Language



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Posted by: stak
Posted on: 2008-10-30 22:13:18

Lately I've been finding it harder and harder to read books. Or more specifically, I find it harder and harder to concentrate on reading books. I blame the Internet.

On the web, the vast majority of text is in itty-bitty chunks. Navbars, headlines, blurbs, RSS summaries; they're all bite-sized pieces of text that are designed to give you exactly what you need to know and nothing more. Take a look at the main page of just about any website - it's very rare to find more than a couple of paragraphs of continuous text. News and Wikipedia articles (and Steve Yegge's blog posts) are probably the longest pieces of text I read on the web, and those are fundamentally different from books (i.e. literature).

As a consequence of spending so much time on the web (and I guess around computers in general), my brain seems to be changing. My attention span is much shorter than it used to be. When I read books, I find myself racing through the pages, hunting for the plot thread and throwing the rest away. It's a shame, because a lot of good books have a negligible plot; it's the way they're written that makes them good. It's the small nuggets of character hidden in the language that make you think and imagine. The plot is just the frame on which the rest hangs.

I really need to force myself to slow down when reading and concentrate more. Fortunately, I don't think I'm so far gone that I can't recover. Although, thinking about it some more, I guess this is the kind of change that you can't really stop; it's an evolution of language that's perfectly natural. You just have to adapt as best you can.

It looks like this post runs into the whole spelling/grammar debate that comes up every so often. There was that article a while back about the prof that suggested we adopt degenerate spellings of words as legitimate. There were a lot of people who thought he was off his rocker, but it seems reasonable to me. Some of you are probably sticklers when it comes to spelling and grammar. I don't like seeing improper grammar or misspelt words either, but let's face it: our opinion doesn't matter (or will cease to matter soon). The value of language, much like the value of money, is defined by those that use it. If future generations feel they can communicate without using our outdated ideas of spelling and grammar, then so be it.

Besides, it seems pretty arbitrary to use what we think is "correct grammar." Language has evolved, and will continue to evolve. What is "correct" today wasn't correct a hundred years ago, so saying that everybody in the future should use 2008 grammar is pretty stupid. Why not 1908 grammar? It was just as correct in 1908 as 2008 grammar is today.

Posted by rachel at 2008-10-31 00:35:35
Impressive!
I mostly agree with you.
"they're all bite-sized pieces of text that are designed to give you exactly what you need to know and nothing more"... they also give you too much what you don't need to know...

Talking about the short attention span, I think mine has been reduced exponentially since I started to face the monitor for majority of my day. Well maybe not exponentially... let's say it's NP-complete :P

I still can't believe you actually read books. Most SE folks I know don't want to read anything that's not E-version.
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Posted by Fai at 2008-10-31 03:00:28
How can our opinion cease to matter? It never begun to matter. The world isn't dictated by the teens but by the middle aged. So we still have a good 20-30 years left before all the words I know will be spelt wrong.

and on the point of language evolving: I agree, language evolves, but a lot slower than people who misspell things claim. It takes time to convince the majority of the population that you are should be spelled ur. So I'd say 3-4 generations before it seems "wrong" to the older folks.
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Posted by stak at 2008-10-31 19:47:50
I don't think the world is dictated by anybody. Different slices of the world are dictated by different sets of people. The slice of the world I'm discussing (which includes the Internet) in is largely dictated by teens because the middle aged have a negligible presence on that slice.

Yeah, I'm not too sure about how long it'll take for "your" to turn into "ur" generally. All I know is that it'll happen.
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Posted by Varun at 2008-11-01 18:47:57
M is trained linguist ("cunning linguist...") and has been talking to me about this for a few years. While all languages undergo continuous simplification ("knight", "gnat", "leafs"), one of the attributes of English that makes it unlikely that phrases such as FAIL, FTW, ur will be with us for long is that English is no longer "owned" by one group of people. It's also a fairly flexible language, so even significant variations can be understood without needing to resort to translaton. Given that there are already significant deviations from the baseline English / RP - think of Indian English or Jafaican - people just attempt to use their closest understanding of RP when dealing with people outside their language group.

Or in programmer's speak, people just fork the language rather than try to patch the base.
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Posted by Fai at 2008-11-02 18:12:24
I think that's true if the people modifying the language live in an isolated community of their own. If these people's community now transcends geography through the internet, the newly founded variation can have a much wider influence, and over time supercede the relevance of the base.

btw, what's rp?
[ Reply to this ]
Posted by Varun at 2008-11-02 22:25:50
RP = received pronunciation, the Queen's English.

As concerns your internet traveling theory - I believe that it's still widely believed that language is something that is received through audio/visual interaction; i.e.: YouTube may be a more effective language transfer mechanism than forums and written text. Could be wrong about it, but that's what Pinker says, and I'm inclined to believe him...
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Posted by Fai at 2008-11-03 02:15:27
My argument did not disclude youtube
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Posted by Varun at 2008-11-03 19:12:21
Nice try ;)
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Posted by Fai at 2008-11-04 02:14:25
No seriously. The net does not only transfer text, it transfers music, and you tube clips and blog entries, and podcasts and most other things we use language for.
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