Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Teh spread of t'intertube wordz

An article by Linton Weeks on the National Public Radio website makes a number of interesting points about the ways in which language spreads from the web and into popular spoken usage. Weeks argues that many words that once only appeared in print/ on screen  are now being spoken: LOL, noob and pwned being prime examples. He points out too that as with so many other forms of language change (and linked to the wave model of change), new words start with a core group and spread out to wider society like a ripple effect. So far so simple, but what he also points out is that while the internet is creating new language for us, its own technology is perhaps restricting its use in some ways.

The ways in which search engines operate is being used by headline writers, he argues, to simplify headlines into more straightforward and descriptive summaries of what's in an article, rather than (like with the stupid title of this post) to play around with words and meanings for fun. As Weeks puts it:

One important way that websites lure traffic is through search engines, such as Google, Bing and Yahoo. When someone types in a search term, he is led to a ranked series of websites. Needless to say, websites are extremely competitive when it comes to those search engine rankings. Every website wants to be #1... As search engines have gotten more sophisticated, their crawlers and scrapers have learned to also sort through all the text on the site. So many websites, trying to enhance their SEO, now pepper headlines and stories with nuts-and-bolts, no-nonsense words that pigeonhole the story. The overuse of this tactic is called keyword stuffing. Purists frown on the practice, but it works.

So what the internet gives us with one hand - hilarious misspellings like teh and pwn, new blends such as blegging and vlogging, leet words such as n00b, and initialisms like FTW and WTF - it takes away with the other. So, what I should have called this posting is "A posting about how the internet affects language change".

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