Friday 29 February 2008

On tweenlish

A journalist writes to ask about tween-speak, which he defines as slang spoken by people between the age of 8 and 12. Will it affect the English language, he wonders? He comments that one of the major influences on tween-speak is Internet and SMS communications, so he wonders how these technologies have influenced modern English.

I've never actually investigated this age-range from this point of view, and wonder actually whether it's likely to be very different from the teen-speak that has had a fair bit of coverage, especially in the popular press (noting such things as book for cool in text messaging, or LOL for 'laughing out loud', which also had - ?has - something of a vogue in speech). Such lists are never very long, and it's never clear just how common such usages are. As my question-mark indicates, I've no idea if these things are still used, and if so, by who and how much. Perhaps some readers of this post will tell me? Apart from the question of age, I'd expect gender to play a part (sociolinguistic studies suggest that girls are more likely to introduce linguistic innovations) and also region. My correspondent is writing for a Hong Kong magazine, and I'd expect Chinese tweenies to be doing some very different things, compared to their British counterparts.

But the impact of all this on English (or other languages)? Very little, I would say. Slang of this kind rarely becomes permanent in a language. The whole point of slang is to identify a group - whether tweens, teens, doctors, footballers, or whoever - and it is by its nature ephemeral. A lot of it never gets written down. And as soon as young people realise that adults are picking up their slang, they drop it and move on. So the overall influence on the language is small. There are very few cases of originally slang words becoming standard English. Mob is one, from a couple of centuries ago. Bus is another. The sort of thing that kids come up with, like texting book, is unlikely to last, unless it somehow gets picked up and given a public written presence (such as by being used in a best-selling novel). These usages make fascinating footnotes in the history of a language, and eventually they take their place alongside all the other slang developments of the past, of interest to linguistic historians. It's good to have people collecting them, therefore, so the more examples anyone can get hold of, the better. And if my younger (or younger-minded) readers have some which come immediately to mind, do send them in!

And the impact of the Internet on English? Again, very limited, as regards the actual forms of the language. I've written this up in my Language and the Internet , and also in Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 , out in a few months time, so I won't repeat myself here. My view, in short, is that the various domains of the Internet have generated some novel usages, but not that many - and how many of them will become permanent features of a language is unclear. Some of the new technical terms will stay, of course, such as blog and emoticon, but when you add up all of these you get only a few hundred, which is a tiny tiny percentage of the English vocabulary as a whole. There have been hardly any grammatical novelties. And very few chatroom or texting abbreviations are actually used with any frequency.

What the Internet has done, though, is increase the stylistic range of the language - adding new styles which weren't there before, such as in blogging, emails, and chatrooms, where we see a greater flexibility in the use of punctuation and capitalization, new types of discourse interaction (such as in instant messaging), and a level of informality in grammatical construction which hasn't been seen in written English since the Middle Ages. The Internet has also provided us with new communicative possibilities that are genuinely revolutionary - such as hypertext links, animated writing on screen, simultaneous conversations in chatrooms, cutting and pasting in emails, and so on. But the actual English language we see on our screens is largely the same as anything we were accustomed to seeing in written form before the Internet came along.

Thursday 28 February 2008

On one n or two

A correspondent writes to ask why millionaire is spelt with only one n, whereas questionnaire has two.

It's the other way round, really. Why does questionnaire have two, when millionaire has one? All these -aire words came from French, where they had a double n spelling. When they arrived in English, there was usually an initial period of uncertainty: both spellings can be found in the early citations in the OED. We find millionnaire alongside millionaire in the early 19th century; and a few decades later, the same alternation with billionaire. The English norm was to simplify to a single consonant, which is what we find with commissionaire and concessionaire, presumably following the pattern of the much earlier borrowing debonair, and also doctrinaire, which are recorded for the most part with a single n. Dr Johnson gives only debonair in his dictionary, and that decision will have exercised considerable influence.

Questionnaire is the exception. Why didn't it follow the normal pattern? H W Fowler insisted that it should lose the extra n in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), but his view was ignored. The OED has examples from 1901, but no instance of a single n, despite the huge potential influence of questioned, questionably, and the like. Perhaps the purist focus on the word caused people to pay more attention to the French spelling than would otherwise have been the case. It's a puzzle - but then, linguistic exceptions usually are.

Thursday 7 February 2008

On IT regional dialects

A correspondent refers me to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, from which he quotes: 'the influence of US films and television has led to a considerable passive understanding of much American English vocabulary in Britain, and some of this has turned into active use, especially among younger people.' He asks: 'What about the effect of information technology? Do there still exist differences between American and British English in terms of using IT terminology?'

It's an interesting question, and on the whole I see very little sign of differences between British and American English in internet terminology (other than the occasional spelling difference). I suppose this is because the internet by its nature is a levelling medium: a new usage on one side of the Atlantic or the other is quickly made available to all parts of the internet world, and its point of origination becomes unimportant. It is in the nature of scientific terminology to be general, in any case.

The terminological differences I've collected over the years are more related to specific schools of thought (such as the slang used by different IT labs or different software companies) rather than to anything specifically regional. Indeed, it would be impossible to tell whether a new term in, say, contextual advertising, arose from the British branch of Yahoo! or the US branch, or any other. (I am reminded of the way scribal conventions spread in Anglo-Saxon England: scholars now think that several forms previously thought of as dialect features can be traced back to individual monasteries rather than to geographical regions.)

My correspondent also asks for some research references on this point. I don't know of any. When I was researching my Glossary of Textspeak and Netspeak (2004), I went into dozens of sites looking for regional uses, and found nothing, apart from the occasional slang item (which related to a specific institution, as mentioned above).

So I'd be interested to hear of any candidates for US vs US differences, as far as IT terminology goes.