“Today, the ordinary child lives in an electronic environment; he lives in a world of information overload”

Marshall McLuhan

 

This is our first post in our new series: Language of Media. We will be dissecting how language has evolved into what we know of it today. From verbs to plurals, this series will identify how language is now used within the media industry.

Changes to our speech are so commonplace that many of them seem like second nature; we are built to absorb and mimic the language that surrounds us. But by taking stock of new words and their origins and by looking at some changes that are still in flux, we might be able to understand more about their context.

The constant change of language

Languages change constantly, of course. Meaning arises from mutual consent and not from a dictionary: like any book, all a dictionary can do is reflect the meanings available when it was written. Definitions are a line drawn in a river bed, temporary and ineffectual; washed over by the unending flow of common usage as words are coined, reinvented and allowed to fall away.

There has long been a capacity for jargon to enter common usage: for words that are originally very niche to become part of everyday speech for the wider community, wholly distinct from their original use. Words which meant one thing when they were specialised sometimes adopt another meaning when removed from their context.

Historically, the military was one source of such expressions (face the music; picket; spit and polish). In more recent years, technology has also provided a rich vein of new words and alternative ways of using old words (mouse, spam, meme): as devices and their use radiate out from the cabals of Silicon Valley, they bring with them a new vocabulary that allows us all to discuss our devices in the same terms.

Unused, other words fall out of use, particularly where they don’t enter the lexicon of new generations in the first place. Children today are wholly conversant in swipe, touchscreen and blog. Parents might eventually mourn the demise of conker and the movement of bug from the garden to the computer.

Doing things with words

One early impact of computing on the language was a tendency for erstwhile nouns to become verbs. Before the digital age, you didn’t often click something, the word existed just as a noise or if it was used as a verb at all, it was the act of making that noise. Today, a click makes the hearer think about an action, not a sound. It is an affirmative, deliberate action to which the actual sound is incidental; for advertisers, it is a signal of intent, a KPI or a trading metric.

Similarly, access was once only a noun. You could be given access or denied it: you could have it, but you couldn’t do it. Today when we access a folder or a website, we’re enacting something that used only to be an abstract noun.

Likewise, scroll used to be a rolled-up parchment, now it’s a way we interact with content; an example of the way in which we are empowered over our consumption of information. Again, something you used to be able to have, that within the digital space you can actually do.

These changes are a movement towards action. They speak of the type of dexterity that our devices require of us, of our empowerment over technology and the capacity to bring about change through doing.

Great, but these are posts about media, right?

Being intrinsically linked with the consumption of media, our industry is particularly exposed to technological advancements in the way that content is distributed.

It is my aim here to use the shifts in language brought about by technological advance to elucidate broader changes in the way that media are consumed. This isn’t to suggest that a causal link exists, but to show that the changes in language and the changes to their societal context may be rooted in a common movement, and that careful examination of each might help us better understand the whole.

We will look at several different types of example: changes in the meaning of old words; widespread “breaking” of the rules of grammar and syntax; the removal of some words that were once essential to conveying meaning. Stick around for our next post in our Language of Media series discussing the difference between data and datum.

– Ed Hill, Managing Partner