English 2.0

via xkcd.com

“I’ll Google it.”

“Did you YouTube that video?”

“She’s a blogger.”

I can only wonder what my great grandparents would have thought of those phrases. It’s basically gibberish, right?

Well, as with any other technology that makes an impact on daily life, Web 2.0 has changed a lot about the way we communicate, and I don’t just mean that in the sense that we now learn more about our friends and family via Facebook than through face-to-face conversation.

I mean that, quite literally, the words we use to express ourselves are different today than they were a few years ago. There are a few reasons for that. Perhaps the most significant is that the technology that we use on a day-to-day basis is different than the technology we used a few years ago. I’d venture to say that another reason is that language is a tremendously flexible tool. The English language seems particularly capable of stretching and bending to fit our needs.

We can turn pretty much any noun into a verb and let it seep into our normal interaction. You probably don’t think twice anymore when someone says they’ll “Facebook you.” Of course, this isn’t a new trend, and we’ve been adding technology-specific words to our vernacular for hundreds of years. We didn’t always “telephone” people, you know.

via Wired.com

Whenever there is a new and significant advance in technology, we find ourselves needing a vocabulary to surround it. So, it evolves, usually through common usage, and before long, Web 2.0 terms like “tweet” are added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (it’s not just for birds anymore, kids). Eventually, when they become well-known, and frequently used enough, our newfangled words like “retweet” can even make it into that most glorious and revered record of English usage and definition: the Oxford English Dictionary.

Now, I’m a bit torn on this. I’m all for preserving the beauty and standard usage of the language, and I worry a bit when things like “<3” (as well as “heart” as a verb) and “woot” make it into the OED. I’m all for colloquial usage, but when it makes it into the OED, the prescriptivist in me comes out. This is especially difficult for me when it’s in favor of not-quite-yet-obsolete-terms like “cassette tape.” (I can’t even really think about that too much…I spent so much of my early adolescence making mix tapes, and knowing that cassettes may soon be forgotten turns me into a bit of a “get off my lawn, you bratty kids!” type grouch.)

via icanhascheezburger.com

But, all my lamenting aside, I think that the ability to make English change to fit the way we actually use it is incredible! Can you imagine if we were limited to the words we use and the way we use them? We’d end up with something like Newspeak stifling our communication and ultimately our individuality and creativity. We need language to change, because the world we live in changes. So, language obliges our whims and changing temperaments and lets us name things “Lolcats” (not to mention the linguistic insanity that entails). Thank you, Internet. And, especially, thank you, English.

Where do you fall on the prescriptive/descriptive debate? Do you think it’s great that we add new words to common usage so regularly, or would you prefer things remained more standardized? What are you favorite (or most hated) Web 2.0/Internet technology-related words and phrases?


4 thoughts on “English 2.0

  1. I think a descriptive approach to language is the only intellectually honest one. I mean, pretending that people don’t use language to accomplish new, creative, and even taboo things would be like scientists ignoring evolution as it happens before their eyes.

    Being realistic, prescriptive training does have value. Because like it or not, one of the things people do with language is use it to judge between the have’s and have-not’s. And even if you don’t want to play the game, you might be glad some day that you know the rules.

    • I agree. I think it’s foolish to think that a prescriptive approach can ever really account for the way language is used and how it changes. There absolutely has to be the flexibility afforded by a descriptive approach. And I also agree that there is definite value in knowing and using the standards and rules that come along with a prescriptive point of view. (Otherwise, I think things would be a bit of a mess.)

  2. So after seeing your response, I re-read my comment and realized how badly I bungled pluralization. “Have’s”…really? And right in the middle of that paragraph about the value of knowing the rules. Haha… Oh the irony!

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