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Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Stories of Words [2]

Handwritten words

In the search for the stories words contain, one particular group of words is most relevant in our society today, because their stories are our stories, too. These are modern creations of words, or "slang".

Slang is a heavily oral tradition and difficult to document. It is one that moves at lightning speed: by the time it is captured in hard print it may well have become obsolete. Today's technology is just as quick, and thanks to modern advancements such as emails and mobile phones, "slang" is no longer just an oral tradition, either.

New Words & Word Blending

New words can be adaptations of existing words, for example "feed", which is now most likely to denote an RSS feed on a computer than anything given to livestock, or resurrections of older ones, like "cool". This word has its roots in the jazz era of the 1940s, only to fade from view for several decades until it was grabbed back in the 1990s.

Another more relevant example is the word "green". As well as being the symbolic colour of hope, a modern usage of this word has given it a new definition, one of being environmentally friendly and Norway, for example, has forbidden terms including green in car adverts on the grounds that no vehicle is actively beneficial for the environment.

Words can even have their meanings extended as technology changes, as with the word "bespoke". Meaning to have something (like clothing or a website) made to the customer's specifications, it originated as a past participle of the verb "to bespeak" which meant "to exclaim or call out", then it changed to describe "to discuss, decide upon" and lastly became "discussed in advance", hence its use to describe tailor-made garments.

Only one per cent of all documented new words are completely new. The neologisms documented by linguists born from a process known as "blending" provides a good deal of the surprisingly few mint-new words to be coined each year. Blends are more often than not genuinely new and are often coined with a smile.

The process is not a modern one. Word blending has been a source of new vocabulary for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary has evidence of words such as "knavigator", a conflation of "knave" and "navigator" and denoting a person who made fraudulent geographical discoveries, as far back as the 17th century. Other blends go back even earlier.

Modern examples can be seen in the many versions of the word "entrepreneur", among them the "alterpreneur" (one pursuing an alternative lifestyle), and the "ideopreneur" (an ideological one), an apparently infinite chain of "–casts" (beyond "podcasts" there are "vodcasts", "mobcasts", and "godcasts": video, mobile, and religious broadcasts respectively) and other creations such as the "mockbuster" (a low-budget film with a title and plot similar to a major and successful one), the "blook" (a book serialized in a blog) and the "bromance" (a friendship between straight males).

A few more examples include:

  • Flashmob - Where a group of people assemble in a public place for a brief period of time.
  • Lomodification - An unofficially termed photo modification technique. The "Lomo effect" refers to recreating the effect of a typical photograph produced by a Lomo camera.
  • Micropoetics - Very concise literary criticism that deals with the nature, forms, and laws of poetry.

Capturing Cultural Coinages & Changes

New words created today - and their origins - reflect the way we live, and what has become important to us, and how developing technologies have changed our lives.

The nature of slang speaks of the robustness of language and of its capacity for change, and yet in trying to net their modern day stories, it also provides ample testimony to the fact that the best time to capture it is when it is not looking.

The verve and versatility of the lingo of teenagers who playfully share the latest ingenious inventions to their lexicon with relish on a bus, in school corridors and the playground, or the banter of everyday people in the street and their verbal "codes" can only be recorded truthfully when self-consciousness disappears and real discourse begins.

Researcher Susie Dent, who is the author of "The Language Report", published annually by Oxford University Press, is on the constant look-out for new words or street-speak and indicates that the job of tracking down new words is never dull or predictable.

She explains how she captured one such word "manties", whilst indirectly opening a window through to how the story of that word reflects the way men are perceived in British culture at the beginning of the 21st century, and their changing role within society.

Manties, Mandals, Manbags and More

A public lavatory might not be an obvious venue for neologisms, but Dent has discovered it to be a surprisingly productive one, demonstrating that casual eavesdropping can yield the richest rewards.

To quote Dent in an article from MSN UK's "Language Corner" column:

"I shouldn't have needed proof of the truism that the best things catch you unawares. So to that unguarded moment in the loo of my local coffee bar. There I went a few days ago marvelling at J. K. Rowling's ability to write magical stories in her own corner café as her baby daughter slept, while I seem unable to concentrate on the lightest of literature as my own four-month-old slumbers ("momnesia", scientists have decided to call it, but that's for another day). And there too were a couple of students, ... launching an urgent discussion of relationship troubles. As I emerged from my own cubicle the biggest worry of all was expressed in a single baffling sentence: "He's just", announced one of the girls solemnly, "bought himself one of them manties, y'know." I didn't know, but it seemed that her friend, open-mouthed, did. I resumed my seat in the café turning over every conceivable meaning of this very latest slang conundrum, until it finally hit me. I had already recorded "mandals" in one of my language reports: a mix of "man" and "sandals", as I had "manbag" one issue earlier. "Manties", using the same formula, must then surely be "man's panties". A quick Internet search on reaching home confirmed that the word, clumsy as it is, did indeed denote something potentially even clumsier, namely panties made for men."

Headlines in the British PressSuch new words are arguably reflective of the changing role of men in British society, too, pinpointed by the lifestyle media. Headlines from respectable quarters, such as the Times, Telegraph and MSN sees their columnists wondering what has happened to the masculine male from times past.

With the Telegraph asking if Britain is in need of more manly men, and Times correspondent Laura Nolan wondering where all the men have gone, MSN has hailed the death of the masculine man, by citing a survey that says 60% of young British men have admitted they don't feel masculine compared to previous generations.

The emergence of such words show that relationships between men and women in Britain are changing. Going one step further, a BBC article has published news about a UK survey that suggests modern tastes are affecting relationships, in that one in four people now regularly sleeps in a different bed from their partner, and many often go to bed at different times.

The poll, by The Sleep Council, found that many people admitted checking texts, surfing the internet, or playing games in bed.

Thus the emergence of these new words not only provides indicators to how the culture of that language is developing, it also highlights impacts on the advancement of technology and how we see ourselves and our role in an ever-changing society.

Not Only Oral: A New Language

Text speak was designed to accommodate the small number of characters allowed for mobile text messages and as a convenient language for the small keypads on mobile phonesIt was only a matter of time before new technology spawned a whole new language: text speak. This has already broken into two new main streams, "netlish" (a rather more sophisticated form of texting language) and gamers speak (with popular words like "w00t"). Although these usages have their critics, especially with the claim that it is an obstruction for children to learn correct English, nevertheless they have worth as words that tell us about the society that produced them.

In regard to "Txt spk" (text speak), it evolved from the shorthand used in Internet chatrooms and was designed to accommodate the small number of characters allowed for mobile text messages (early text messages permitted only 160 characters), and as a convenient language for the small keypads on mobile phones. It's also quick to do: if you know how.

A Beginner's Guide

The objective is to use as few characters as possible to create a sentence and so punctuation, capitals and grammar are out. Phonetics and "emoticons" (another blended word that means images viewed sideways such as ;o) created out of punctuation marks) are in.

Most of the time text speak involves not using the 5 vowels, A, E, I, O and U. For example "YR" for "YouR", but it can also include acronyms where the first letter of a word is used, like "BFN" for "Bye For Now".

Single letters can replace words. For instance:

  • "be" becomes "b"
  • "see" becomes "c"
  • "are" becomes "r"
  • "you" becomes "u"
  • "why" becomes "y"
  • "and" becomes "n"

Single digits can replace words. Such as:

  • "ate" becomes "8"
  • "for" becomes "4"
  • "to" or "too" becomes "2"
  • "for" or "Fore" becomes "4", so: "before" becomes "b4" and "therefore" becomes "der4"

Will It Last?

However, will this practical new language still be around in 20 years once technology has moved on?

Jonathon Green, author of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, thinks that "texting" (another new word) will soon be obsolete as new technologies replace the mobile phone, and he will not be including any examples in his new edition - but we shouldn't underestimate its importance.

In Britain, more than 100 million text messages a day. In New Zealand, schoolchildren are allowed to use text speak in exams and in Malaysia it has been possible under Islamic law for a man to divorce his wife by texting her, so long as his meaning is clear.

Books are also being translated into the practical new language. In Australia, the Bible's entire 31,173 verses have been completely translated and are available for free downloaded by mobile phone. It begins: "In da Bginnin God cre8d da heavens & da earth."

Meanwhile, to celebrate the launch of Windows Live Hotmail, Microsoft created the first ever national archive of emails in conjunction with the British Library in 2007. The Email Britain book, recording a snapshot of British life by email, will mean that plenty of examples of text speak will be permanently archived for generations to come.

What New Words Say About Us

Far from being an exact science, text speak style can also be very individual. Psychologists are examining text messages sent by more than 160 members of the public to see if one person's text speak style can be identified in a similar way to their handwriting. Experts at the University of Leicester hope the project will help police conclude whether or not a person sent a text message, which could be crucial when trying to stand up an alibi.

Several court cases have involved text messages. In 2002, Stuart Campbell, a lorry driver, was convicted of murdering his 15-year-old niece Danielle Jones after texts sent on her mobile phone were alleged to be his. And in 2006 Christopher Nudds was jailed for the murder of Fred Moss, a traveller, after texts sent from the victim's phone following his death raised suspicion. The words were spelt correctly but Mr Moss was illiterate.

The stories of words are our stories, too.

Prologue | Part one | End of part two | Part three

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