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Xárene Eskandar
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Immortal since Apr 4, 2007
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    Language as Virus
    Project: The Total Library
    I rarely share CNN stuff; they suck in journalism. But this little window into Shishmaref, Alaska is interesting.

    There is a concern of dialects and languages being lost, and as a result, cultures being lost. Of 4000 or so spoken languages, we have about 2500 left, some spoken by as little as one person, and when that person is gone, the language is gone unless it was successfully transmitted.

    However, at the same time that we are losing ancient languages and cultures, we are gaining new ones. This is either happening the way it has happened for centuries, which is by the fragmentation of social and cultural groups that leads to dialects; or in more creative ways such as completely new construction—which also has historical roots—such as Esperanto, Klingon and now Na'vi. Are the linguists and scientists too worried with loss of old languages (and cultures) to realize the new emerging ones? But the concern for loss of language extends to regular people too, speakers of a particular language, not just scientists. Let's take current English as an example. In the comments of the io9 post linked above, one person says "Work on America speaking better English first." And a few comments are exchanged on what is really about the action the limitations of technology have taken on changing our language, primarily SMS and IM by altering our spelling, and now tweets that require new abbreviated grammar, which also incorporates the new spelling, all compounding the transformation of informal written English.

    As both student and teacher, I have always been meticulous of proper spelling and grammar. I am even picky with tweets, SMS and IM and spell everything out (yes, I face space and character limitations too frequently because because is not bcuz). However, after reading and re-reading De Landa's chapter Memes and Norms in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, I am more convinced of allowing English to be changed through our use of technology. Technology is adding new words (blog) and redefining old words (blackberry). As we are becoming more intertwined with and defined by our technologies, why can they not define new grammar and new spelling? As De Landa puts it, 'the sheer weight of numbers decides its ultimate fate.' He provides Norman French and Roman Latin as examples where though one was the language of English aristocracy, and the other was regulated and forced through the language of law and religion, neither were able to 'take over as the language of the masses', because the masses were speaking their own languages and dialects and they outnumbered the ruling classes. So we can enforce proper spelling and grammar by attaching consequences to it like the Romans did—with grades instead of arm power—or we accept that the growing number of English speakers are adopting new spelling and grammar. This is not a new idea, it's called Spelling and Language Reformation.



    Ed Rondthaler illustrates redundancies of English spelling.

    I think I may have written somewhere on SC, about my anxiety over losing languages; saddened over the switch from blackberry to Blackberry. I still feel sad when I learn of nature words omitted from the Oxford English Dictionary for Children. How can children be taught to care for nature and environment when they do not know or understand the words that define it?

    Omitting words and redefining word spelling are different though. Marcos Novak disagrees; he asserts that 'changing spelling, changes meaning therefore completely changing the language because the connection to the root word is lost'; the original word may as well be omitted from the language. I disagree on the premise that society and humanity are constantly changing and cannot be defined by old words and older meanings. As technologies create more modes of interactions and emotions, our old language will not have enough words for describing and expressing ourselves. In turn we create new words and redefine old words. As we evolve, we advance our language. But if we are adamant about tying everything to proper root words as they were being used in 800AD, 1600 or even 1980, will we not face a problem of inadequate expression? A while back some members of SpaceCollective began brainstorming new word definitions—in a way, reclaiming the language to fit our current needs and modes of expression. (I can't locate the post and it's string of comments. If you do, please create a synapse.) Etymology is vertical and hierarchical, while redefinition is horizontal and mesh-like. The vertical is a slice through strata with diversity across time, while the horizontal stitches together from a larger cultural sample where time is not varied, but common (or has little variety, ie. 15 years, not 150 years). A word which was relevant at one time, is not relevant at another time. Loyalty to the root is therefor not feasible as it slows down emotional and cognitive evolution.

    My title for this post, Language as Virus, is not from William S Burroughs' quote, "Language is a virus from outer space." I have not even been able to locate the context of that quote. (the internet may seem like a good place to look for something, but sometimes it is too big to find what you are looking for.) I came about the title when I began thinking how words are formed and accepted between a group of people, and drew a literal parallel with a virus, an agent that replicates through a host body. This also came about from reading the opening paragraph to the Memes and Norms chapter:

    Human languages are defined by sounds, words, and grammatical constructions that slowly accumulate in a given community over centuries. These cultural materials do not accumulate randomly but rather enter into systematic relationships with one another, as well as with the human beings who serve as their organic support.


    In the case of our ubiquitous technologies, who is the virus: (the) language (of technology) or technology itself? Are we the hosts, or is our language the host? Are we the agents of change through the language or is technology changing us? My mind went wild thinking of the cycle: We create mimetic systems; they take control; we become mimetic systems; we take back control, and the cycle continues—a popular sci-fi plot. However, the "they" are not the machines, the robots, etc. it is the language, the vowels, the consonants, the syllables. Soon we will speak code. The break down and baring of language to shorthand logic for everyday communication and transmission of information is inevitable. We already do that through email and text messaging where all words are reformulated to codes and eventually broken down to two numbers. We are already internally vocalizing the same complex-to-simple shift when reading w/ r u 2day? (Is SMS written or spoken language?)

    Language is communication. Language is culture. Language is poetry. Language is a hand-woven silk rug. Language is a hunting scene painted on the wall of a cave. They all communicate a story about their originating and executing culture. The 'etymology' of these languages are varied; we cannot trace them to a common or single poem, rug, painting, etc. So why should we insist on tracing our spoken and written language to a single common word, an instance in time, so long ago that we cannot even identify with?

    Fri, Dec 18, 2009  Permanent link
    Categories: language, code, rant
    Sent to project: The Total Library
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    Wildcat     Sat, Dec 19, 2009  Permanent link
    A very good and enlightening post Xarene, thank you.

    few points though
    concerning:" who is the virus: (the) language (of technology) or technology itself?"

    neither, the virus is probably the noise in between the intended meaning and the commonly conceived meaning.
    I do not think that technology in itself is a virus, but then neither is language in itself. if we take language as the medium by which experiences move from one mind to another and technology as an extension of said minds, that which replicates is actually a distortion, a perturbation if you like, that we call ambiguity. the more complex we become both as individuals and as a civilization, the replicant 'noise' virus allows a new level of cross fertilization to come forth and emerge.

    concerning:" Are we the hosts, or is our language the host? Are we the agents of change through the language or is technology changing us?"

    Again as above I do not see 'us' as hosts per se but dynamically evolving agencies, interconnected and intertwined with and within our technoculture, in that we are language producing machines, some of which are designated as language, others designated as technology, the difference may be of style but not of kind.
    in this I see both technology and language as products of mind (of humanity,of civilization, of culture) a kind of superior product of life in general, the change is symbiotic and correlated, simultaneous and inherently multiversal (in that it happens in many dimensions concomitantly .
    moreover, in regard to :"However, the "they" are not the machines, the robots, etc. it is the language, the vowels, the consonants, the syllables. Soon we will speak code."

    I think that the 'they' are more likely the " virus of noise" and soon as we are evolving that which we will speak will be the "ambiguous" a language so fraught with possibilities and potentialities that for all practicalities we shall be powerless to distinguish language from technology, ideas from concepts and content from context, in this future scenario the only reality (if such term will still bear any sense) will be one of creative co-extensive sense thought..
    finally concerning:"So why should we insist on tracing our spoken and written language to a single common word, an instance in time, so long ago that we cannot even identify with?"

    we shouldn't! and by refraining from doing so we may be able to unleash our prospective future as a specie.


    (there is more and it will come eventually..)


    btw : I have quoted your last paragraph on my tumblr blog
    btw 1: the quote: Language is a virus from outer space is probably from : "The Ticket That Exploded (1962)" by William S. Burroughs
    Wildcat     Sat, Dec 19, 2009  Permanent link
    I also recommend seeing this: http://www.chrisharrison.net/projects/wordassociation/index.html 
         Sun, Dec 20, 2009  Permanent link
    Nice points!

    My title for this post, Language as Virus, is not from William S Burroughs' quote, "Language is a virus from outer space." I have not even been able to locate the context of that quote. (the internet may seem like a good place to look for something, but sometimes it is too big to find what you are looking for.)

    Here you go! I actually find myself looking for that exact passage all the time to read over. Never ever seen it in print. Communication must be total and conscious before we can stop it.

    The information liberation movement keeps on doing its thing. It's incredibly obnoxious and disgusting to try and imprison perfectly communicable, pertinent and important information behind things like money or other forms of coercion, isn't it? It's weird because it's linguistic entities (law etc) trying to limit other linguistic entities, as if viruses decided to start attacking each other.

    I remember back in high school, my younger brother being angry about his teacher always nitpicking about how he used his language over silly little things. It's a thoughtless war against neologism. I told him to tell the teacher that she's going to win a darwin award if she keeps on stifling the evolution of language like that. Apparently she thought it was funny, but kept on doing her job. Lame.
     
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