We’re all speaking Geek By Ben Macintyre
The London Sunday Times
The world wide web, which turned 15 this week, has given us a fantastic outpouring of new words
FIFTEEN YEARS after the birth of the world wide web, the lines of battle are clear. On one side the still young culture of the internet — anarchic, playful, joyfully (and sometimes wilfully) inaccurate, global and uncontrollable; on the other, a paper-based set of priorities — precise, polite, often national in perspective and increasingly paranoid. The latter seeks to manage, limit and define the culture; the former delights in its resistance to regulation.
The battle rages in the conflict between Wikipedia, the sprawling internet encyclopaedia, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the canon versus the loose cannon. This week it erupted in the nursery, when the child-rearing guru Gina Ford threw a tantrum and launched her bizarre attempt to shut down the Mumsnet website because some of the mums had been rude about her.
But in no area of the culture is the collision more intense than over the English language, for the web has changed English more radically than any invention since paper, and much faster. According to Paul Payack, who runs the Global Language Monitor, there are currently 988,974 words in the English language, with thousands more emerging every month. By his calculation, English will adopt its one millionth word in late November. To put that statistic another way, for every French word, there are now ten in English.
That claim has enraged traditional lexicographers. The 20-volume OED has 301,100 entries, and purists point out that Mr Payack has little in the way of method and few criteria to define what really constitutes a word. But that, of course, is the point.
He found the remaining 687,874 words by scouring the internet. Every digital English dictionary was combed, before adding in the emerging words, the hybrids, Chinglish (Chinese-English), the slang, the linguistic odds and sods, and even Hollywords, terms created by the film industry. If a word is used in English, it was acceptable.
The nearest rival to English in sheer fecundity is Chinese, and with 1.3 billion Chinese now being officially urged to learn English, the result is nomogamosis (It is on the list: “A state of marital harmony; a condition in which spouses are well matched.”) and many, many offspring, some of them rather sweet. Drinktea, for example, is a sign on a shop door meaning closed, but also derives from the Mandarin for resting.
The so-called tipping point may have come in the mid-1990s at the same time as the invention of the first effective web browser, for ever since the web has served as a seedbed for language, for the cross-fertilisation and rapid evolution of words.
So far from debasing the language, the rapid expansion of English on the web may be enriching the mother tongue. Like Latin, it has developed different forms that bear little relation to one another: a speaker of Hinglish (Hindi-English) would have little to say to a Chinglish speaker. But while the root of Latin took centuries to grow its linguistic branches, modern non-standard English is evolving at fabulous speed. The language of the internet itself, the cyberisms that were once the preserve of a few web boffins, has simultaneous expanded into a new argot of words and idioms: Ancient or Classic Geek has given way to Modern Geek.
The web has revived the possibilities of word-coinage in a way not seen since Shakespearean times, when the language was gradually assuming its modern structure but was not yet codified into dictionaries (the first comprehensive English dictionary appeared in 1730). Then, as now, the lack of control, and the rapid absorption of new terms and ideas through exploration, colonisation and science, enabled a great flowering of words. Of the 24,000 words used by Shakespeare, perhaps 1,700 were his own inventions: besmirch, anchovy, shudder, impede.
Thanks to the internet, we are witnessing the second great age of the neologism, a fantastic outpouring of words and phrases to describe new ideas or reshape old ideas in novel forms of language. Today, a word does not need the slow spread of verbal usage or literature to gain acceptance. If a word works, the internet can breathe instant life into it.
You do not have to be Shakespeare to forge words. George Bush is constantly evolving new words, but no one should misunderestimate the ability of lesser wordsmiths to do likewise. So many words that ought to exist inexplicably do not. There should be a term for that momentary flash of embarrassment when a cell phone rings and you wonder if it is yours; and for the vague disappointment you feel when you think you are about to sneeze, take a deep breath and then don’t. (National Public Radio in the US recently held a competition to name this proto-sneeze and came up with “sniff-hanger”.) Why is there a word for déjà vu, but nothing to describe the opposite experience, far more common, of knowing something perfectly well but being quite unable to remember it?
Last year this newspaper reported the existence, in the Bantu language Tshiluba, of the long-needed word ilunga, meaning “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”. Subsequent investigations suggested that the word may not exist in Tshiluba, but it exists now in English, as thousands of entries on the web attest, and the language is better for it.
Rather than fight the word loans and word borrowings, the strange hybrids and new coinages, we should welcome them. New words expand our world. They can even change it. If ilunga is the thrice-repeated offence that cannot be forgiven, then its opposite is an Arabic word, taraadin, meaning “I win, you win”, the face-saving way to end an argument. As bombs fall on southern Lebanon and missiles on northern Israel, the world could profit from learning a new language, in which ilunga is solved by taraadin.
Spread the word: English is unstoppable
By NEIL REYNOLDS, The Globe and Mail
OTTAWA — California-based linguist Paul Payack expects the English language to gain its one-millionth word this autumn. The language has come a long way indeed, as the English would say, in 400 years. In 1582, the English grammarian Richard Mulcaster could say that the language was “of small reach, stretching no further than this island of ours, nay not there over all.” In 1582, though, William Shakespeare married Ann Hathaway — and the language itself has since flourished as magnificently as the playwright himself. More than one billion people now speak it. Another billion people are learning it. Not bad, indeed.
The British Council, an independent charitable organization, says the English language now has special status of one kind or another in 75 countries. That one-third of the world’s books are published in English. That two-thirds of all scientists read English. That three-quarters of the world’s mail is written in English. That four-fifths of all electronic communications are in English. That people who spend time in Britain simply to learn English spend $2-billion a year doing it.
Language is a fascinating thing, the most complex of human achievements, spontaneously evolved, one unique word or expression at a time, without government control — for that matter, without government interest (aside from official language status). It is true that more than 40 countries have established academic police forces to protect their languages. But these are, for the most part, reactionary institutions that seek to reverse the past rather than invent the future. Cardinal Richelieu was the first of the language cops, founding the illustrious L’Académie française in 1634 with a mandate “to give rules to our language, and to render it pure and elegant.” Time travel would have been a simpler assignment. Once the great language of diplomacy, the French language has been going through rough times. Indeed, France deemed it necessary a few years ago to amend its constitution, specifying French as the official language of the republic. By its nature, language is decentralized, independent and anarchic. Only in exceptional circumstances, is it pure and elegant. It is almost always out of control.
In the 18th century, the English language almost became the American language, escaping by the very skin of its teeth — itself one of those inspired English-only phrases devised by the translators of the King James version of the Bible. (In contrast, the Douay Bible expresses Job’s lament for his wasted body with the literal assertion that “nothing but lips are left about my teeth.”) In the century between the Revolutionary and Civil wars, American references to “the American language” abounded. In 1780, American envoy John Adams could write from France to lobby Congress for an American language academy, directed by learned Americans and empowered to “correct and improve” the young country’s rude misuse of the language. “English is destined to be more generally the language of the world,” he wrote, “than Latin in a previous age and French in the present age.”
North America gave English room to roam. In Mr. Mulcaster’s 1582, English was spoken by perhaps four million people. In Mr. Adams’s 1780, by perhaps 12 million. In Noah Webster’s 1828, on publication of The American Dictionary of the English Language, by perhaps 50 million. A century later, in H.L. Mencken’s rambunctious 1920s, on his publication of The American Language, by perhaps 200 million. With two billion now speaking it or learning to speak it, we can credibly imagine a genuine global language.
Some linguists say that three or four dominant “language brands” will emerge — Chinese and Spanish are most frequently suggested as rival global languages. (In any case, Canada will be competitive. Of the 100 languages used in Canada, Chinese is already No. 3, spoken by one million people.) Language has always been closely connected to patriotism, and almost always to a particular country. The English have always regarded “the American language” as essentially barbaric. Inevitably, in the 19th century, Americans came to regard their distinctive English as a unique language. In 1838, Indiana instructed its state university “to instruct the youth of the Commonwealth in the American language.” In 1854, secretary of state William Marcy ordered U.S. diplomatic missions to use only “the American language.”
Fifteen years ago, Robert MacNeil, the Canadian who for many years co-anchored The MacNeil/Lehrer Report on PBS, wrote his evocative memoir Wordstruck as a love story with the English language. In the end, looking retrospectively from his mother’s home in Halifax to the Atlantic, he says simply: “This is where I was first struck by words. This is where they made me more than a Canadian, an Englishman, or an American; or Scottish, or Irish, or German — all things my forebears were. This is where I became what [dissident Russian poet] Joseph Brodsky calls ‘a citizen of the great English language.’ ” It is this sense of the language that most fully expresses its dynamic.
English is to language as capitalism is to economics. It is the language of laissez-faire, of enterprise — and, beyond all argument, of hope.