Posts Tagged ‘Web 2.0’
The recent inclusion of ‘meh’ in the Collins English Dictionary and the elevation of “wiki” to the Oxford English dictionary have provoked some hilarious postings on The Register. The subject of net neoligisms is one which by turn vexes and fascinates.
History tells us that the evolution of a spoken or written language is accelerated by slang, by the absorption of ‘foreign’ words into the current idiom. Over time, some of these words stick, others fall by the wayside. The continuous process keeps language alive and vital. Attempts to record a language, definitively, are by their very nature doomed to failure because existing words pick up new meanings, and new words emerge to provide more distinct or precise meaning.
The evolution of the English language can be traced to several significant stages. The spoken language in England was originally several dialects of Celtic origin. In the 5th Century, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes invaded from Denmark and northern germany, in the process pushing the native inhabitants and their languages, north to Scotland and west to Wales and Ireland. Gaelic, one variety of a Celtic language is found in Scotland and Ireland, Welsh, another variety is still spoken in Wales.
During the 600 odd years leading up to the Norman invasion of 1066, the languages imported by the germanic tribes coalesced into what we now call Old English – about half of the words in current parlance have their roots in Old English. The Normans brought French to the island and with it, a rigid class system. The upper classes and business classes spoke French, the peasantry Old English. Over a period of some 400 years, middle English, the language of Chaucer emerged – broadly, Old English with added French!
The 16th century brought the Renaissance and with it, travel – this had a profound effect on the language, new words were imported by traders and other travellers and the invention of the printing press accelerated the standardisation of what became Early Modern English.
Late Modern English has persisted from appproximately 1600 to the present day, spurred on by the Industrial Revolution creating a need for new words to describe new technologies and the British Empire adopting words from the colonies. Varieties of late modern english have evolved and cross pollinated through the power of media, so American English with its strong Spanish and French influences has brought words such as vigilante into the common language via the movies.
Which brings us to the vexing question of ‘meh’. If there were a Darwinian theory of language it would say that the words that are fit for purpose, that bring more precision, that are required would be the ones to survive. There is a very strong argument that, that has usually been the case. This is why slang has such a strong influence on language. Slang evolves, to meet circumstances which are geographical, cultural and societal at specific points in time. An example of this would be the changing usage of the word ‘swinging’.
Originally ‘swinging’ referred to the sideways oscillation of an object, suspended from a fixed point. In the fifties, it acquired a new meaning, related to jazz, swinging morphed into a description of rhythm – still vaguely related to oscillation. In the sixties it was used to describe a different form of music – beat, and ‘Swinging’ became an interjection of approval. A pop group ‘The Swinging Blue Jeans’ capitalised on this meaning as a means of buying instant credibility with the public. The seventies, brought with it a darker meaning, completely separated now from its roots, swinging referred to the appalling practice of wife swapping for sexual adventure that is reputed to have infested suburbia during those straitened times.
Two things are significant – the greatly reduced time span – 30 years in this case and the completely different meaning attached to the word by the end of the tie span – it is the speed of change that has increased dramatically.
‘Meh’ is a word that has not evolved so much as occured. Hijacked from the Simpsons, it has held its original meaning, and been gleefully adopted by the Nathan Barley generation as an all purpose utterance signifying boredom, ennui. Like many neoligisms spawned by the net, it serves no uniquely useful purpose and does not substantially clarify nor make more precise the articulation of that feeling it purports to describe.
Not all net neoligisms are so useless – meme, cyberspace, unfriend are all useful words which better describe something – they bring value to the language in a way which ‘meh’ conspicuously fails to emulate. ‘Meh’ is a word which is so strongly reminiscent of the utterance of a sheep that its continued usage by otherwise intelligent people mystifies me totally. I wonder about decadence at times – the adoption of useless and ultimately destructive practices. In the increasingly self referential world of new media, I see useful technologies whose advocates, in their frenetic adoption of every passing fad, are ultimately failing to communicate – the very issue these technologies are supposed to solve.
Comments in Late Modern English please!
// Credit for much of the thinking behind this post should be given to Jacqui Rowe, Mel Curtiss, Elle Gee, and Brenda McWalters whose spirited rejoinders to my flippant post on Facebook made me think!