Word Guru Ben Zimmer on the transformation and technologization of language

Ben Zimmer

Ben Zimmer is a linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist—a word guru. From tracking the etymology of (and drama over) the word sneaker to interviewing Stephen Colbert about truthiness, Zimmer keeps tabs on the continuing evolution of language. With technology accelerating these changes and fueling debates over usage, Shop Talk decided to get Zimmer’s take on the transformation and technologization of language.

A favorite debate in the CMOS community is whether new word usages should be allowed, with classic examples of hopefully and literally. How do you think we should draw the line between common usage and Standard Written English? Are there cultural or academic checkpoints that a word must go through before making the transition?

The first thing to recognize is that what we think of as “new” usage is very often not that new at all, thanks to what Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky has called The Recency Illusion. We tend to think of stigmatized language patterns as artifacts of our current age, when in fact they can reflect long-standing usage among established, respected writers. But just because you can find Alexander Pope writing “Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same” in 1708, that’s not going to assuage those who insist that literally should only be used, well, literally, rather than emphatically or hyperbolically. I often point to such historical evidence in usage disputes, but I doubt that I’m convincing anyone who has already decided that a particular point of usage is simply wrong.

I chalk up much of this black-and-white thinking about language to pedagogy: in our schooling, we are constantly encouraged to think that there is only one right answer, which flies in the face of the flexibility and mutability of language. And so as adults, we look to authoritative texts like usage manuals and dictionaries to uphold an unequivocal standard. The messy linguistic facts reveal that there is no single standard, however, even if we limit ourselves to a supposedly unitary “Standard Written English.” Different social contexts require subtle adjustments to our language use, and for the most part we navigate these changes of register without even consciously thinking about it. It’s only when we get snagged on a shibboleth like literally or hopefully that questions of propriety arise and we expect an authority to decree that there is One Right Way.

Good usage manuals and dictionaries won’t shy away from the complexity of language but will instead offer advice about what is typically expected in different written and oral styles. Such advice can never be carved in stone, either, as expectations of what counts as “standard” will change over time. Snuck as a past-tense form of sneak was once considered a colloquialism, but most standard references now treat it as no less acceptable than sneakedSnuck didn’t pass through any “checkpoints” on the way to acceptability, however: it just snuck in. Writers on usage are very often playing catch-up with changes that have already happened rather than holding the line against some linguistic tide, Canute-style.

You have taken an interest in how technology is transforming the way we use words. Can you reveal some of your favorite—or some of the stranger—examples you found?

I’m fascinated by the “technologization” of language, both in terms of how new communications technology is shaping language in unexpected ways and how that same technology is giving us fresh insights into how language works. In the era of Big Data, there is an endless stream of language data to analyze, and what scholars are discovering about contemporary usage does not necessarily accord with our preconceptions.

Because electronically mediated styles of talk are less fixed than traditional ones, it’s not surprising that we don’t have a good handle on what is happening with emerging linguistic conventions. In media reports, we typically hear expressions of anxiety about the deleterious effect of short-form communication like texting and tweeting on our language (or our children’s language). But much of this alarmism turns out to be overblown when you look at what is happening empirically. The work of Sali Tagliamonte at the University of Toronto, for instance, debunks the idea that texting and instant-messaging are leading to some sort of “destruction” of English; on the contrary, young people are learning how to move nimbly through their linguistic terrain and recognize what forms are appropriate for what venues.

Though computer-mediated communication is often portrayed as nothing more than a series of abbreviations and emoticons, that stereotype masks some fascinating language shifts going on with texting and other short-form writing. Electronic discourse has allowed innovative grammatical forms to flourish, such as new uses of the relative pronoun “which” and the conjunction “because”—they don’t have to introduce full clauses but instead can preface brief interjections (“which, yeah”) or nouns (“because reasons”). There is a similar terseness in responses to the statements of others, such as “THIS” for agreement or “WHAT” for astonishment. On Twitter, hashtags have become an endless source of linguistic play. Even when space is limited, or especially when space is limited, people are constantly finding new ways to be inventive with language.

It seems technology is making it harder to hide in terms of the way we use our words. So much of what we write is permanently public (just try to delete a bad Tweet) and our words are more easily attributed to us (as J. K. Rowling found out). How is this changing our awareness of what we write? Or is it changing us at all?

Our language use, both formal and informal, is indeed increasingly on display. On social media especially, shifting boundaries of “public” and “private” discourse are creating a much larger paper trail for each individual. For tech companies like Google and Facebook, that is all to the better, since our language data can be commodified, with advertisers finding lucrative methods of targeting consumers based on their linguistic interactions. It also feeds back into advances in communication technology: the more of our language data that we make available for tech companies to exploit, the more smoothly services like Siri or Google Translate can operate.

It’s unclear to me how all of this data-mining will affect the way we choose to use language. We may seek out cloaks of anonymity (or pseudonymity) in our interactions, but forensic analysis of the type that exposed J. K. Rowling will likely make it increasingly difficult to mask one’s true identity. Then again, the same data-driven approaches that are being used to identify authors could be used for more sophisticated deception. As Geoff Pullum recently noted, “the arms race of competing author-identification and author-concealment algorithms has begun.”

In a way, you’ve taken some control of these changes by making technology work in favor of increasing vocabulary and general word knowledge, with sites like Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. How do you hope to steer the course of language with these sites?

I love print dictionaries and thesauruses and still enjoy collecting them, but putting these resources online opens up worlds of possibilities. The Visual Thesaurus, for example, creates interactive displays of the relationships between words and between senses of words by means of elastic, spring-like graphs. Moving from node to node through this type of semantic visualization, the jumps can be unexpected, allowing for the emergence of a different kind of serendipity than the kind that a print reference normally affords.

Vocabulary.com moves beyond the traditional structure of the dictionary to present engaging text that explains word usage, as well as commandeering examples from a massive textual corpus to illustrate “words in the wild.” These rich lexicographical resources are then integrated into an adaptive learning program, where word-learning becomes an active, dynamic process. Words come alive for language learners, rather than being dry, static entities in a dictionary entry or on a flash card.

Rather than steering the course of language, I see Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus as ways to steer our engagement with language: how we learn words and how we come to appreciate their interconnected meanings. Cultivating this type of engagement is all the more important for those coming of age as “digital natives” who expect to find everything that they need online.

Your life must be full of words. Do you ever feel a bit bombarded by the language and words that surround you or is it just a fluid part of your life?

I try to take it all in stride, but it can be a bit overwhelming at times. I feel a responsibility to keep up with the latest developments in the world of words so that I can report back in the columns that I write for the Wall Street Journal (Word on the Street) and Vocabulary.com (Word Routes). I’m also keeping tabs on neologisms as Chair of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society, for our Word of the Year selection and the “Among the New Words” feature in the journal American Speech. The biggest challenge, I find, is differentiating lexical flashes-in-the-pan from those words and phrases that have a chance of sticking around. So much of what passes over the transom is evanescent, fading away as quickly as it bubbles up. It’s easy to get lost in the welter of words, especially with the endless churn of social media, so I try to keep a reasonable perspective to avoid getting caught up in transient linguistic fads.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine.

Photo by Flora Rocco

Please see our commenting policy.