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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