The Language Lounge

This week marks the fourth anniversary of The Language Lounge, a linguistics column on the Visual Thesaurus Web site. It's a monthly column that considers questions like, "Is there any reliable pattern of sound symbolism associated with diphthongs?" (Now don't all answer at once!) The author, Orin Hargraves, is a lexicographer who's contributed to numerous dictionaries and published a couple of books on language: "Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions" (Oxford), a guide to the differences between British and American English, and "Slang Rules!" (Merriam-Webster), a guide for English newbies [noun. an inexperienced newcomer]. I spoke with Mr. Hargraves from his home in Westminster, Maryland. (All mistakes in spelling and usage are my own.)

You are watching the language in a way most of us aren't. What new trends are you noticing?

I think the biggest one in recent years is the rapidity with which slang makes it into the language. So much unedited text is now available to the public in a way it wasn't before. Everyone can throw up a blog. And so the general register of language is much more widespread in terms of the kinds of English that's out there.

You are an expert on the differences between American and British usage, but in this time of unprecedented mobility, are those differences shrinking?

It's shrinking in one respect: A lot more British English gets into the American mainstream in a way that people don't notice. That's been going on in the other direction a lot longer because of American movies and TV shows, but now, there's so much British media, especially news media, coming into American homes in a way it didn't before. American news organizations employ freelancers around the world who certainly aren't editing their English for an American audience, and so Americans are getting more fluent in what they would have thought of before as British English.

The English language is so much bigger than it was, say, 400 years ago. Are we better at expressing ourselves because of that?

I don't think so. You might even argue that we're less articulate. The existence of more words doesn't mean that we have command of them. Three or four hundred years ago, the means that people had to express themselves were much more limited than we have today. People had to rely more on their linguistic ability to communicate. You won't find a person today who can express himself as well as a character in a Jane Austen novel. Two hundred years ago, a person had only one means to express himself with someone not directly in front of him: write a letter and mail it. Today, we have the telephone or e-mail with emoticons:-) we can get on a web cam. There are all these ways to communicate with other each that have a visual component. The tools we have today to enhance our communication are manifold, whereas before, language had to carry a much bigger part.

What makes this an exciting time to be a lexicographer?

In a single word: technology. The way that dictionaries are being written nowadays is being entirely rethought. Everyone's idea of the dictionary is as a big thick book that has lots of definitions of words. But now it's much easier to present dictionaries online where you have so many more methods for searching and understanding the language. It's taken a while to break away from the book model, but now we're starting to see the exciting possibilities.

Are some of the old rules collapsing under the weight of constant misuse? Like, say, "affect" and "effect" or "it's" and "its"?

The number of people who notice that the rules are being breached is, sadly, shrinking, online and even in print media. But there is a line that you don't want to cross. If everybody is using something wrong, that doesn't make it right. As long as there are well-educated people around, there will always be a standard of good English.

-- Ron Charles

By Ron Charles |  January 7, 2009; 7:05 AM ET Ron Charles
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Here's one change I've noticed: the apostrophe, if that's the correct term, in year abbreviations like '09 (for 2009), now routinely faces the WRONG way! As with any contraction where an apostrophe replaces missing letters or characters -- don't, won't, etc. -- the apostrophe in '09 replaces "20" and should face the same way the apostrophes face in "don't," "won't," etc. But Microsoft Word automatically converts an apostrophe at the beginning of an abbreviated word into an open single quote mark, which faces in the wrong direction.

I see this incorrect usage in sale flyers and even on TV -- for example, "Toyota's '09 Sellathon," with the apostrophe facing the wrong way.

Posted by: Discman | January 7, 2009 9:24 AM

It's a struggle for a lot of us to watch the Gutenberg age (a great and wonderful golden period) fade away. Of course, we love the marvels the web provides--especially the instant access to almost everything. Remember the old Emerson Law of Compensation we learned in high school?

The talented, young lexicographer Erin McKean in a 2007 TED talk, said that although she loves physical dictionaries herself, we all need to realize that the unabridged sitting pompously on its stand is like the eight-track tape. They are/were both "bad ideas" as Man progresses.

She does point out that online dictionaries need to be aware that a word without its sources is like a "cut flower." Also, that future design needs to consider that current online dictionaries lose the wonderful "serendipity."

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | January 7, 2009 11:06 AM

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