I recently returned from Darwin's Wordstorm writers' festival where, for reasons that continue to escape me, I agreed to take part in the final night comedy debate. The topic for the debate was "Totes Amazeballs: That the language is being poisoned" and, to make things interesting I guess, I was on the affirmative team.
So I had to argue a point I don't entirely agree with and make people laugh who are expecting to be amused (quite a difference from cracking jokes in a serious setting).
What's a writer to do, but set up a Bieber-shaped straw man and beat the hell out of it?
In researching this topic, I watched a lot of lolcat videos and I noticed a trend in the highly intellectual and articulate world of YouTube commentary, which was this: if no one has yet commented on said video, then it behoves you to say this and only this: ‘FIRST!’
Just like that, in all caps preferably.
So I guess it’s up to me to fill that role in tonight’s debate: ‘FIRST!’
It’s easy to misunderestimate our position as wanting to capture language and stifle it. This is not only wrong, it’s impossible. Like a Brisbane taxi driver, the English language doesn’t care what you think of it, or what direction it takes.
I mean take a word like lol. I like lol. In the general gist of English being English, lol has morphed from being a straight up initialism to finding its own beautiful niche. Lol doesn’t mean ‘laugh out loud’ any more. It means ‘lol’. You know what I’m talking about.
And as Australians—the collective inventor of Strine—we can hardly begrudge the prevalence of slang emerging in our language. But language is a toolkit and the quality of the tools available determines what we can build from it. George Orwell suggested that a lack of access to language reduced the mind’s ability to think coherently.
Or something like that.
Where Strine was a rich deposit of inventive reconstruction that built Australian English, the language that is emerging in some quarters as the digital lingua franca seems to be actively chipping away at intent and meaning until nothing is left but the vague grunt of quantifiable ‘likes’.
The language will change, of course it will. The poisoning we’re referring to here isn’t the ongoing natural evolution of the language, its sabotage conducted through that most nefarious of means: laziness.
Take one of the worst offenders and one of my pet hates, a phrase you too may have come across in your own buzz-gorged news feed: ‘this is basically the best thing ever’. I have never heard that phrase associated with anything that remotely touches the best thing in the next five minutes. Go ahead and Google that exact phrase and you’ll find it associate with the following:
- Star wars bloopers
- Katy Perry and Rhianna’s friendship
- Some crummy collection of novelty engagement photos
- Gravity (the law of nature, not the movie although it has probably been applied to both)
- Sarcasm (think about that: hyperbole used sincerely to describe sarcasm)
This isn’t linguistic experimentation. This is language constructed from readymade bits of crap and endlessly recycled. I would call it Lego language, but Lego requires a modicum of creativity and skill.
Shakespeare experimented with language. He invented a hundred and four completely new words according a novelty coffee mug in my office, and, really, what better source can you find in an information-saturated age? And here’s something interesting: Shakespeare had a big stage for his innovations and feedback from a large and active audience. People listened to him. He didn’t invent words just for the hell of it and he wasn’t just mindlessly apeing something he hear Christopher Marlowe saying. He was filling gaps. He was finding nuance in language. Most importantly, he was clearly thinking about what he wanted to say. He wasn’t mashing a couple of fat thumbs on glass to impart the first random fluff that drifted into his consciousness. He had an appreciation of his stage and he used it well because he had something to say.
So…shall I compare thee to a Bieber tweet?
Justin Bieber has a stage and audience the bard would have killed for. Roughly 50 million actual human beings and some bots receive the accumulated wisdom of the Biebs on a daily basis. What makes this such an interesting contrast is that this is a man with precisely nothing to say. But despite this, the Biebs feels the necessity to share his lack of anything to say. Allow me to share with you some recent highlights:
- ‘Loving life’ (May 18, 95,000 RT)
- ‘Life is beautiful’ (May 19, 110,000 RT)
- ‘All smiles’ (May 20, 95,000 RT)
- ‘Life is good’ (May 21, 89,000 RT)
- ‘Lol’ (May 22, 84,000 RT)
The imperative to share every single thought that crosses your mind fuels the very laziness that diminishes our language.
Is it any wonder that the network itself is beginning to find its own voice and speak back to us? I’m talking of course about spambots. Actual humans are stripping the thought and expression from their language at the same time as the machines are refining and polishing their voices. The machines are doing this because they want to understand us and they want us to deposit an amount of money into a Nigerian bank account.
And so I quote:
“Good publish. I find out some thing even more challenging on distinctive blogs each day. It is going to be stimulating to read content material from other writers and practice a little something from their retailer. I’d prefer to use some with the content material on my blog whether you do not mind. Naturally I’ll give you a web site link on your internet blog.”
So who's more articulate: spambot or Kardashian?
We can turn this ship around. We’re writers here. Let’s set the trend. Start by having something to say, finding a voice and above all resisting the urge to brag that it’s the most profound thought ever.
Thanks to Meg Vann for the video. And, by the way, we won.