Fascinating evolutions and a juicy confession

2009 New York Film Critic's Circle AwardsI have a confession. Please don’t tell my husband, but I have a crush. I am head-over-heels in love with…words and language. Boy, that feels good to get off my chest. What, did you think I was going to confess I was dating George Clooney or something? I already tried that, but he was just so clingy.

This luscious lexical love affair has gone on since I was probably two, and I’m still smitten. I’ve always been the “word girl.” No joke, they tested me in kindergarten and I apparently had a fifth grade reading level and seventh grade vocabulary. My parents and teacher sat me down and asked me how I’d feel about skipping the first grade and I stopped brushing my Barbie’s hair and said, “That’s a fascinating proposition, let me ruminate on it and I’ll get back to you.” I kid, but, all through school, I loved any sort of literature or writing class, while math and science often made me want to curl up in the fetal position in the corner. So, of course today I’m a software developer. Makes perfect sense, right? Ah, life, you’re so WACKY!

Anyway, during some class in high school, the teacher said something to the effect of, “Words are just society’s agreement on what certain arrangements of letters mean. Language is just agreement on what arrangements of words mean.” Now, I’m paraphrasing, and perhaps it’s a bit simplistic a notion in general, but I remember it struck me and I’ve thought of it many times since then. Most recently, I’ve been thinking about how language is evolving for the technology-connected individual, which is probably most of us at this point. (Quick hint: If you’re reading this blog posting off anything other than a sheet of paper, you’re in the club!)

A little while ago, I watched the online recording of a talk given by a wicked smart guy named Bill DeRouchey on how machine language is expanding human language. Bill is an interaction/information designer, a ukulele player and one of my favorite presenters. I first heard him speak last year on designing humanity into products, largely via the use of appropriate voice in online and printed materials. It was a fantastic presentation with a big “wow factor,” so I didn’t need any convincing to take 20 minutes to hear his thoughts on language evolution in our Twitterfied age.

Once again, I was wowed, and I realized language has undergone, and is still undergoing, some really fascinating changes, just through our increased interaction with technology. Bill talked about the evolution of letterforms, starting with their being passed down through handwritten methods, followed by the printing press, the typewriter, and finally computers. Once letterforms got to the computer age, computers needed standards, and so the available character set became fixed into ASCII codes. Which means basically, if we decided we wanted to add a letter to the English alphabet now, we’d be out of luck. Wild, huh?

But, as Bill noted: “We’re humans. We like to evolve stuff.” And so, given this fixed character set, we got creative and started to use combinations of characters to mean different things. For example:

: )

A colon and a right parentheses. Separate, they’re just punctuation with their own discrete jobs to do. Together, they provide emotional context easily recognizable by the reader. But we see this in other alphanumeric combinations, too. For example, how about these:

LOL … GR8 … IMHO … OMG … BRB … BTW … FWIW … L8R

If you didn’t recognize at least some of those, I’m guessing you’re not a big texter and you definitely don’t have a teenager at home. Bill explained these are examples of our increasing need to pack lots of meaning into smaller and smaller spaces. Some of this is made necessary by limits in our technological channels, e.g. the character limit of a text message, and some by our increased need for speed and efficiency in our communications. Who wants to type out “for what it’s worth” on a little awkward phone keyboard and waste all those characters when “FWIW” gets the job done so nicely?

Some of the evolutions have continued even beyond initial transformations. Bill talked about the “@” symbol, originally created to reflect “each at,” a notion of commerce: Two widgets @ $1.25. With the advent of email in the early 1970s, we took advantage of @’s prepositional properties to reflect location in our email addresses: someone@somewhere.com. But then Twitter came along, and all of a sudden @ became a symbol for identity. I’m @wildwend, how about you?

Twitter users engendered a similar evolution for the lowly pound symbol: “#.” It went from reflecting quantity to preceding the name of groups, events or topics in tweets. Before you knew it, # became a symbol for context. Tweets might now contain one or more of these hashtags, which evolved into search and organizational keys. You can hardly go to a meeting or conference now without getting bombarded with its Twitter hashtag, right? And think about how critical this idea’s been in communicating real-time information on major world events, like #iranelection or #haiti. It’s even taken the reins on giving emotional context to tweets.  I used a few hashtags on a tweet about my alma mater, Michigan State University, and what I consider their ill-advised decision to redesign our beloved Spartan logo:

Twitter status message about Michigan State logo redesign

The “#fail” says it all. Seriously, MSU, what ARE you thinking?

But, I digress. What I find most fascinating about all these evolutions is that they’re cumulative. It’s not like, when Twitter hit the scene, we decided the @ symbol would never mean “each at” again, or that we’d structure email addresses differently. It’s all about the context. Which means, even against the fixed ASCII character set enforced by our adoption of computers, we still have a staggering, perhaps near-infinite set of potential uses for the characters we do have, limited only by our collective creativity, and natural tendencies to evolve our methods of expression. And really, isn’t that kind of groovy?


If you’re interested in this topic, I’d highly recommend you check out Bill’s presentations — this blog post is largely my summarization of the main points from the first link below. And, should you get the chance to see him speak in person, GO!

Bill DeRouchey, “Is Machine Language Expanding Human Language?

(Cyborg Camp PDX 2008)

Bill DeRouchey, “Designing Humanity Into Products.” (Slideshare)

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Caroline Sober

Senior Software Developer at Promega Corporation
Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.

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