Web sites, social media, and language

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Web sites, social media, and language

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this page are mine and do not necessarily accord with those of any of my employers, past or present.

Social media web sites are aimed at the semi literate. A third of the population of Britain falls into that category according to a program on BBC Radio 4 a few years ago. (Therefore, outside London, that must be nearer half the provincial populace.) What I did not realize until I read it on a programmers’ blog is that all my logical hierarchical structure and carefully worded headings and labels are meaningless to most readers. Only computer programmers, librarians, taxonomists (but not taxidermists, taxi drivers, or tax collectors) and academics generally are familiar with structured hierarchies. Most people have never read a book containing a nested table of contents, so to them my contents list is just a random collection of links. So, to them, Facebook is no worse than the most carefully constructed web site.

Semi-literacy, while doubtless an improvement on illiteracy, is a nevertheless crippling condition. It prevents understanding. Like the replicants in the 1982 movie Blade Runner, the semi literate get through life by conforming. To navigate a web site or a computer program, they get someone to show them how. They somehow remember the necessary steps, no matter how random and bizarre, and no matter how many steps are involved, forever. Do not underestimate them. They have truly sophisticated (unconscious) minds. And when the user interface is changed, if there is nobody to ask, they click randomly and rapidly until they find what they want — and they remember the sequence of clicks forever.

It is the same with word pronunciation. (We use not just the language that someone speaks, but the way in which he or she uses language, to gauge that person’s intelligence and his or her ‘relatedness’ to us, whether genetically or culturally.) Take the word dissect. Most Brits pronounce it much like bisect despite the double-s in dissect. That’s how they heard somebody pronounce it the first time they heard the word (and most times thereafter) so that’s how they pronounce it. People like me simply do not have enough memory capacity to recall how every individual word is pronounced. We have to have rules — underlying principles — by which we navigate the world, such as the rules that guide pronunciation based on spelling. Yet, for any supposed rule in English language, there are often more exceptions than examples that follow the rule, in which case, how is it a rule? It is a rule because some of us cannot operate without a framework of basic principles from which we can work out each instance when we encounter it.

Another ridiculous yet common example of mispronunciation is ‘nucular’ for nuclear

New Clear Days; Studio album by The Vapors, 1980

New Clear Days; Studio album by The Vapors, 1980

Intentionally or not, the nuclear strike on London implied in the cover illustration of the Vapors’ 1980 studio album New Clear Days illustrates how many provincial Brits feel about Londoners (with what to them is Londoners’ strangely pedantic and peculiar way of speaking). Britain is effectively two separate countries: London (multi-ethnic, thin-faced. intelligent, and diverse) and the provinces (largely white, round-faced, dull, and terrified of difference).

Whether a poor memory somehow gives rise to an ‘understanding’ biased mind, or whether the latter displaces memory capacity, I do not know. I suspect that the two kinds of mind are manifestations of two separate sub-races of humanity that arose as the result of the agricultural revolution; said by some to be the greatest genetic disaster to have afflicted humankind.



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