Category Archives: Technology

The influence of technology on the English Language

Phubbing Becomes A Phenomenon

Lets be honest. We’ve all done it. I’m not proud of it but I’ve definitely done it. And I’ve had it done to me as well. What am I talking about? Phubbing.

Phubbing, an amalgam of phone and snubbing, is defined as ‘The act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention’. The word is the brainchild of Melbournian Alex Haigh, who has set up the hilarious Stop Phubbing website as a way of drawing attention to the practice and allowing people to fight back and stop it. So successful has this been that the term is now going viral.

Stop Phubbing

Anti-Phubbing poster

It’s a brilliant word, undoubtedly one of my favourites of the year. Why, I hear you ask? Well firstly, it passes the test of being a semantic gap needing filling. This is a modern phenomenon, it is an emerging aspect of modern life, and when you talk to people about it, they all agree they’re aware of it. Well they would agree if they weren’t so busy sending Tweets.

Secondly, it’s a great neologism in its own right and blends the right two words to get the new one. Phubbing retains enough of the sense of its ancestry to aid understanding and stand alone, and also sounds just judgmental enough to make its point. It is also infinitely better than other options. I don’t think phignoring or phold-shouldering would really have cut it.

And its usage is already taking off and moving away from the original source. The day after reporting the advent of the word, The Independent used it in perfect context in a story about how crossing the road is dangerous when you are glued to your phone.

So phubbing as both a concept and a word is here to stay. I think we can all agree that it’s rude and people shouldn’t do it. Unless they’re reading Wordability of course, in which case it’s absolutely fine.

Keep Your Eyes Out For Glassholes

There seems little doubt that when Google started promoting Glass, their wearable computer, they had one eye on the effect they would have on the English language. After all, the term Glass Explorers has already been coined for the early trailblazers, and doubtless the technology giants would be hoping for further linguistic developments in the months to come.

But the problem with introducing something new is that the pesky public does have a habit of coining epithets of its own. And so it is with Google Glass, and the early perception that some of the initial users are behaving in ways that are more than slightly irritating. Being Glassholes, in fact.

It’s early days for the word, but its usage is already being noted and is spreading, and seems very likely to stick. Why is it so successful? Basically, it’s because it’s funny. I mentioned it to somebody the other day and he burst out laughing. It takes that very English type of wordplay of rhyming one word with another, a trick which is always successful, and creates a perfect play on words. It encapsulates a huge amount of meaning in a very short space.

And wouldn’t it be great if the idea of glass rhyming with its buttock-related cousin could be extended to other well-known words and phrases. You’d never think the same way about a ‘glass half full’ person. People who ‘live in glass houses’ would have a very different kind of lifestyle. Even an innocent ‘glass of milk’ would be consumed in an altogether different manner. Anyway, enough. Time to stop glassing around and publish this.

Look Through The Eyes of Glass Explorers

I once did a temping job in an office which concentrated on building and maintenance projects. I always particularly enjoyed dealings with the Electrical Foreman or the Mechanical Foreman. This was nothing to do with their personalities or the nature of the work I had to do. It was simply that I liked their job titles, and imagined them as either built of metal or plugged in as they went about their days.

Google’s new term Glass Explorers has a similar sense. Surely these are people who are tearing through jungles or across ruined buildings while taking care not to shatter. If not that, then they must be people searching for the greatest glass ever made.

Of course, neither is true. Glass Explorers are the 8,000 intrepid souls selected by Google to test their new wearable computer, which is called Glass. If Glass become a success, then the term Glass Explorers will become established as a permanent new technology word, the pioneers at the start of a new type of computing.

From a language point of view, it’s a shame that some other initiatives announced by Google have turned out to be April Fool’s japes, rather than real innovations. It’s a shame that we will not really be able to hunt for buried treasure on Google Maps by using ‘Treasure Mode’, or that ‘Google Nose’ will not become a standard way of searching for smells.

Glass Explorers however are no joke, and as technology takes another step forward, so another array of new words is set to appear.

How Twitter Has Changed Language

If there was one thing I kept on saying in 2012 it was the technology and the internet have changed forever the way that language evolves. But while I had my own instincts and observations to back that up, I was also looking around for something else to validate those claims.

So it was exciting to come across the work of Jacob Eisenstein towards the end of last year. He and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta have analysed a huge body of Twitter data from large cities in America and have shown how this contributes to the development of language.

The researchers found that many new words are born on Twitter, which isn’t a surprise. But what was more interesting was the way that they then grew and moved. New words often appear in cities with large African American populations before hopping to other large, urban areas. For example “bruh”, an alternative spelling of “bro” or “brother”, first arose in a few south-east cities before moving to California.

I spoke to Professor Eisenstein about the work that he and his team are undertaking, and tried to find out what it said about current language evolution and what it promised for the future.

He said: “Some of what we saw is orthographic, or a transcription of phonological differences. There are some new abbreviations, most of them not really fit for print. They tend to be quite specific geographically.”

One particular interesting aspect of Twitter language is that it is conversational English, but expressed in written form, possibly leading to a new type of communication.

Professor Eisenstein speculated: “People want to express meaning on multiple levels, maybe how you feel about it the person you are talking to. In spoken conversation you can do that without altering your vocabulary, but on Twitter you have to alter it.

“Written language was for more formal purposes but now people are using it for social interaction which might have been spoken, so written language has to be more mutli-level than it was in the past.”

He said that since first working on the subject, patterns of language movement have already started to change. For example, AF (meaning As Fuck), was characteristic of southern California, but subsequent analysis has found that it has now moved to Atlanta and is  more popular, proof of how things are changing.

In fact, the pace of change is one of the surprising things. He said: “You wouldn’t expect other types of language change to happen in two years – a generation would be a fast change, but this is very fast, happening in only a couple of years.

“I’m not sure that it’s just a Twitter thing. There is clearly a need to do things in written language that you can’t do in existing convention.”

The next step for the Professor and his team and is to analyse Twitter messages in more fine grained detail, as well as taking the work out side the US. But what is clear is that Twitter provides a unique corpus of language as it is being used, and changing today, and the work carried out on this will give us valuable insights into how English will evolve in 2013 and beyond.

The Swiftkey Way To Learning New Words

The number of new words contributed to the English language by technology is well known. But how does a company which provides technology to help with language and communication cope with the ever-expanding tide of vocabulary?

Swiftkey

Swiftkey in action

Swiftkey has garnered praise and awards for its predictive text app. Its nifty software allows users of Android devices to speed up their typing by anticipating what they are going to type and then suggesting it for them.

I wondered how the Swiftkey database keeps up to date, to ensure that it can offer users the newest words on the block. So I asked Dr Caroline Gasperin, who leads a team of eight language processing engineers responsible for most language-related tasks at the London-based company.

She explained that Swiftkey learns an individual’s linguistic habits, and that by extension this grows its global database as a result.

“Your SwiftKey will learn any word you teach it, you only have to type it once and it will be included in your personal language model on your device,” she said.

“Through the Personalisation feature – which allows you to sync it with your Gmail, Facebook and Twitter accounts – and through continuous use, SwiftKey learns the words you use and the contexts in which you use them so that its predictions and corrections are based on your own way of writing.”

This learning can then feed into the overall word database to help the word corpus grow. Caroline said: “We’ve started putting in place the infrastructure for learning new words from our user base.

“As users use the Personalisation feature of SwiftKey, we are able to collect statistics about the words they use and identify words that we did not know before. We are putting in place a semi-automatic process to identify which of those words could become part of a standard dictionary and consequently become part of our downloadable language modules.

“This process consists of observing the frequency of use of words over time: words which used to have few occurrences across our user base, but which start becoming more frequent over time, and which are mentioned by several of our users instead of by just one or a few, are considered as good candidates for being added to our dictionaries.

“It’s worth adding we take our users’ privacy extremely seriously and have policies in place to safeguard this. We do not process a user’s data personally.”

Dr Caroline Gasperin

Dr Caroline Gasperin

So has the way that new words are assimilated changed, and is the process quicker than before? Caroline said: “We look into how many different people have used an unknown word in order to consider it as a potential new word in the language instead of a personal word.

“We take our users’ privacy seriously, so we’ve developed ways to discover words in wide use instead of focusing on single users.

“We haven’t followed users’ language use for long enough to know whether new words are being adopted faster than before, but we are working on getting those statistics.”

I have long since believed that new words are being created and accepted into the language considerably quicker than before, with technology the principal driver behind that evolution. It would be interesting to revisit Swiftkey at some point soon to see whether those promised statistics back up that theory. And the company also gives us a very clear steer about how its core business has to adapt to the ever-changing delights of the English language.

Does Hate-watching Define a Generation?

We all know that there is a certain insidious pleasure in watching something that is really, really bad. I have enjoyed many conversations about the worst film ever made (it’s Flowers in the Attic, in case you were wondering). But there is a difference between stumbling across something which happens to be bad, and then critically savaging it limb from limb, and actually seeking out that which we detest on a regular basis and then avidly watching it.

But so it is with hate-watching, a newly identified social trend which involves people choosing to watch garbage on television and then tweeting about how much they detest it. Recent US drama Smash is generally cited as the most hate-watched programme around.

I have a number of issues with this. Let’s start with the language side of it, Wordability’s bread and butter. Because I can’t find a reliable alternative explanation, I’m guessing that the word comes from a Twitter hashtag #hatewatching. But that doesn’t appear on that many tweets, suggesting that many of the people partaking are not necessarily conscious that they are now in a newly-defined trend. Tweets which begin “I hate watching…” seem to be much more common. All of which means that commentators have pinned the label onto the activity to pigeon-hole it, rather than the word evolving naturally.

Hate-watching as a term also conjures up immediate assocations for me which detract from what it actually means. The use of ‘Hate’ implies to me an ideological and active hatred, a sense of the politics of hate, rather than a critical and therefore harmless loathing. Hate-watchers, just on a gut reaction to the word, sound like people who preach a culture of hate and then see how that pans out, rather than the more passive people they are, with their only weapon being a keyboard and a slightly cavalier approach to grammar.

But leaving the word aside, it is more what hate-watching says about 21st century life than anything else. As I said at the outset, we all discover and take delight in things that are terrible. But after we have seen them once, surely we have better things to do with our time than to endure them again. Is life becoming so empty, so devoid of useful activity, that we have to fill the vacuum with things we don’t actually like, and then talk about them. For me, hate-watching says something quite fundamental about how people are frittering away their time on earth, and that is a waste that I really do hate to watch.

Mobile Users Having A Smishing Time

You can always tell when a new word hasn’t caught on – two or three years after it is first coined, it still has inverted commas around it when hits the headlines.

So it is with Smishing, the mobile cousin of phishing. It is the practice of sending bogus text messages to people in order to con them and was actually coined in 2006 in a blog on the McAfee website. But six years later, it has still not shed its inverted commas or the sense that people are seeing it for the first time.

Smishing is currently in the news in America because of an outbreak of fake Wal-Mart related text messages. It has led to much coverage of a new type of cyber attack but all the articles confirm that despite its few years of linguistic existence, it is a term that none of us have ever heard of.

Which begs the question of why. Smishing is derived from SMS and Phishing, and simply conflates the two. Phishing is itself a conflation, though not an obvious one. It takes fishing and combines it the ph from phone phreaking, which is the art of cracking the phone network.

Despite its rather convoluted derivation, phishing works as a word. You can immediately understand it as it has the element of fishing for something until you get a catch, in this case a cyber one, and the ‘ph’ spelling makes it seem kind of techy, even if you have no idea why it is actually spelt like that.

But smishing? It doesn’t have the benefit of sounding like another word. It actually sounds pretty daft. And because of its slight ludicrousness, it is hard to imagine it being talked about with the same seriousness as its email ancestor.

So even though there is a growing problem of spam text messages landing on people’s mobiles around the world, I don’t expect to see Smishing finding its way into common vocabulary any time soon.