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.

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Book review: Netymology: From Apps to Zombies, by Tom Chatfield

June 7, 2013

Given the perennial popularity of linguistic declinism, a common contemporary version of which is “the internet/texting is destroying language”, it comes as a relief and a pleasure to read a balanced appraisal of internet language itself. Tom Chatfield’s new book Netymology: From Apps to Zombies is a sensible, fascinating, and enthusiastic exploration of the origins and usage of digital terminology; in its own words, it’s a linguistic celebration of the digital world.

Whether you’re a l33t user or a relative n00b, you’ll find much to enjoy and ponder in Netymology. Its 100 short chapters, each 2–3 pages long, offer informative snippets on such cultural byroads and subcultural thoroughfares as the mechanics of keyboards, the Beasts of Baidu, the origins of Pac-Man’s name, and the Vatican’s patron saint of the internet (really), to take a few examples virtually at random.

Netymology covers a lot of ground but is never heavy going. From a wealth of sources it plucks and condenses choice nuggets of technological history, such as the eccentric story of Apple’s command key, aka pretzel key or splodge (⌘):

Known properly as the St John’s Arms, it’s an ancient, knot-like heraldic symbol, dating back in Scandinavia to at least 1000 BC, where it was used to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.

It’s still found today on Swedish maps, representing places of historical interest, thanks to its (approximate) resemblance to the tower of a castle viewed from above.

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