Friday, 29 June 2012

Shakespeare would have lol'd

I think last week's entry was probably my most successful thus far, at least in terms of the amount of feedback I received. This was awesome, because I like thinking about and discussing these things and I've had quite a few of those conversations over the past week or so. However the flip side was that I was made to feel rather silly. Almost everyone I spoke to pointed out a flaw in my reasoning or a very obvious reference that I'd missed. For instance, I hadn't noticed how relevant 1984 was until it was pointed out to me (luckily just in time) and I only recently got pointed in the direction of Whorfianism, which I'd somehow skipped over entirely. It's a little humiliating, realising how little I know about a subject I've been specifically writing about, but actually, I'm choosing to see this as a positive thing. I think there are many of forms of ignorance that only really go away when you put yourself out there such that people can see how little you know and, for me, this was definitely one of those times. I am now just a little better informed.

In this entry I'm going to build on what I talked about last week to look at how the development of language may be effecting that of society. Interestingly, even last week before I knew about it, I was moving away from Whorfianism (simplifying a little, it says that thoughts and ideas are almost synonymous) and towards a more organisational way of understanding words. That a new word is like a filing cabinet for your head, suddenly you have a new place to put all of the things which fit into some category, say, dogs. This means that not only can you more easily talk about dogs, but you can also relate them to other things in your head with a lot less difficulty. You are saying 'dogs are like wolves' rather than 'these 5 small animals with four legs, which I remember are all quite similar, are like wolves'. Words don't allow thought but they do effect it, allowing it to be much more agile and precise.
In the newspeak of 1984, Orwell suggest that this could be used to limit thought. That by removing certain words you could prevent people from rebelling or even discussing rebellion. Not only is that a singularly negative way of looking at this idea, but I also think it's a little flawed. New words have always come into existence throughout human history so even a limited vocabulary wont stay that way for long*. The process through which this creation of words happens is what I'm going to be mulling over in this week's entry.

An interesting example is the fluidity of language during Shakespeare's time. At this time the printing press was only just starting to have an effect, with more people reading than ever before. This meant that most words had no definite spelling, the first dictionary didn't arrive until 1755 and even the Shakespeare himself had no single way of spelling his name (he himself used several different versions). Of course spelling isn't everything, but what I'm getting at is that there was a tremendous uncertainty in the language and this was a period when many aspects of it underwent tectonic shifts. There was huge scope for new words to come into being. In fact, if we return to Shakespeare, he is often credited with adding over 1700 words to the English language. If we accept that new words, even just a little, alter the way that we arrange things in our head, then it's exciting to think just how big of an effect 1700 new ones might have, just how many new ideas might be suddenly within reach.
Obviously this is a hand wavy theory, there would be no way to prove this. Even if we could easily map the development of language over time, it would be next to impossible to show that it was having any effect. However, if I can persuade you to put down your scientist hats for a minute and just enjoy the idea, it's easy to see how it might do, to get a feel for how big an influence this might have had on the development of human society. There's the old idea of steam engine time, that many inventions simply seemed to have a time, coming into existence at the same time on opposite sides of the world. Perhaps in some small way this, and even larger social changes, are brought about by language.**

The reason I brought up the fluidity of language in Shakespeare's time is because I believe that we are currently in a similar situation. The advent of a huge number of new forms of communication means that we are speaking to each other in an ever increasing number of different ways. Mostly this is through the likes of Facebook, text messages, Twitter, all of which heavily favour brevity. This has led to the modern abbreviations like lol, rofl and wtf ('laugh out loud', 'rolling on the floor laughing' and 'what the fuck?'). These new words allow new ways of speaking, for instance it wouldn't previously have been normal to finish a sentence by stating that you are laughing out loud, even in a purely text format like a letter. Equally these words are still in flux, for example, while there is a clear interpretation of what 'lol' means, there is no consensus on different forms of that word (every source I checked for the title of this post suggested a different form for the past tense). There are also a whole series of emotional additives, in the form of ascii faces such as :), :P and :O (smiley face, cheeky face and shocked face respectively). Though not really words, these are hugely useful and ubiquitous to the point that I genuinely find them useful in determining the intent of a statement (“You are an awful person.” and “You are an awful person :P” read completely differently to me). My point is that I think now, more than at any other time in the past two hundred years, we are on the verge of a huge expansion of the dictionary, of our every day vocabulary.
Of course a lot of these words are quite utilitarian, simply condensing emotions or feelings which were found to be needed. There is a whole other set of words which I would expect to see emerge soon, dealing with how we relate to all of this new technology, with the new concepts and situations which it brings up in our lives.***

When I started this entry, my imagined conclusion was that I would show how potent the current state of language is and then evangelise carefully adding words to lead society in a better direction. I have a tendency to err on the side of optimism and, in retrospect, I think in this case I was doing so to an extreme degree.
The trouble is that words and their meaning (particularly very potent ones) are almost always taken from the control of their original creator long before their meaning has fully taken shape. This makes it entirely impractical to alter the course of human history by intentionally creating words (no matter how attractive that concept might be to a romantic such as myself). Of course that doesn't stop people trying, the best example is in the political sphere, where phrases like 'job creators', 'pro-life' and 'broken Britain' are constantly being coined in an effort to rewire how we see the issues (I don't know if it works, but there sure are a lot of people trying). There's also the whole issue that, assuming we could create popular and carefully crafted words, what would we alter. Even something which seems innocuous, say, a word which makes you see everyone you meet as friendlier and more human, could have all sorts of unplanned knock on effects (devaluing friendships perhaps).
Sadly then, I am backing away entirely from my enthusiasm about social engineering through words. However, I still think that it is incredibly exciting that we live in such a time of change, there is so much potential for society to change in our lifetimes. Additionally, I rather like the idea that there's an opening for a Bard of the 21st century, perhaps our circumstances are crying out for a new Shakespeare, I'd rather like to see what a totally modern Hamlet equivalent might be like.

*[Of course an omnipresent and brutal dystopian police force can put a stop to that process in Orwell's world]

**[I'm taking the idea quite far here, but I like to do that with unprovable but interesting ideas. I just find that, although you're proving nothing, it can be fun to let your mind live in that world for a while and see where you end up]

***[My favourite example of this is 'Eternal September' (the original meaning of which can be seen here), which is used to refer to the ever present nostalgia that users of any internet community feel for the time when they first joined, before all the subsequent people arrived and lowered the quality (a sense which, for anyone who spends a lot of time online, can be hard to shake)]

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