Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vocab Elements and Online Language Effects

We spend a lot of time on this blog learning new words to improve our writing and expand our minds. I wanted to know more about the study of words and how the online world is affecting our language. This month's books were an attempt to do that: English Vocabulary Elements, which  looks at how vocabulary works, and Always On, which looks at how the online world is affecting language. Both were interesting, but very different, books from Oxford University Press. Let's dig into them.

English Vocabulary Elements

English Vocabulary Elements by Keith Denning, Brett Kessler, and William R. Leben is a deep book. Which is not surprising when you consider the authors: Denning was a linguistics professor at Eastern Michigan University, Kessler is an assistant professor of psychology and philosophy-neuroscience-psychology (PNP) at Washington University, and Leben is a professor emeritus of linguistics at Standford University. Based on a college linguistics course, the book is well organized into topics, such as morphology (study of word structure), allomorphy (when two morphs are of the same morpheme -- I told you this was a deep book!), and phonetics (study of a language's sounds). It also discusses the history and sources of English, which I found most interesting. It includes study aides and quizzes to help you learn the material and is fairly readable, more so if you've ever studied linguistics (which I did many moons ago). The glossary is splendid, with such words as affix, backronym, diacritic, morph, rhotacism, and voice defined. There are helpful appendixes, reading lists, and an index as well.

I found chapter 2, on the history and origins of English, fascinating. I've known forever that English is a Germanic language and that many of my ancestors were Anglo-Saxons (that is, Germanic tribes that settled in England). But I didn't know how English and German were related, nor that they have the same ancestor, Indo-European and that language historians have been trying to recreate Proto-Indo-European. Indo-European gave birth first to Germanic, Italic, Celtic, and Hellenic. English comes from a Germanic decendant, West German (which also gave birth to German, though German is more closely related to West German than English is), whereas Latin comes from Italic and eventual gives birth to French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages. I found the book's language "family tree" as interesting as my own (yes, I am a geek).

If you are an amateur linguist or really want to jump into nuts and bolts of word study, pick up this book. That said, I don't imagine many of my readers would want such an in-depth look at how are words are formed. It's a wonderful geeky, academic book, but for all that it's still a geeky, academic book. For myself, I think I'd look for a readable book on English language's history. I'm sure at least some of the words in the glossary will appear in the Weekly Vocab Builder. Poor spellers would benefit a lot from this book, as knowing the roots of words and how certain words are related can really improve spelling.

Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World

Always On by Naomi S. Baron is look at how Americans use language online.  Baron, a linguistics professor at American University, uses her own research with college students others' research on online language and the platforms we use to communicate with online. She looks at e-mail, IM, Facebook, blogs, and texting to answer the question: how is online affecting language? Her conclusion is surprising: these platforms are not degrading the language; if anything is, it's the youth culture and its "whatever" attitude that defines American culture (her focus in this book is specifically Americans; she is currently working on mobile phone use by university students in Sweden, the US, Italy, Japan, and Korea). The real effect the online world is having on language is a result of our new ability to be "always on," always available to others through the Internet and our mobile phones. Because of that, we make choices about when to engage and when not to. How does this affect our relationships, online and off-? Do we lose depth for breadth? Do we lose depth for multitasking? What kind of people are we becoming?

To be honest, I expected to read things like there is a degradation in how complex our sentences are or we are now more adept at language usage because we are reading and writing so much more. Of course, those are extremes, but the book didn't tackle the middle either. Instead, Baron discovers that online writing, though casual, is much more like writing than it is like speech. She spends a lot of time discussing the volume (think noise here) of online language. We are learning to control that volume, turning one channel up and another down (both on- and offlline) as our needs change moment to moment, and it affects how we interact with the world. Chapters 4 through 7 discuss IM, Facebook (and similar networks), blogs, and mobile phones. It was interesting to discover we are using these platforms to fill ever-present needs and there are parallels to them that have been used before, such as diaries and talk shows (did you see that one coming? I sure didn't). Still, if you're familiar with online and mobile communication tools, much of these chapters won't surprise you; the author spends a lot of time simply defining them.

Chapters 8-10 wrap up the book and are worth the time to read. Baron even suggests you could read those first, and then go back and read more about her research, which is what I did. Chapter 8 discusses America's youth culture and it's "whatever" attitude and how that's more the source for the decline in reading and writing skills. Chapter 10 discusses the cost to our culture of "being always on." But Chapter 9, "Gresham's Ghost: Challenges to the Written Culture," is especially worthwhile for writers. The author closely examines the writing culture. She looks at why we write things down and why being published in the traditional sense is so important to us. She discusses vapor text, particularly Wikipedia. Is it changing our ideas of what authorship is? Where does writing fit into our culture, what will it become in the future? Should you bother reading blogs (like this one) about grammar and good writing? I'd argue you should, of course; language is still about getting your message not just out but understood. Good writing and good editing facilitate that.

But where is writing headed? "The future of written culture," Baron writes, "will be a product not only of education and technology but of the individual and social choice we make about harnessing these resources." (212) Let's make conscious decisions about our education, technology, and harnessing them.

Coming Up

Writing is a lonely business. If you're in the New England area, consider going to the New Hampshire Writers' Project's Writers' Day on April 17. With sessions on the creative process, writers and social media, and pitching to agents, it's sure to be a great day. Sign up, and I'll see you there!

Don't forget: this is the last time I'll update this site. You can continue to read The Writing Resource at

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