Monday 29 July 2013

On on or in the Internet

A correspondent writes to ask about which preposition to use in relation to the Internet: is it on or in?

Both are used, but on is hugely predominant. This is to be expected: on is the normal preposition when talking about specific communications media that operate through transmission: on TV, on the radio, on the phone - and thus, on the Web, on Facebook, on Youtube - and on the Internet. Metaphorical expressions reinforce the usage: one surfs on the Internet. And the governing organizations, such as ICANN, all talk in this way.

The competition from in has come from the physical forms of communication where one can look 'inside'. So, one finds something in a book, in a magazine, in a newspaper, and so on. The metalanguage of the print medium early influenced the description of online outputs, with talk of 'pages', and the like, so it's easy to see how an alternative usage would develop. And if one looks in a book, then there is an analogy motivating doing something in a location named after a book - Facebook. This is reinforced by the actual process of opening up a website and looking inside it to find information.

I use both prepositions, in this respect, depending on the semantics of what I have in mind. I say to people that they will find something on my website and also in my website, depending on whether I am thinking of the website as a single location or as a container of data. Same applies to blogging: you will find this post on my blog as well as in my blog. This isn't the first time such an alternative has emerged in English: one can find a place on a map of Britain or in a map of Britain.

Two other factors have reinforced the growth of in. We see it when people think of the Internet as a physical phenomenon, such as when writing programmes - another application of the 'looking inside' motif. I'm less certain about the second point, but I have the impression that in has become the item of choice among non-native English-users who are uncertain of which preposition to use, and who see conflicting usage online. I'd be interested to hear opinions on this point.

Sunday 28 July 2013

On ... ellipses ... in texts

A correspondent writes to ask about the increased use of ellipses in text messaging, emails, and the like. He illustrates with 'where are you.... been waiting. are you there......we have to go soon........'and wonders why people use them so much in texting. He asks: 'Is it merely laziness or something more strategic/functional having to do with tone/conversation? People seem to use ellipses as replacements for every form of punctuation under the sun (question mark, comma, period, etc.), which should in theory lead to confusion on the part of the reader, but is that actually the case?'

I haven't noticed this as much as my correspondent, actually, but that probably just reflects the kind of messages I get. There's the occasional use of ellipsis dots, certainly, but then there always was on the Internet (especially in chatroooms) and in informal writing the practice goes back centuries. There are many literary antecedents. In recent times, Harold Pinter was one of the masters of ellipses as an indication of an unfinished thought or an unstated implication. Take a look at The Caretaker. Here's Aston talking in Act Two:

'They weren't hallucinations, they ... I used to get the feeling I could see things ... very clearly ... everything ... was so clear ... everything used ... everything used to get very quiet ... everything got very quite ...'

And Davies ends the play on an ellipsis:

'Listen ... if I ... got down ... if I was to ... get my papers ... would you ... would you let ... would you ... if I got down ... and got my ...
Long silence. Curtain.'

All this before texting was ever invented.

I wouldn't call it laziness. There's certainly an element of convenience behind a typing usage, as a period is often easier to type than, for example, a question-mark (which may involve a shift key). But the usage is much more than that. It's a further example of the way informal expression on the internet is getting closer to what happens in speech.

Imagine I'm telling you, face-to-face, what I've just written. You'd hear the pauses, the continuative intonation patterns, the variations in tempo (allegro, lento) which would show me actively processing what I want to say. Prosody is the main way of showing people 'thinking on their feet'.

Writing displays none of this. You will never know what pauses I had between the various bits of a paragraph. In fact, if I recall correctly, the paragraph before last went something like this: 'I wouldn't call it laziness ... There's certainly an element of ... convenience behind a ... typing usage, as a period is often much easier to type than ... for example ... a question-mark (which may involve a shift key) ... But the usage is much more than that ... It's a further example of the way ... informal expression on the internet is getting closer ... to what happens in speech ... '

This is becoming Pinteresque. The ellipses reflect the thought process, the decision points, the places where I was thinking how exactly to put what I wanted to say. (In Pinter they usually have a more menacing purpose.) In speech, these decision points are there for everyone to hear. And if (unconsciously) you want your writing to reflect speech, ellipsis dots are an easy way to show it.

They also show that punctuation isn't as important as people sometimes claim it is. I know we all have to use standard English punctuation in our formal writing (and Gove help us if we don't!), but the informality of Internet expression shows that these are conventions of correctness that bear little relationship to clarity and ambiguity. There was little by way of punctuation in the earliest English writing, in Anglo-Saxon times, and the texts come across just fine. Indeed, one can dispense with all punctuation and still get one's meaning across, as has often been shown - though, because we're not used to such things, it does become more difficult to read. Take the present paragraph, for example:

'They also show that punctuation isnt as important as people sometimes claim it is I know we all have to use standard English punctuation in our formal writing and Gove help us if we dont but the informality of Internet expression shows that these are conventions of correctness that bear little relationship to clarity and ambiguity indeed one can dispense with all punctuation and still get one's meaning across ...'

It's like the end of Joyce's Ulysses. The main effect, in such rewriting, is phonetic, not semantic. We miss the guidance punctuation provides about where to pause and take a breath and thus (cognitively) to assimilate what is being said. That's why punctuation developed in the first place: to help people read aloud easily. Ellipses, I suspect, are there chiefly for phonetic reasons too, not semantic ones.

Given that character totals are at a premium in texting and Twitter, you might think it surprising that there are ellipses at all - often many more than three dots, with people just holding the period ley down for as long as they like ............ A lot of dots reduces your character count. This suggests that users see a real point (sorry) in using them. It probably doesn't affect their textingtweeting style too much, as most texts and tweets don't use the full 160/140 characters, so there's still plenty of opportunity to put in some extra periods. And maybe that's another factor: users know they have room to spare, in routine messages, so they let their periods roam. I bet there aren't so many when the content gets more complex and structured, as in ads or news announcements.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Tyndale OP

The OP 'movement' - I think one can call it that these days - gathers pace. Anyone who's been following activities via the dedicated website) will be aware that people all over the world have picked up the OP baton and started running with it. There have been several OP productions in the US. Early music people have been exploring OP in madrigals and other forms. There's the amazing John Donne reconstruction project that I've talked about before (in May this year). The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible brought a fresh interest in how that version would have sounded in 1611. And the Bible interest continues with Tyndale.

The British Library, as one would expect, is very interested in OP - which is, I suppose, the auditory equivalent of reading old tests in their original written form. When we put on the 'Evolving English' exhibition at the Library in 2011, one of the immediate impressions, as one entered the space, was the auditory atmosphere - voices resounding everywhere, and headphones inviting you to listen at several tables. Here you could hear reconstructions of Beowulf, Chaucer, Caxton, Paston, Shakespeare, and more. They proved to be one of the most popular exhibits. There were often queues to listen. And that exhibition proved to be the best-attended of the BL's winter exhbibitions. A definite win for the English language.

The BL followed it up in 2012 with a CD called 'Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation', and this year they have taken OP back almost a century with a CD of William Tyndale's St Matthews's Gospel. The BL has one of the two surviving copies of Tyndale's New Testament (1526) that have survived (the others were burned), and a beautifully produced full-colour facsimile was published by the BL in 2008. This is the version used for the CD. (I was allowed to hold that original edition when we were preparing the 'Evolving English' exhibition, and I was reluctant to wash my hands thereafter, not wanting to remove all traces of the molecules that must have transferred from its pages to me.)

I recorded the Matthew over two days at the BL just a year ago, and it was a very interesting experience. The tricky bit was making myself forget Shakespearean OP. Tyndale is midway between Chaucer and Shakespeare, and if you've ever heard texts from these two authors read in OP you will know just how much change there was in pronunciation at that time. Apart from anything else, there was the huge change in long-vowel phonetic qualities known as the Great Vowel Shift. So after Tyndale, several things happened to pronunciation before we arrive at Shakespeare. For example, the silent letters (in know, gnash, would, and so on) were on their way out by the time Shakespeare was writing, but they were very definitely around in Tyndale's day, so teeth 'guhnash' and people 'kuhnow'. Lots of differences to keep an eye on - too many to remember off the cuff - so it was necessary to transcribe the whole thing in a phonetic transcription before doing the reading. And, of course, as with Hamlet's 'the play's the thing', this was not to be an exercise in historical phonetics, but a genuine reading. I've done this once before, for the St John Gospel, but that was in modern English. An OP reading of any old text brings it to life in a new way, and I hope I was able to capture this in my reading. It's out now, anyway, and can be accessed via the British Library.