· topic

The Written Word

Perhaps Patrick Hall is off his rocker, but he sometimes wonders whether "lol" may become a real, live word. He's discovered that it's often used is a grammatically and semantically similar role to "la", the Cantonese tag word; the softener. Obviously he's clinging to the classical category worldview: rather than admitting that WORD is a radial category, with perhaps the most common, ubiquitous, and irreducible semantic components such as those mapped in the Natural Semantic Metalanguage being prototypical, he's maintaining the colloquial and conservative view that if it's not in the dictionary, it's not a word. Only, there is no authoritative dictionary (even the largest, the Oxford English Dictionary, misses some words that other large dictionaries cover; and that it's still accumulating words from a wide range of dates shows that it's massively incomplete), so this is an easy fallacy to dispense with.

But I know Pat, and I know he's not really kowtowing to this kind of view. More, I think he is prescribing to prescriptiveness-as-descriptiveness. In other words, the effect that, for example, means that occasionally spelling reforms stick, or mistakes propagated by well known authors become common currency. The "b" is debt is etymologically unsound, but since it was at one point mistakenly believed to fit, and then codifed by Dr. Johnson in his dictionary, it is now snugly befat, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. What this reduces to is this: once a word commonly regarded as "leetspeak", or "textspeak" makes it to a dictionary, a currently almost insurmountable class barrier will have been breached.

In some ways, the information revolution has given us a kind of Pathetic Renaissance. There is no cultural pool to accumulate from, only inasmuch as the internet provides us wider access to information, but there is greater bandwidth between cultures, and a greater focus on the written word, moulded by the constraints of our input hardware (making people focus on abbreviation and concise style). Perhaps it'll make English evolve into having pro-drop variants, meaning that perhaps we'll end up with a word like the Japanese "Urayamashii!" (I'm jealous of it!), only spelled mostly with numbers and possibly containing punctuation.

And then a new generation will have the chance to pluder this new vocabulary and, as lol shows, even grammar for new artistic registers in high literature: producing shocking art, like Degas's Little Dancer, only perpetrated by digital wordsmiths with, to paraphrase one of Shakespeare's characters in Love's Labour's Lost, a workshop o' phrases in their branes. In fact, it's already getting there to some extent. Shakespeare has been translated into text speak for the purposes of teaching it to our uneducated youth. Treating it as a new language, though, rather than just abbreviations for texting, is to treat it as more fully developed than it is; it is, in fact, to patronise it, to try to be "hip", "with it", "C Moon". It needs an insider to push it out into the wider circle, and it may be a long time before such an insider's work is forthcoming, if it happens at all.

This isn't a defence of slovenliness, just a reminder that language is complex and shaped only by the people who speak it, not external platonicity, and that sometimes rare acts of genius can make us realise that against all of our classicalist conceits. Predicting where language will go in the Pathetic Renaissance may be as difficult as it would have been for monk in the Middle Ages to predict the upcoming Great Vowel Shift.

Sean B. Palmer, 2007-01-22