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Weirding Language

May 12, 2009

I like to play with words and sentence structure. I like verbing. I like making up words, and I like reading words that didn’t exist before the author wrote them. Vermincious Knids still scare me, and it’s all because of the way it rolls off the tongue. And then stretches itself into letters which spell threatening messages and try to use glass elevators to circumvent their problem with re-entry.

When you make up words, you’ll be met with OED-bashers who’ll tell you that “That’s not a real word” (or “That’s not grammatically correct,” or “that’s mispelled,” depending on the particular weirding of language that’s afoot. Two answers tend to occur to me at such times.

“Great authors break the rules all the time”

And

“Language is generative”

The first is only really half relevant. Just because someone else did it doesn’t mean you can get away with it. It’d be pretty arrogant for me to equate myself with any great authors at this particular juncture. That said, breaking various rules of writing is something I started doing as soon as I’d internalised those same rules. While a lot of authors don’t make up words, a great number break grammatical rules, like starting sentences with conjunctions. (And while I’m on the topic, I’m really curious as to who decided that adverbs were weak… what makes a whole class of words inherently weaker than the rest?)

But it’s the second answer that I tend to go with. Language is generative. As a psychologist, language is one of my major research interests. Language is a behaviour unique to humans. While all animals have some form of communication, language is uniquely flexible in the way that it can be used to construct novel locutions, metaphors, analogy, and hypotheticals. The reason that humans have acheived dominance on this planet isn’t the opposable thumb. If it were, then we’d have far more competition from simians. It’s our ability to share knowledge, stories, and thoughts, and even more than that, our ability to construct new knowledge, stories, and thoughts and communicate those.

Language is in a constant state of flux. English is the best language to write in because it stole all the best bits for other languages. (Aside: I heard about a book which lists great words which we don’t have in English, does anyone know what its called? I would very much like to steal some) Doing new things with words is a natural part of languages natural progression.

In 1984, George Orwell introduced the concept of Newspeak. For the few who haven’t read it, Newspeak is a version of English which seeks to cull all the unneccesary words and reduce the lexicon to the bare minimum neccesary for interpersonal communication and party propaganda. The agenda here was to reduce the vocabulary of the proletariat to reduce their capacity for thought. I believe the converse to be true – increasing the range of words available to you can only increase your capacity for thought. (Though I do love the word “doubleplusungood”) It gives you tools with a finer edge, better able to describe the subtleties of experience. Checking the growth of the language by preventing the generation of new words in the name of linguistic purity isn’t quite introducing Newspeak, but not moving forward is only slightly better than moving backwards.

From Newspeak to txtspk. Txtspk, with its relative lack of vowels and love of using numbers in the place of letters, is much reviled. It has been heralded as the death of the English language (and I’m sure non English speakers have come up with their own version.) Despite my adoration for neologisms, I think the language of text messages falls into the realm of accidentally embracing newspeak. There’s modifying language in the pursuit of an aesthetically pleasing sentence and then there’s mangling it because you’re too lazy to type a full word. Twitter has a harsh character limit, and all the people I follow manage to avoid resorting to vowel removal the majority of the time. That said, I’m always open to the idea that the bizzare ideosychrosies of any communication medium can produce words that work. There may be diamonds in the rough. The best bits of language can come from adverse conditions and arbitrary restrictions.

Embrace the weirding of language. Put your favourite verbings, neologisms, and strange archaic words that have fallen out of use in the comments, or tweet them to me at http://twitter.com/anthonygoreilly

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