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Thoughts on Language as Fashion

The idea that language is fashion comes up constantly, and a recent event brought it back into the nerdgeist: the creator of GIF, Steve Wilhite, receiving a lifetime achievement award. In that, Wilhite chimed in on his soap box:

“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Mr. Wilhite said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

No, it’s not, Mr. Wilhite. You’re a silly twit if you think it is.

But let’s ignore a stupid little pronunciation fight that no one will give a shit about in a couple decades, if not sooner. Instead, we can turn our attention to someone whose impact goes far beyond “lifetime achievement:” Noah Webster, one of the most powerful memetic engineers and shaper of national identities.[1]

You know how Americans don’t use ‘u’s in words like color/colour, honor/honour, etc? And center versus centre? It’s because Webster had this idea that he could forge a national identity that’s separate from English culture by changing how we spell things.

It worked. Look at how much shit American give Commonwealth spellers and vice versa, and you have the legacy of Noah Webster. But it didn’t happen overnight, and not everything he wanted to do took hold (“tongue” becoming “tung,” for example).

This is possible because language is inherently a fashion. You see this with how kids speak; street vernacular fades in and out of fashion, and people look cool or lame depending on what they say. But that’s not just about slang — it’s somewhat old-fashioned to work every sentence that might casually end in a preposition to not end in one. Passive voice is disfavored in fashion (and rightly so, he says, culturally indoctrinated to believe that), though there are places where such usage is correct.

And don’t get us started on the “number of spaces after a sentence” conversation. There are two strong and heated fashion trends, one more academic that believes in two spaces in between each sentence and the journalistic one that believes in one space after each one. (I’m in the one-space camp, because two looks ugly. “Because two looks ugly” is 100% about fashion, not about function.)

I could bring up instance after instance, but that would belabor the point. The way Old English slowly became Middle English which slowly became the English we speak and write today is about shifts in culture and shifts in fashion. When we’re playing with language, as writers and editors, as designers and developers, we’re expressing fashion — or a multitude of fashions. The words we use, the order we use them in, how we spell them, and how we deal with punctuation around them — that’s all language as fashion.

Once you understand this concept, embrace it, and study it, it can be a potent tool in your linguistic toolbox.

And once you understand that language is fundamentally a form of fashion, you might come to a conclusion similar to the one I’ve come to: if there are different competing fashions, neither is more right than the other. There is a time and place for both. Some might look weird to me, and some might not. Most importantly, if someone goes on about how “wrong” one of those trends is, that person is at best clueless and at worst a language-hipster.

When I see a book where there are two spaces after a period, I don’t think that person is wrong. I think that person is following a silly fashion meant for children. But I also get over that, because it’s fashion, not doctrine.

Finally, I say to the Mr. Wilhites of the world: when you try to assert truth over an existing fashion trend, you accomplish nothing beyond making yourself look like an out-of-touch troll.[2] Language shifts with use and changes all the time, it is a subculture identifier[3], and no one person — not even the patron saint of American cultural rebellion that was Noah Webster — has a hold on language.

After all, if he did, we’d be typing “tung” instead of “tongue.” And wouldn’t that just look silly.

– Ryan

[1] And totally in the New World Order’s Ivory Tower.

[2] Yes, I realize that will stop no one from asserting their smug sense of superiority that their expression of fashion is correct, but now you all will understand where I’m coming from when I laugh at such people and talk about how adorable and precious they are.

[3] Such as how most people I see who say “irregardless” hold empty MBAs.

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10 Responses to Thoughts on Language as Fashion

  1. Matt says:

    Which is hip now, Drizzt (Drizzit) or Drizzt (Drizt)?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That question assumes that either is hip. ;)

      Also, what about whether there’s an apostrophe in there or not? That’s another fashion point in fantasy names.

      – Ryan

  2. blackcoat says:

    I use two spaces because that way vim (and iOS for that matter) puts the period in for me, although I suppose I could amend the rule (in vim anyhow, stupid walled gardens) to just replace the first space with a period.

    The prior paragraph leads me to wonder if programmers, and programmer types, use parentheticals more often than non. Honestly, I’m not even sure that it’s proper english grammar to use them in the way that I do, but it makes perfect sense to my programmy brain. Then again, I also use ~ for approx, ! for not, and == instead of = in internet conversations.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I use em-dashes more than parenthetical, and I’m also a programmer-type. The one thing I know many programmer types do, though, is treat quotes as literals. So putting punctuation inside the quotation mark, which is literary fashion (and the predominant publishing fashion), looks incorrect because the literal doesn’t include the punctuation.

      – Ryan

  3. blackcoat says:

    I do the quotes thing, which leads me to sentences like: blackcoat said “Why am I writing this sentence?” and then kept writing anyhow.

    The question about parentheticals was less “Do we use the () symbols?” and more “Do we tend to structure sentences (and possibly thoughts) in such a way that we use parenthetical marks more often?”.

    Basically, instead of saying: “I like oranges (they’re fun to peel, unlike apples) and and bananas (ditto).”, I could say “I like oranges and bananas. Unlike apples, they’re fun to peel.”. Same info, but it’s more natural to me to branch immediately as opposed to creating a whole new sentence to lay out that info.

  4. Christoph says:

    So how long till “U” is the correct spelling of “You”? I believe “I” was once spelled out.

  5. Matt says:

    So is the basic tenet that trend trumps the author or creator of an IP?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Matt,

      If you have absolutely no control over the trend, yes. If your name isn’t synonymous with the trend, definitely. If Stephen King came out and said “The Stand” is actually pronounced “The Staund,” people would listen because he is like the Fisher King, intimately tied to the brand.

      GIF isn’t a brand, and the guy, while having made something pretty cool, is not a househole name to those who use it. It’s the same fate as a >a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genericized_trademark”>genericized trademark.

      If there’s an unstoppable force doing something with language that you don’t like, you must either be an immovable object that can actually get in the way of that force, or accept change. The GIF guy is the immovable object that cannot actually get in the force’s way.

      – Ryan

  6. Matt says:

    Good explanation. I am now on board (but it hurts a little).