Monday, September 9, 2013

This is literally a dilemma

Recently there was a great deal of hue and cry across the Internet (which is fair enough as that's pretty much what the internet is for.)

However, as opposed to the usual topics of H&C (Religion, Politics and Ben Affleck) this time the H&C was coming squarely from the folks out there who care deeply about language.  Which meant that for once most of it was spelled and punctuated correctly, which mad a pleasant change.

What began it was this - The Online Oxford English Dictionary - Gold Standard for Scrabble players and pedants alike - updated their definition of the word 'Literally'.

After giving the correct definition of the word they appended:

'informal used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true:I have received literally thousands of letters'

Which many, if not all, of us took as the good people at Oxford finally just saying "Fine.  Screw you all.  You can just make up your own shit from now on - we're out." before cracking open a bottle of expensive bourbon that they'd been saving against this day's inevitable arrival. 

And it's hard to blame them really, what with the state of spelling and grammar these days.  Perfectly respectable columnists starting paragraphs with conjunctions and leaving participles everywhere.  It's chaos, people.  And stop clubbing, baby seals!

But* - and it pains me to admit this - that's how language ALWAYS changes.  

*See - I did it again.  And I don't even feel bad about it.

After all, at the end of the day Language is nothing but a mutually agreed set of basic rules that we've all signed on to so that we're able to communicate with one another.  As long as we all understand the new rules, does the fact that it's a new rule really matter? 

Additionally, one has to consider why we have an Oxford Dictionary in the first place.  Is the job of the Oxford Dictionary to be correct, or to accurately relay how people are using the language?  (Obviously the answer is 'both', but in cases like this where it feels like you have to pick one or the other, what's a poor online repository of knowledge to do?)

It's not like we all got together around 1550 and took a big vote as to whether or not we wanted to keep using noun declension.  We just sort of stopped doing it.  And if there had been an Internet at the time then the message boards would be chock full of people posting 'Thou art misusing 'doth', moron.'  (if you're interested in this sort of thing you should totally google 'The Great Vowel Shift' which is not only really interesting, but also sounds pleasantly naughty.)

Or, for an earlier example, consider the following scene - set in Britain in the early-ish 1st Century.

ROMAN 1 (Rory):  Well, we've just about finished writing up contracts so that we can control these Saxon folk

ROMAN 2 (Steve):  I don't think they're Saxons until 4 or 500...

RORY:  That's not important right now.  

STEVE:  Sorry.

RORY:  The problem I'm running into is that they don't have a written alphabet, so I'm just sort of mushing it into our alphabet

STEVE:  Sounds good, what's the problem?

RORY:  Well, their language uses a lot of that 'th' sound that we never ever use, and we don't have a letter for that.

STEVE:  Hmm.  Well, don't they have that short series of Runes that they occasionally use?

RORY:  Hey - yes they do.  And there's one that they use for the 'TH' sound that looks a bit like our letter 'Y'.

STEVE:  Well, why don't we just use a 'Y' to represent the 'th' sound.

RORY:  I don't know... isn't that going to confuse the hell out of people a few thousand years from now who'll think the word 'the' was pronounced 'Yee' because of this decision?

STEVE:  Don't talk crazy, Roranicus.  Our empire will last forever.  Now let's go get a drink of water from our lead-lined aquifer.

And so forth.

Point of the story - Language changes all the time, and it's almost always for some stupid reason (like, say, a generation of people deciding to remain willfully ignorant of what a fairly simple descriptive word means).  That's just life.

It is worth noting however that the good folks at Oxford did manage to get the last word in.  They closed their entry with the following - 

"This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal English."  

Allow me to translate what the good folks at Oxford are really saying there.  'People use the word like that.  They sound like idiots and are wrong when they do so.  But they still do it.'

Well Played, Oxford Online Dictionary.  Well played.

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