Au Revoir Le Hashtag

The French have a famous aversion to the Anglicisation of their language. But such is the pervading influence of the Internet and global terms which surround it that sometimes drastic action is called for.

So it is with hashtag, that vital little addition with which all Twitter users are of course familiar. The term hashtag has started being used by the French twitterati, meaning that the arbiters of all things lexical and French have been forced to step in.

So from now on, French Twitterers are expected to refer to “mot-dièse” meaning “sharp word” whenever they wish to preface anything with an #. Like that’s going to work, and by all accounts, the move has already a received a Twitter thumbs down, especially as a musical sharp, as denoted by the new term, is not the same symbol as a hashtag.

So while France’s Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie decides which popular online term to unsuccessfully target next, we are left to ponder whether this is a seminal moment for French. If the efforts of language officials do not manage to mandate what the correct word should be for the language in this case, will French continue to be a tongue which is limited and proscribed in terms of its vocabulary or will it start to take on a more English identity and be allowed to grow in a more natural way? Je ne sais pas.


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.

Brexit Should Head For The Exit

I thought I was joking last year when I speculated on where Greece’s possible departure from the Eurozone might take the English language. Silly me.

While Grexit flourished as the buzzword for what Greece might do, I didn’t really think that linguistic development around the word ‘Exit’ was here to stay. But Brexit has changed all of that.

Brexit, referring to the United Kingdom’s possible abandonment of the European Union, enjoyed isolated appearances in 2012 but has really jumped to the forefront for headline writes and commentators in the last few days, as David Cameron girds himself to speak about where the country sits in relation to Europe and prepares people for some sort of referendum.

So what to make of this new form of word creation? Clearly it has gone beyond the specifics of leaving the Eurozone, as the UK’s connection is related to the whole EU. And while there remains a European connection, it is easy to see this type of formation now spreading its tentacles towards other types of exit.

Of course, accuracy isn’t everything. The debate is over the United Kingdom leaving the EU, not Britain, but frankly, Ukexit doesn’t cut it as a new word, while at least Brexit sounds like a word, even if it jars somewhat.

But the only way we will really know if this is here to stay is if it moves away from the corridors of Brussels. If Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction were to be reduced to ”Ursinexit’, then we will have confirmation that exit rule has made an entrance that is here to stay.

:: Don’t forget that Eastwooding With the Mother Flame: The Words of 2012 is still available for Kindle or in paperback. Click here for more information.

Will The Dryathlon Dry Up?

I said it last year and I’ll say it again. I really wish people would stop coining new words for charity campaigns. It is already ceasing to have an impact and is detracting from the important work that is being done.

Last year, I bemoaned the Stoptober campaign, launched by the UK Government as a way of getting people to cut down on smoking. But still people carry on, and now Cancer Research has created a month where people don’t drink in order to raise money. They have called it the Dryathlon.

It is easy to see why this linguistic trick has become fashionable. Movember, the Daddy of the neologistically-inspired charity fundraiser, goes from strength to strength. Movember has undoubtedly become part of the lexicon. So people see it, see that it raises money to fight prostate cancer, and decide they want a piece of it.

But you can’t keep flogging the same idea and expect it to deliver. And the reason why Movember works, while Stoptoper and Dryathlon don’t, is that it is asking people to do something ludicrous. Growing a moustache is an inconsequential and fun thing to do. Coining a word to capture that idiocy is just part of the fun.

But giving up smoking and drinking are not fun, they are important, life-saving activities, and giving them a silly name and expecting people just to tag along, misses why Movember is a success. The word has be associated with something equally as daft for the perfect union.

I think it is a shame. I fear the idea of Dryathlon won’t really help the charity behind it, and that is a pity. You can judge for yourself how successful it has been. Dryathlon has not worked its way into popular culture the way that Movember has, awareness of it is at a much lower scale than its hirsute brother. It is simply not getting the coverage.

It’s time to find another way to raise money.

Banish The Banished Words List

I fear that by the end of this blog, people are going to be condemning me as a curmudgeon with no sense of humour. Ah well.

Lake Superior State University has been receiving global coverage for its annual list of words which should be banished, a list which it has been issuing for close on four decades. It contains a dozen words which it says should immediately be sent packing from the English language.

Now on Wordability, I have certainly commented that I dislike certain new words and phrases, and hoped that they don’t catch on. But once they do cement their place in the language, well that’s just linguistic life. And just because you don’t like them, there is nothing you can do about it. Thankfully, English is not a language where membership is decided by fusty academics behind closed doors, and I find myself slightly aggravated by the idea of banishing words, even though it is clearly tongue in cheek. I assume, anyway.

Fiscal Cliff tops the new list. But it is typical of all of the words on the list. It came into being because it needed to, because it fulfilled a linguistic gap that was demanding to be filled, so to banish it is to banish the concept itself or to ignore the need to find a way of talking about it. Spoiler Alert is an equally useful linguistic shorthand, YOLO has become a vital tool of social communication, and Trending is the perfect descriptor of what is happening on social networks, despite my wife telling me it is not a word whenever I use it.

Frankly, all these words need to exist. Do some of them offend my ears? Yes. Should we therefore get rid of them, just because they irritate us? Of course not. And I do find it slightly rich of Lake Superior University to run its results on the same page as its slogan, ‘Redefining The Classroom’, which is a phrase which sounds much worthier of banishment than any of those I have previously mentioned.

One final note – I would imagine that the American Dialect Society believes these words should not be banished either, as many of them made it to the shortlist for its word of 2012. But in the end Fiscal Cliff and Yolo, to name but two, lost out to hashtag.

I’m slightly surprised by the result – for me, hashtag has been well established for some time and was already entrenched before last year. But that’s just my view. What is clear is that it is a modern word which is necessary. So expect to see it on a list of words which should be banished any moment now.