the planet. It has both more words and more speakers than Mandarin, its closest competitor. It is notable for the rapidity with which it creates new vocabulary and for the ease with which it adopts vocabulary from other tongues.

    Like any other living language, the standard usage patterns are under constant revision. However, constant revision doesn’t imply a lack of syntax, or a deficit of grammatical rules.

    Why is it that “A big, red, boxy Swedish car” sounds all right? On the other hand, why does “A Swedish, red, boxy, big car” sound wrong? Because of the rules that prescribe the proper order for a sequence of adjectives. These rules make no sense, but they have been with us for centuries—we even share them with speakers of Dutch and Frisian. Any English speaker who finds success in life understands the benefits of observing the rules of grammar, and the benefits of using precise vocabulary. They grant you access to the largest possible audience.

    Because progressive thinkers commonly denigrate prescriptive grammar as hopeless old-fashioned, the masters of curricula prohibit them as formal subjects of study in our public schools. Successful students must learn to write well indirectly. They must read widely and take classes that require much writing. They must avail themselves of helpful teachers to show them the way. Those who avoid this informal process arrive at the college or university of their choice unable to write a coherent sentence. College professors complain about this all the time.

    But, hey, coherence—that’s kind of a 19th century concept, man. I mean if you can be coherent, then they can probably hold you accountable.

  • jdyer

    “What does The Dictionary mean to you? What makes a real word?”

    Dickens satirizes dictionary type definitions in Hard Times, through the character Gradgrind,

    “’Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

    ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks

    in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

    ‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’ “

    http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/hardtime.htm

    The irony here is that such a definition may tell you how to classify a horse, but it doesn’t tell you what a horse “is.” For Dickens to know what an object is one has to enter into a personal relationship with it

    Yet, dictionaries are indispensable for establishing the meaning of words and without them we are in an Alice I Wonderland world where each of us could only say with humpty-dumpty that a word means “what I want it to mean.”

    Dictionaries give us the meaning of words based on usage as well as Aristotelian type analysis.

    Now, while usage makes a word real, dictionary definition standardizes its usage.

    To define a word like “horse” (to continue with the Gradgrind’s example) the dictionary will differentiate between species and genus of the object as well as some of its functions:

    horse n. A large hoofed mammal (Equus caballus) having a short-haired coat, a long mane, and a long tail, domesticated since ancient times and used for riding and for drawing or carrying loads. (from an online dictionary).

    Of course one could objects that natural object such as horses, trees, etc. don’t have set functions but merely exist. (There is fine little poem by Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg that makes that point.)

    Nor do these kinds of definition work very well with abstract terms such as the Adverb “as.”

    As -adv. “To the same extent or degree; equally.”

    Functions terms such as “the” are usually defined by its usage as well as through grammatical analysis.

    Dictionaries, while indispensable, are only one way of our getting to know words. Usage and experience with the objects in question are just as important. Besides dictionaries, since they try to reflect our usage of the language and since language is always in flux, need constant updating.

    Hence comprehensive dictionaries such as the OED also reflect the history of the language.

    Digital dictionaries won’t change that though they will change the speed with which dictionaries are updated making it seem as if language is changing at an ever faster rate.

  • Ben

    Hypertext HRefs and databases have added a visible, more visual z to the page’s former x and y. Many people can now easily see relationships of texts that were more opaque in the past. I am curious to find out what happens to language and communication as the visual cues further transcend the flat surface – as they did from stone to page, from page to book, and books to libraries. I’m also curious to know, as the departure from oral to the written altered our perception and recording of time, how does having the ability to instantly reference or communicate almost any media without much physical movement or expression change our temporal experience and understanding?

  • metolius8

    If you speak it and I understand it, then its a word!

  • rahbuhbuh

    Language will change as machines learn to dissect syntax (sentence-parsing systems are 40 years old now), link outside context or reference learned/stored information, and provide multiple translations. This will cause, at least, some entertaining confusion (try calling Amtrak to schedule a trip and engage that aggravating speech recognition program). This technology will lower in cost as it improves and disseminates into every-day items. Famous 1963 example swiped from Ray Kurtzweil: interpretting “Time flies like an arrow,” the machine gave the following results:

    1. a comparison, time passes as quickly as an arrow passes

    2. a command, telling someone to time (as in clocking it with a stop watch) flies using the same methodology as an arrow would time them

    3. a command, time flies that are like an arrow, but disregard the other flies unlike arrows

    4. a statement, time-flies (a variety of fly) like an arrow

    language will need to get much clearer.

  • rahbuhbuh

    November 5th New York Times article by James Gleick on proliferation of new words, the dictionary, and the influence of the internet:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/05/magazine/05cyber.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

  • http://en.wikipedia.org OpenVortex

    Are we going to lose “too”?

  • Potter

    Greta just used the word “wikify” A new verb? Love it.

    http://www.radioopensource.org/putting-the-wiki-to-bed/

    This weekend in the NYTimes, William Safire in his essay on “netroots” quotes Jerome Armstrong ( of MyDD) who uses the word “morpheme” to describe “netroots”.

    A “morpheme” is “an indivisible, meaningful element of a word, like net in ‘network’ substituting for the first syllable of grass roots, the word in century-old political jargon”.

  • travellingmind

    I sincerely hope that the written record, such as dictionaries does not go the way of the dinosaur or other things. I have seen a trend start in schools where young children are being taught their education from behind a computer, where penmanship and grammar aren’t a priority anymore in mainstream education. It is a shame I believe that this is happening, and these kids may not know how to write a real letter, but will excel at e-mailing or texting their friends in lieu of this outdate style of communication as it seems. I’m all for technology making our lives easier, but when it crosses the line of killing something like the written word, or books, then I have to say we need to take notice.

  • Vijtable

    travellingmind, while I agree in spirit, I don’t think outdated styles of communication are dying. Like the theatre or opera, maybe they’ve simply become more special and more niche.

    As for the value of the older ways, I think it all depends on the meaning of language – utilitarian or artistic (descriptive VS. prescriptive above).

    I learned penmanship, but I don’t really use it. Is it necessary for my effective communication (when my main tool of communication is keyboard)? There is also the question – is the fall of letter-writing necessarily a bad thing? I communicate more often, and in more detail, with my cross-country relatives now than I did ten years ago. I can attribute some of my lack of formality to frequency of communication and

    Artistically speaking, maybe it’s not all that bad that language is evolving faster now. As geographically regional dialects slowly die, maybe “technological dialects” are rising.

    So I may lament that letter-writing is dying, but I also celebrate the increased democratization and diversification of the English language.

  • Aviendha

    I distinctly remember a certain conversation at school. I was with a group of friends in the art room, and one of them came in wearing a shirt with a certain word on it. The entire conversation that day centered around the definition of that word, because the person wearing it insisted that it was not dirty while the rest of the people in the room were convinced that it was. After much debate, a vote, and a reference to Urban Dictionary, we found definition #6 agreed with our vote, and so it was final. Personally, I think that anybody outside of Canterbury High School, maybe even the people outside of the artsy-fartsy clique at Canterbury High School, would have no idea what that word ment in normal conversaion. However, the way in which it was used, to that particualr audience, gave it meaning. That is what a word is: the way an audience will recieve it. As the audience of these words, we can decide how we are going to recieve it. We have influence on what those words mean. However, one person saying that a box is a round reflective stucture hung in the middle of a room while people dance does not turn “box” into a synomyn for “disco ball”. The entire audience has to agree, and it is diffucult to persuade populations.

  • herbert browne

    Veryoldhippy is dope…

    After they asked the machine to parse “Time flies like an arrow”, did they sucker-punch it with “Fruit flies like old bananas”?

    Q: How much do the visual cues (as well as inflections) matter to the “New-language learners”? A child, watching two people conversing, will learn a lot by judging the responses to certain words, as well as their placement within a sentence, or phrase, I’m guessing. Machines may have a steep learning curve in this dept. (the HAL 2000 notwithstanding)… ^..^

  • http://fadedflowers.blogspot.com Tlazolteotl

    For a fun diversion, you might go to YouTube and check out the O RLY owl videos that have been posted. They are pastiches of pictures of owls with captions in leet/geek speak. For some reasonl, I find some of them very amusing, and shows how localized that kind of slang can be in a particular subculture.

  • silby

    If the digital age has made a significant contribution to language, it is in 1337sp33k and geek/gamer/hacker talk, which my friends and I are known to speak out loud alongside standard English. Just as with any in-group, geeks and gamers develop auxiliary vocabularies and grammar rules to enable them to talk about their experiences. The extension of 1337 from a typed to a spoken vocabulary seems to indicate that Internet-based communities can become real-world communities.

  • herbert browne

    I’m questioning one of the opening premises in this thread… namely:

    ..”That mythical tome that determines What’s a Real Word. Because our casual references to and belief in The Dictionary seem to continue unhindered by the emergence of Wiktionary, (etc)..” // …”We’re wondering how true this is, and why, if it is true, the dictionary hasn’t suffered the crumbled-faith fate of other powerful top-down institutions (like The Paper of Record, The Encyclopedia, or The TV News)..”-

    Is the Dictionary really a “top-down” institution? Or is it’s alleged linear quality more “back-to-front” (ie historical)? It seems that dictionary construction has a loop system which takes (has always taken) usage into account- and is then altered, amended, added onto, etc. ie it’s being “topped up”. No one really dictated, in true “top-down” fashion, what’s what… did they? My guess is that dictionaries are more a product of listeners than of commanders… ^..^

  • http://dvortygirl.blogspot.com/ Dvortygirl

    Wiktionary is not unaware of these issues. Here are my two cents. Please also see http://omegawiki.blogspot.com/ for the other essay.

    Intuitively, we all know what a word is. A word is a unit of language conveying some meaning. But how do we decide what is a real word? We look in a dictionary, of course. What do we do if we’re writing a dictionary?

    We are caught between cataloging what is “right” (prescriptivism) and what is actually done (descriptivism). The pendulum has lately swung towards descriptivism, and I would say that there are some good reasons for that trend. The language that is spoken on the streets is not the same language that is written in academia. Somebody learning a language may genuinely need help sorting out the less proper terms in it.

    Take, for instance, colloquialisms such as “irrespective” and “humongous”, and all the phrases that have gotten squished together into amalgams like “gotcha” and “woulda”. Most people would readily agree that these words do not belong in a college thesis paper.

    What is the scrupulous lexicographer to do? Fortunately, it is not a strict either-or question, especially in a work not substantially limited by size. In an electronic resource, we can put them in, anyway. To satisfy the formal sorts, the perscriptivists, we can then place a prominent usage note in the entry, explaining just why a writer might wish to use caution with the term: ginormous is a colloquial term, regarded by many to be something less than a proper word. Thus, the reader is both informed and cautioned.

    That’s fine for most of the slang and jargon, but we have another problem. People keep making up new words. My sister in law coined the term “muskaroon” to mean generically any small, furry creature that scurries past too quickly to identify. Squirrels, chipmunks, gophers, and presumably rabbits would all qualify. So we have a unit of language with a symbol and a meaning. The trouble is, if you walked up to people on the street and inquired whether there were muskaroons in the area, nobody would be able to answer who hadn’t talked lately to my sister in law, and that is a small minority of people, indeed.

    The test here is usage. Can we demonstrate that the word is in common use? Now, depending on the character of the dictionary, we can define the rules various ways. Was it used by so many independent sources? Did anybody important (such as Shakespeare or a prominent academic journal) publish the word?

    Generally, we also try to find and present examples of the term in what is called “running text”. That means that it is in a paragraph, and isn’t only used as somebody’s nickname, say. The edge is still a fuzzy one. Are the citations in traditional print sources, such and books and journals, or are they sprinkled in a couple blogs and forums? Was the word used in only one limited context, or in a variety of sources and over a period of years? These sorts of tests can help to weed out many of the more questionable entries. At some point, though, it may yet come down to a judgment call, if not on whether a word is real, then on how to apply the rules. In these cases, I advise the users of a dictionary to bring a healthy dose of skepticism with them, to recall that even dictionaries are not infallible, and to trust at the very least that these decisions are made by real people who care for the project.

    If, knowing all that, you find you don’t like the way “they” are running the place, you are invited to do a better job.

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