Blog Excerpts

Ben Zimmer on How Technology is Shaping Language

The Chicago Manual of Style Online has a monthly Q&A called Shop Talk, and this month Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, is featured. In the interview, Ben talks about the way that technology is shaping language and how sites like the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com can engage with "digital natives."

Excerpts from the interview:

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.

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.

Read the whole interview here.

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