English 3.0, a short film about digital language use

November 16, 2014

English 3.0’ is a 20-minute video (embedded below) from documentary filmmaker Joe Gilbert about the effects of digital culture on language use and change, particularly English. The introductory voice-over asks:

Will abbreviations, crudely spelled words and a lack of consideration for grammar become the norm, or are these anxieties simply great plumes of hot air manifesting out of fear – fear of the new?

This question is addressed from various angles by a series of talking heads whose comments are for the most part informed and level-headed: in order of appearance, David Crystal, Fiona McPherson, Robert McCrum,* Tom Chatfield, and Simon Horobin.

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English 3.0 by Joe Gilbert, a short documentary film about digital language use

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Crystal, for example, reports on children’s use of abbreviations in text messages, which he analyses when visiting schools. Back in 2004 the abbreviation count was only about 10% on average; on a recent visit there were none at all. The students tell him they “used to do that” but it’s not cool anymore; one child, tellingly, stopped when his parents started.

Chatfield (whose excellent book Netymology I reviewed here) talks lucidly about various conventions in informal digital communication, characterising them as innovations which, like any technology, can be used skilfully or not. He believes talking about a decline in English “lets us off the hook, because it stops us from asking what it means to use new opportunities well or badly”:

We really need to be a little bit more sophisticated about this, and partly recognise that what people are doing is bending screen-based language to be more expressive rather than less. When you don’t have a human face there in person to convey emotional text and subtext, you tend to go above and beyond conventional standard English, conventional good grammar, in order to get your meaning across. You draw smiley or sad human faces out of punctuation; you use lots of exclamation marks; you use irony marks and asides; on Twitter you use hashtags. Now this isn’t for me bad grammar so much as good innovation when it’s done well.

The video could have done with more female voices – one woman out of five participants is not a very good balance – and subtitles would be a welcome addition especially for non-native-English speakers.

But compared with the last video about language that I featured on Sentence first, Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’, ‘English 3.0’ is a dose of fresh air, common sense, insight, and tolerance, and is well worth 20 minutes of your time.

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* Not McCrumb, as the video caption has it. This is why we need proofreaders.


Misheard lyrics, and ‘overall’ criticism

November 13, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Mildew all around me, and other mondegreens looks at misheard song lyrics, including some famous, favourite, and personal examples:

Everyone’s experience of a song is unique, so new and idiosyncratic mondegreens keep appearing. Others are common enough to be famous in the field, like Jimi Hendrix’s ‘kiss this guy’, instead of kiss the sky. Some mondegreens might begin as accidents of perception but be amusing enough to then be deliberately adopted, replacing the original words. Wright herself [Sylvia Wright, who coined the term] wrote that they were ‘better than the original’, and some singers even embrace the mondegreens.

Among my favourites are ‘Shamu the mysterious whale’ (She moves in mysterious ways) and ‘R-G-S-P-E-P-P’ (R-E-S-P-E-C-T). I also summarise how they got the name mondegreens and explain the titular ‘Mildew all around me’, which is family lore. There are also great examples in the comments (‘All we are saying is kidneys and jam’).

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This week’s post, Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with it, examines the use and criticism of the word overall. It’s part of a critical series at Macmillan on prescriptivism. I’m particularly interested in how long overall has been labelled a ‘vogue word’:

In The Complete Plain Words, first published 60 years ago, Ernest Gowers described as ‘astonishing’ the word’s growth in popularity, then spent two full pages showing how it was being used as a synonym for more than a dozen other words. A few years later, overall was described (fairly, I think) as a ‘vogue word’ in Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage. Vogue words are ‘faddish, trendy, ubiquitous words that have something new about them’, writes Bryan Garner in his Modern American Usage. One of the vogue words in this 2009 book is… overall. Just how long can a word be in vogue?

The post goes on to report other complaints about overall, weighs up the evidence, and offers advice on whether you should use it.

You can browse all my older posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog here.


Book spine poem: Unlocking the language

November 7, 2014

Bookmashing, for the uninitiated, is when you stack books so the titles on their spines form a poem, or a mini-story, etc. It also has the more transparent name book spine poetry. It’s a fun game – and challenge – for word lovers, and a great excuse to browse your bookshelves. You’ll see them in a new light.

I’ve made several bookmashes over the years, and would do them oftener if most of my books weren’t in storage. Usually there’s no special theme, but some have been explicitly linguistic, e.g. Evolution: the difference engine, Forest of symbols, The web of words, Ambient gestures, and Cat and Mouse Semantics. So today I imposed the restriction of only using books from the ‘language’ shelf:

[click to embiggen]

stan carey book spine poem bookmash - unlocking the language

Unlocking the language

The professor
And the madman
Defining the world,
Shady characters
Unlocking the English language –
Is that a fish
In your ear?

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Thanks to the authors Simon Winchester, Henry Hitchings, Keith Houston, Robert Burchfield, and David Bellos. (I’ll try to be less gender-skewed next time.)

I got the idea originally from artist Nina Katchadourian, and it has spread to public radio and around the web. Last year a British drama group ran a bookmash competition, and now Jump! Mag (an educational magazine for children) is holding one for young readers.

Millie Slavidou, who set up the contest, has put several bookmashes on her Glossologics blog, which I wrote about last year. Seeing the idea featured in Jump! Mag prompted today’s simple effort, and I look forward to seeing any competition entries they make public. New players are always welcome.


Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.


Andy Warhol and language

October 30, 2014

“Words troubled and failed Andy Warhol,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum on the first page of his biography of the artist (Penguin Books, 2001), even though Warhol wrote many books, “with ghostly assistance”, and had a distinctive speaking style.

Wayne Koestenbaum - Andy Warhol - Penguin Lives biography book coverKoestenbaum returns several times to Warhol’s relationship with language and with time, noting how Warhol’s love of repetition manifested in verbal expression, and remarking on how he “distrusted language” and didn’t understand “how grammar unfolded episodically in linear time, rather than in one violent atemporal explosion”.

I want to quote one passage in particular, from later in the book (which is more psychological portrait than straight biography). Warhol’s magazine Interview, first titled inter/VIEW and then Andy Warhol’s Interview, featured stars interviewing other stars with the results transcribed generously and precisely, without the editing that conventionally turns spontaneous speech into readable prose:

Interview magazine was Andy’s most sustained attempt, after a [a novel], to cross the border between tape-recorded speech and the written word: his experiments in bridging this divide involve a serious philosophical quest to figure out where and how verbal meaning breaks down, and to track the imprecise, shiftless way the words occupy the time it takes to utter and understand them. Andy’s intensest experiences were visual, not verbal, yet he remained fascinated by his own difficult, hampered process of verbalization. Interview, an ideal vehicle, allowed him to indulge his interest in dialogue, as well as his desire to bodysnatch reality and to seal it in falsely labeled canisters. Via the technological mediation of tape recorder, Andy hoodwinked time and talk, and canned it as a product bearing his own name.

I don’t know how serious a philosophical quest it was, but I can relate to the interest in unedited dialogue. Anyone who has transcribed recorded speech will have noticed how halting and erratic is its syntax, compared to the deliberate (if not always elegant) order of writing.

Speech, particularly in conversation, is characterised by false starts, broken phrasing, and disorganised ideas; full, coherent sentences are the exception. Little wonder our memory of syntax and vocabulary is so poor.

Warhol’s unashamedly commercial attitude can belie the fact that he was a deeply sensual artist, and for all his awkwardness with language I think he must have savoured this slippery, intimate side of it – especially when it manifested in so messy and profligate a fashion.


Word magic from Shalom Auslander

October 21, 2014

Browsing books at random in Galway, I picked up Shalom Auslander’s novel Hope: A Tragedy because the title caught my eye, and I bought it based on a cursory scan of its contents and reviews. The author’s name was also interesting to me, and the book turned out to be the most entertaining thing I had read in months.

More recently I read Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, which was the funniest thing I’d read since his novel. Not that it’s all jokes – the books are very well written, and work on many levels – but if you like dark and irreverent humour suffused with theological anxiety, there’s a good chance you’ll like his work.

Here’s an excerpt from Foreskin’s Lament on the religious implications of his name. I’ve selected it not for its humour (though it has some of that), but because of its linguistic content. I think word magic is subtler and more pervasive than we often suppose, though what follows is an extreme and obvious case of it:

In the third grade, Rabbi Kahn told me my name was one of God’s seventy-two names, and he forbade me from ever writing it in full. We wrote primarily in Hebrew and Yiddish, so anything on which I wrote my name — God’s name — became instantly holy: tests, book reports, Highlights for Kids — consequently, they could never be mistreated. It was forbidden to let them touch the floor, it was forbidden to throw them away, it was forbidden to place other papers on top of them.

—Name of the Creator! Rabbi Kahn would shout in horror, pointing at the McGraw-Hill American History lying anti-Semitically on top of my Talmud test. —Name of the Creator!

Then I would have to leave the classroom, go upstairs, and walk all the way to the bais midrash (study hall), where they kept a brown cardboard box reserved for holy pages without a home: torn prayer books, old Haggadahs, crumbling Talmuds, and the suddenly holy “What I Did This Summer” by God Auslander.

“Words are holy,” as the narrator subsequently notes. Another passage revisits the complications of being called Shalom, through an awkward conversation with his mother, but I’ll leave that for anyone interested in reading the book. For some background see Auslander’s interview at Bookslut, or visit his website for essays and more.


Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens

October 10, 2014

Happy the reader who is unselfconscious about hyphens. Or is it unself-conscious? Un-selfconscious? When we add a prefix to a word that’s already (sometimes) hyphenated, it’s not always obvious whether and where a hyphen should go in the new compound. Tastes differ. Even un-self-conscious has its advocates.

I’m all for the solid, unambiguous unselfconscious, recommended by the Oxford Manual of Style among others. But different compounds raise different issues, and there’s variation and disagreement in each case over which style works best. That may be understating it: Fowler referred to “chaos” and “humiliation” in the prevailing use of hyphens.

Read the rest of this entry »


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