Liminal Dictionary

From Ben Vershbow on the if:book blog: a dictionary in transition

James Gleick had a fascinating piece in the Times Sunday magazine on how the Oxford English Dictionary is reinventing itself in the digital age. The O.E.D. has always had to keep up with a rapidly evolving English language. It took over 60 years, and two major supplements, to arrive at a second edition in 1989 — around the same time that Tim Berners-Lee and others at the CERN particle physics lab in Switzerland were coming up with the idea for the world wide web. Ever since then, the O.E.D. been hard at work on a third edition, but under radically different conditions. Now, not just the language but the forms in which the language is transmitted are in an extreme state of flux:

In its early days, the O.E.D. found words almost exclusively in books; it was a record of the formal written language. No longer. The language upon which the lexicographers eavesdrop is larger, wilder and more amorphous; it is a great, swirling, expanding cloud of messaging and speech: newspapers, magazines, pamphlets; menus and business memos; Internet news groups and chat-room conversations; and television and radio broadcasts.

Crucial to this massive language research program is a vast alphabet soup known as the Oxford English Corpus, a growing database of more than a billion words, culled mostly from the web, which O.E.D. lexicographers analyze through various programs that compare and contrast contemporary word usages in contexts ranging from novels and academic papers to teen chat rooms and fan sites– “the fullest, most accurate picture of the language today,” says the O.E.D (I’m curious to know how broadly they survey the world’s general adoption of English. I’m under the impression that it’s still largely an Anglo-American affair).

Marshall McLuhan famously summarized the shift from oral tradition to the written word as “an eye for an ear”: a general migration of thought and expression away from the folkloric soundscapes of tribal society toward encounters by individuals with visual symbols on a page, a movement that climaxed in the age of print, and which McLuhan saw at last reversed in the global village of electronic mass media. The curious thing that McLuhan did not live long enough to witness was the fusion of eye-ear cultures in the fast-moving textual traditions of cell phones and the Internet. Written language has acquired an immediacy and a malleability almost matching oral speech, and the effect is a disorienting blurring of boundaries where writing is almost the same as speaking, reading more like overhearing.

So what is a dictionary to do? Or be? Such fundamental change in the process of maintaining “the definitive record of the English language” must have an effect on the product. Might the third “edition” be its final never-ending one? Gleick again:

No one can say for sure whether O.E.D.3 will ever be published in paper and ink. By the point of decision, not before 20 years or so, it will have doubled in size yet again. In the meantime, it is materializing before the world’s eyes, bit by bit, online. It is a thoroughgoing revision of the entire text. Whereas the second edition just added new words and new usages to the original entries, the current project is researching and revising from scratch — preserving the history but aiming at a more coherent whole.

They’ve even experimented with bringing readers into the process, working with the BBC earlier this year to solicit public aid in locating first usages for a list of particularly hard-to-trace words. One wonders how far they’d go in this direction. It’s one thing to let people contribute at the edges — the 50 words in that list are all from the 20th century — but to open the full source code is quite another. It seems the dictionary’s challenge is to remain a sturdy ark for the English language during this period of flood, and to proceed under the assumption that we may have seen the last of the land.


It’s that last bit that really gets me going: the mission for the OED to be “a sturdy ark for the English language during this period of flood, and to proceed under the assumption that we may have have seen the last of the land.”

I have long felt that the myths which have formed around the Web bear a striking similarity to the myths of the American frontier, specifically the “anxiety of belatedness,” the notion that the idealized, romanticized history is always already gone. The Net began as an idealized realm for scientific discourse, but before long it was corrupted by the commercial influence. Merchants and vendors vulgarized the Internet, and the technologies surrounding the emergence of the World Wide Web made it too easy for commoners to get online. Suddenly everyone was surfing on the flood.

Language issues aside (and Vershbow is right, there is a flood of new language right now, one that isn’t likely to end until the “Revolution,” so to speak), the history of the Web is remembered longingly. Purists wish that we could go back in time to the days before banner ads and pop-ups, viruses and spyware. People who come to the Internet now do so through portals, like controlled access ramps to the “Information Superhighway” where the access is constantly filtered (AOL anyone?). The days of free, unfettered access are a thing of the past. The lawless freedom of the good ol’ days has passed us by. In the idiom of Stephen King, “The world has moved on.”

The OED’s journey on an eternal flood is another image of this lost frontier. Literally, the dictionary is adrift on the technological ocean, its traditional methods overwhelmed by the Flood, and like the biblical event, this flood could be considered a purifying ritual — one that removes the vestiges of the past, print tradition and takes us into a bold new world.

But I keep going back to the frontier myth. This vision for a brave new world is already old, because as soon as the features of that world come into focus, it will already be corrupted by some outside influence. It will already be commercialized, bought and sold. It will already be less than the ideal vision we have for it.

And to those who want to say that we cannot have an ideal vision of a truly hypertextual future, one in which language is constantly in flux, I say that we do anyway. The constant flux, the false belief in freedom, is the ideal vision. And it is a false one. Call me an economist or some other -ist, but I cannot see any human endeavor disconnected from the basic supply/demand or resource/survival schemas. Even language falls victim to these ways of thinking.

Of course there is one other possibility: I am completely wrong. The frontier myth does not apply to the Web because the Web is a paradigm shift, an anomaly. The economic models of resource/survival and supply/demand are flipped on their heads by a system that does not obey the traditional rules. The tragedy of the commons, but with an ever increasing resource base instead of a diminishing one, right? (an idea from a book on the economy of attention, whose author I can’t remember at the moment). The outcome of that scenario?

Singularity. A point past which predictions are impossible.

I don’t buy that for a minute because at their heart, the Net, the OED, the languages we use, they are are human systems under human control (for now). We cannot avoid human nature, and human nature is to survive using resources. It is also human nature to look back on a world that was easier and simpler, refusing to believe that world never existed at all.

More to come…


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