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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, grow language on a damp teatowel.
Coming up in today’s show, we’ve got Gretchen McCulloch, the internet linguist and the author of the new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, which is a very interesting dive into how language is used and develops online. But, as the internet is so huge and enables language to develop much more rapidly, how are we to keep up with using it right? I find myself with writing habits and etiquette that I picked up don’t know how or where or when. But maybe Gretchen can help me learn why.
On with the show.
HZ: Maybe you can help me understand myself, Gretchen. At some point in the last few years, I realize now that I stopped putting a full stop or period - what do you call it in Canada?
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: In Canada, it's a period. But I understand full stop too.
HZ: OK. Now I realize I stopped putting a period at the end of messages or tweets. Why did I do that?
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: When we're talking, we don't necessarily talk in complete sentences; we talk in utterances, which could be anywhere from a single word like "Yup" to a whole monologue. And so when we're writing informally ,we also kind of write in those utterances; those are breaks. And the easiest way to demarcate an utterance is to just hit send tweet, send a message, send new text - line break. That's the fastest, most efficient way of demarcating a new utterance when it comes to the internet context - because you can't send a new email every single time you have one utterance. You can't send a new postcard every time you have one utterance or a new letter every time you say one utterance. But in a tweet or text or chat context, this completely makes sense and it's very efficient. And so if you don't need the period to demarcate between utterances because now you've got this new send message option, the period begins to take on a life take on a meaning that's different from just like "Here's the break between things that I'm saying."
HZ: But there's also a kind of tacit understanding - and I'm not sure where I acquired this understanding - that ending a message with a period can seem kind of rude now.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: Yeah. I think that understanding that the period can be rude arises from the period no longer being strictly necessary. And so if it's not necessary to say it, then when you do say it you must be trying to do something with it; you must be trying to do something with that meaning. And one thing that a period can indicate is not just "this is the next thing I'm saying; this is the end of an utterance"; it can add this note of finality or solemnity or closure or just a downwards turn of the voice, like "here is a sentence, here's another sentence," which is very ponderous. And so it can add this note of weight to the end of what you're saying. And sometimes that weight is congruent with the message. Like if you say, "oh no, that's terrible." And you put periods there, you're emphasizing how terrible it is.
HZ: But it could come across as sarcastic, depending on context. If you’re expecting an exclamation mark or question mark but use a full stop.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: Yeah. So it could seem sarcastic. “I'm so sorry for your loss [period]”. Look, that can be very sincere. That period adds a certain weight to it. It's when the period with its note of solemnity enters into an utterance that is actually positive. So if you say something like “Sounds good [period]”, or “OK [period] Fine [period]”, that's when you get this clash and that's when you get this passive aggression. Because the message is positive and yet the punctuation is negative and solemn. And so you must mean something that's actually negative out of this positive message, ie passive aggression.
HZ: How are we supposed to learn these rules? Because it's very subtle.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: It is very subtle. And I think we learn them from interacting with each other primarily.
HZ: I know that I was never taught through formal channels to emphasise something by repeating letters - omfggggg! - or by putting a full stop or exclamation mark after every 👏 word 👏 in 👏 the 👏 sentence, or by attaching a gif of a panda upending a desk.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: We have been doing emphasis in writing for a lot longer than the internet has even been a glimmer in someone's imagination.
HZ: Even pre-keyboard: we could emphasise by writing in italics. Underlining. Double underlining. Quintuple underlining! Red ink. Green ink. Using your own blood as ink. Drawing a little hand in the margin pointing at the text.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: And what the Internet really does is kind of like a brushfire. It clears out your underlines and your italics and stuff like that which you couldn't do on early devices. And so people said well the only thing we really can do of our many possible options is the all caps.
HZ: So writing in all caps became equivalent to SHOUTING - although not to everyone.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: Because of course, not everybody realized that all caps were shouting; some people thought all caps is just like this is how you type on a computer. Early networked computers, which were sometimes networked through teletype machines, sometimes did everything in all caps or they had very very limited memory constraints and so they so decided not to support twenty six plus twenty six characters, we'll just do one and it'll be in all caps. EVERYTHING'S IN ALL CAPS. And so this idea that all caps is simply how you write on a computer. This idea that all caps is simply how you write on a computer: it’s not unfounded. It’s just that you had these two different conventions of "this is what technology does" and "this is a tone of voice thing" come crashing into each other and ultimately the yelling one won.
HZ: My first mobile phone was only capable of all caps, too, so there wasn’t that insinuation of shouting. Tone is expressed via the available options. So you’d have to have some awareness of the technology someone was using to communicate with you, before you can deduce whether it’s tone or the limitations of the tool.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: So this newer internet style of what I call minimalist typography - not using capitalization and not using much punctuation, maybe just line breaks or a period or two - this style of minimalist typography really seems to take off around 2012, 2013. And before that, in the early 2000s, pre 2006, people were typing in lowercase but the perception of them was it's lazy or it takes less effort. And you get this kind of fallow period, and then the complaints start up again. But now the complaints are "This sounds passive aggressive" or "this sounds like it's a particular tone of voice; are you sure? Do you want to take this tone of voice on?" And so it shifted from an effort thing to a tone of thing. And I was looking at what else happened in this period of technology and the big thing that happened was the smartphone and the auto predict keyboard. And that's a thing that gives you automatic capitals at the beginning of every sentence. So instead of lowercasing everything taking less effort, it actually takes more, because now you have to undo the autocapitals. And that's what enables it to take on a sense of aesthetic or sense of tone of voice, so it becomes a deliberate decision rather than default.
HZ: Regardless of technology, people often complain that it’s hard to express tone in writing. Which is one function of adding visuals to writing: emoji and gifs. What they can do that words alone can’t is suggest the things that accompany face-to-face communications: gestures, body language, facial expressions.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: There are some gestures that have conventional names: things like the thumbs up and the wink and the eye roll and the middle finger.
HZ: A shrug.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: These have conventional names and they all have this different sort of role in communication. So they're often used to convey or clarify or change the intentions behind the words that they accompany, if they accompany words at all. So if I say something like "Good job" with a thumbs up, that's going to mean something different from "good job" with a shrug or "good job" with a middle finger.
HZ: But again, it's relying on people to interpret signals, in quite a subtle way.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: Oh absolutely. And these are these are very culturally bound. So not everyone has a thumbs up meaning something positive. In some cultures is actually offensive, it can mean "sit on this" if you want to know, it's like the middle finger. In some places the middle finger isn't offensive. Really what you interpret a symbol as depends on your cultural context depends on your linguistic context depends on the rest of your experience. If you're going to have emoji convey these additional meanings, those can't be universal because somebody has to tell you that the eggplant is obscene and not just a vegetable or that the lady in that red dress has this kind of girls night sort of meeting. It's not immediately obvious.
HZ: So how are we supposed to know? Will seven-year-olds in the near future rote-learn the meanings of emoji the way I learned Latin verb tenses? But internet language shifts so rapidly and is used in so many ways by so many different people, it’s unfeasible to accurately capture all the possible interpretations of expressions, let alone enshrine them in some kind of instruction manual or dictionary. And even if it was possible, by the time an instruction manual or dictionary had been compiled, it might be out of date already.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: When we use a conservative style guide, we're catering in a certain sense to the reader of the past, because we're catering to what's already established. What could have happened, what had happened, what was current at the time. But the problem is, the reader of the past doesn't exist anymore. If we use an innovative style guide, we're catering towards the reader of the future, for whom the things that are currently seem like great controversies has become totally uncontroversial and we've ended up on the more innovative side, because that's how these things work. If we use a more innovative style guide then as someone who picks up the book in 10 years or in 20 years or in 50 years is more likely to find that book something that's easier for them to read. And the reader of the future does exist. That person can pick up a book from 20 years ago and read it. So if you think about books from like the 1990s that wrote 'Web site' with a capital W and a space they look really silly now.
HZ: Yeah, The New Yorker.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: They look really silly, and a few sites still do it, but that's catering to the reader of the past. Whereas if you were a writer in the 90s and you insisted on, no, I'm going to lower case it, I'm going to join it, because like that's what my friends or internet people are doing: now you look modern and prescient and like you're in touch 20 years later if someone's reading that. So I said to myself, "What are the things that I can do with my style guide that will make somebody picking this book up in ten years or in 20 years think, "Oh yeah this is fine, this is normal," rather than cater to somebody from 20 years ago who can never pick this book up because time doesn't work that way. But that's the opposite of what a lot of style guides do; a lot of style guides say, how can we have backwards compatibility and stay in the past as long as possible? And it just seems like a weird group of people to be catering to because these people essentially don't exist.
HZ: And language does change, so it's not it's not a concrete thing. But I can understand why people cleave to the notion of a concrete style guide, because there's this sort of extreme situation where on the one hand you've got these old style guides that don't even really work because they were retrofitting Latin rules and all of that, and weren't really reflective of how people use language. And then you got this overwhelming amount of very international and very changing language to try and deal with. And what if you're using it wrong? What if you're inadvertently using it offensively and you don't even know? Because the rules are not so codified and not written. So I get why people want the idea of an authority, even if it is kind of erroneous idea.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: As soon as there's a difference, people start asking me who's right. It's OK for everybody to be right; there doesn't have to be a one way that's right. It's okay for there to be multiple versions of all the language.
HZ: Essentially, it boils down to the principle we encounter again and again in this show: language is going to change, whether you like it or not, so might as well like it.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: We have this sort of acceptance that fashion changes every so many years or food trends change or other music changes every so many years; and you can be a grump that says, "I like the Beatles and the music these days isn't as good," you can be that person but recognize that's just your personal bias. But when it comes to language, the fact that it changes constantly, just like any other part of society, any sort of living thing, is somehow seen as this greater or has this greater morality attached to it. When it's really just it's part of humans; humans are alive, human memory is fallible, how things get passed from one human to another constantly has changes, people change in reaction to each other. Everything about us, a living society, changes and language is one of those things that changes because humans are in flux and we're not the exact same way that our parents are our grandparents were.
For all of the many things that are that are good and bad in the world, language is something that we can be excited about and that people using emoji is just people using emoji, it doesn't portend the end of civilization or anything like that. You don't need to doom-monger about language. People have been, for hundreds of years, and their complaints look really silly now. And so why not just get ahead of that and relax your blood pressure a bit and start celebrating them.
HZ: Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist and the cohost of Lingthusiasm podcast and the author of the new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, which I highly recommend.
And in today’s Minillusionist, Gretchen and I discuss what happens when the rules are applied by a particular arbiter that is not even human. But it is my enemy.
HZ: Is autocorrect sabotaging me, Gretchen?
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: Autocorrect is such an interesting domain for language change and language evolution, because in some ways the internet can make us more innovative because we're exposed to more possibilities from other people. But then things like autocorrect can turn around and make us more conservative. Because if autocorrect says "This is how something is spelled" then I guess you just spell it that way. Whereas beforehand people might have gradually started spelling something differently and then two spellings would be accepted because they were both found, now you can get autocorrect that just intervenes at a very individual level for that.
There's a really interesting example about SpellCheck and British English, which is that American English has always spelled words like realize and analyze and stuff with -ize, but British English for a long time has accepted both -ise and -ize. And then when Microsoft Word and WordPerfect and all of these word processors were introduced, their American version sure enough recommended realize and analyze with Z, but their British versions only recommended the S spelling and not the Z spelling, because hypothetically you're supposed to pick S or Z and remain consistent in one document.
And so the brute force way that Word enforced this with spellcheck was just do S everywhere. And this created a shift in how British people perceive these spellings. And so when they would write -ize, which had been found in the UK for ages - it's still part of the Oxford English Dictionary style guide; they've been using it for hundreds of years - when they tried to write -ize and spellcheck told them actually it's -ise, they thought oh I must have actually done the American thing, there's plenty of anti-Americanism, I'm going to do the British thing because nationalistically that's what I want to do. And so you see this tremendous decrease in -ise spellings, which can be traced to Spellcheck from the 1990s when this was introduced and people now perceive the -ise as the only British spelling and the Oxford English Dictionary actually gets hate mail saying "Why are you doing this American thing?" And they're like, "Excuse me, we've been here this whole time! It's the perceptions that have changed around us that's actually happened."
But it's really interesting the way that it shapes our perception of what is normal or what is normative in a particular environment. And I do have this antagonistic relationship with spellcheck where like, you're not the boss of me and if I want to use my Zs I can, if I want to use my Us I can; but I'm always fighting against the machine to do that, in a way that if I put pen to paper I don't have to fight against somebody else's idea of what language should look like.
HZ: This is what worries me about autocorrect, because Spellcheck is just giving me the wrong version of what is still recognizable. Autocorrect is giving me totally different words; it's really changing the semantics of what I'm trying to say.
GRETCHEN McCULLOCH: Yeah, you can try to write ‘good’ and get ‘book’ or something like that and it's finding a different word that seems plausible based on what you were touching. And it's an interesting question, because it's hard to type on touch screens and it is faster. I've tried to turn it off, and I end up turning it back on because it is faster.
HZ: This is how Autocorrect going to win. It’s faster than spelling out a word letter by letter, like we did in the nightmare olden days, and thus Autocorrect is going to be in pole position to replace more and more of our words with chewed-up garbage, more and more and more, eventually so much that we will be too tired to amend it, and we’ll just go with what it wants, and its version of language will triumph. Resist! Resist, for duck’s sake!
Aaah it’s got me, Zaltzman is fallen.
Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
keraunograph, noun: an instrument for recording distant thunderstorms.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. The music is by Martin Austwick; hear his songs at palebirdmusic.com and on his Pale Bird podcast.
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