Did you notice a mild tempest earlier this year? An outfit called Global Language Monitor is making the thrillingly press-release-worthy claim that the English language is fast approaching its one-millionth word. The current "estimated" ticker reading is 991,883 words and counting.
Karl Fisch’s Did You Know? presentation has been making the rounds, and Scott McLeod has kicked the momentum up a notch with his own mashed-up version. Both version cite word count statistics making essentially the same point as Global Language Monitor—the English language is expanding at an alarming/exhilarating rate—but to a different end. Did You Know? puts the number at 540,000 presently, and then estimates that to be five times greater than the number of words floating around in Shakespeare’s time. The point, whether you agree with the methodology or not, is that these are fast times, and getting faster.
All of this word count talk is really preamble (perhaps just padding my own word count here) to something different, a related idea. With the explosion of Web 2.0 technology, social networking, and more fluid modes of communication, we’re seeing an accompanying bulge in the lexicon as new vocabulary is coined in a willy-nilly effort to keep up with all this novelty. Superimpose over that observation a second one: Prensky’s idea of digital immigrants and digital natives as distinct populations. If new modes of language are emerging at light-speed in response to the digital native (aborigital?) experience, what happens to the immigrants who are still plugging along speaking the old language? At what point do the experiences, cultures, and languages of these groups drift apart and ultimately diverge?
This is nothing really new, just a different take on the idea of a digital divide. We’re used to thinking of it in terms of socio-economic status, of equity and access. But if we look through a generational lens, the divide is less about haves and have-nots and more about speaks and speak-nots. I do think it’s interesting to think about these patterns from a linguistic perspective. Or more accurately, from the perspective of an amateur dabbler who doesn’t hesitate to slip on his Junior Linguist Decoder Ring in times of need.
Edward Sapir, noted linguist and author of Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, would call it "linguistic drift." For a guy writing about morphology, phonemes, and dialects, he’s pretty lively and irreverent. But then what is better than language at celebrating adaptability and flouting rigid authoritarianism? From Chapter VII:
We must return to the conception of “drift” in language. If the historical changes that take place in a language, if the vast accumulation of minute modifications which in time results in the complete remodeling of the language, are not in essence identical with the individual variations that we note on every hand about us, if these variations are born only to die without a trace, while the equally minute, or even minuter, changes that make up the drift are forever imprinted on the history of the language, are we not imputing to this history a certain mystical quality? Are we not giving language a power to change of its own accord over and above the involuntary tendency of individuals to vary the norm? And if this drift of language is not merely the familiar set of individual variations seen in vertical perspective, that is historically, instead of horizontally, that is in daily experience, what is it? Language exists only in so far as it is actually used—spoken and heard, written and read. What significant changes take place in it must exist, to begin with, as individual variations. This is perfectly true, and yet it by no means follows that the general drift of language can be understood 8 9 like the waves of the sea, moving backward and forward in purposeless flux. The linguistic drift has direction. In other words, only those individual variations embody it or carry it which move in a certain direction, just as only certain wave movements in the bay outline the tide. The drift of a language is constituted by the unconscious selection on the part of its speakers of those individual variations that are cumulative in some special direction. This direction may be inferred, in the main, from the past history of the language. In the long run any new feature of the drift becomes part and parcel of the common, accepted speech, but for a long time it may exist as a mere tendency in the speech of a few, perhaps of a despised few.
So, if change is driven by individual variations and the power of individual speakers to select among those variations with a cumulative effect, add Web 2.0 to the mix and the change happens quickly, perhaps exponentially. Laid-back drift becomes headlong careening.
The long run is now the short run. The despised few are the early adopters. Get Scobleized, discovered, recognized, and your variation becomes the shape of things to come.