Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Information Age

Back in the early days, the question was

How is wikipedia new? How does its amazing social structure work? How does the Biggest Document Ever get written without an editorial team or clear hierarchy?

But now that Wikipedia's the top google result for half the words in the english language, the question is
How does having Wikipedia at your fingertips change you? How does it change society?

* * *

Huckleberry Finn has been banned various times for various reasons — pretty much continually from when it was published. But at first, it wasn't banned for use of the N-word, or for undermining racist southern norms. It was banned because it used the word ain't — in other words, what shocked people was deviation from linguistic norms.

From 2007 this looks silly, but in the big picture, being shocked at the use of "improper" English serves an important social purpose: it slows the evolution of the English language.* If this seems unimportant, remember that without intervention, languages evolve at a ridiculous, breakneck pace.

Consider hunter-gatherer tribes in the tropics, where they can be totally self-sufficient: if half a tribe splits off, and sets up camp a few miles down the river, its language will be unintelligible to the original tribe within two generations.

Fucking Crazy.

If English evolved that fast, we wouldn't be able to read Twain, let alone Shakespeare. We wouldn't be able to pass down any knowledge at all. Everyone understands, on an instinctual level, how much that would suck — hence the constant debates about the "real" definition of words among everyone except people who've taken linguistics classes.

* * *

Maybe one social purpose of wikipedia is to provide canonical definitions of "unofficial" words and phrases that would otherwise be left to the drifting winds of spoken transmission.

For example: everyone who grew up in the '90s thinks Atlanta's ban on sagging is really strange. It doesn't make sense as enforcement of obscenity laws because Atlanta didn't care in 1998, when everyone and their mother sagged. And it doesn't make sense as evil racial profiling because Atlanta didn't care in 1994, when only black people sagged.

So what changed? Maybe the difference is that politicians can type "sagging" into google and read a wikipedia entry that says "Sagging has its origins in the prohibition of belts among incarcerated inmates, which was emulated as a fashion statement by non-inmates for its tough guy cachet."

Nobody in the '90s knew that was the origin of sagging. They just knew it made you look cool. The definition had drifted far from its origins, but Wikipedia ties it back. 15 years after sagging escaped from prisons, Wikipedia has dredged up the the collective unconscious and made it solid.

* Or maybe not. See the comments -- any linguistics professors in the crowd?


Eliah said...

I would argue that English could never evolve that fast, because we have too big of a speaker community. So it's not the people quibbling over rules that keep us being able to read Shakespeare, but just the fact that we have a large and continuous culture.

Ben Yates said...

Still, there's the question of whether the rate of language evolution can be changed if a population values "proper" language. I might be completely off-base, but I'd be interested to know what actual intellectuals (I'm a -pseudo) think; maybe I'll post to ask.metafilter.

jrotman said...

Wikipedia, because it has become one of the most omnipresent references in cyber-world, is being heavily mined for next generation mainstream search.

I think your suggestion that Wikipedia's expanse of even obtuse words and phrases as related to the "canonical" usage of words is on target. There are so many synonyms and nuances of language, English alone, that are absolutely critical fodder for next gen web--whatever the marketing gods will choose to call it: web 3.0, semantic web, natural language search, blah, blah.

You asked how Wikipedia would change society... For me I see it as a main stage reference, a cornucopia of language and meaning, for search engines.

I dig your blog, btw. I'll stay tuned.

Ben Yates said...

I'm not sure wikipedia is more valuable to search engines, per se, than any other website -- search engines, unlike humans, have infinite patience; they can keep spidering until they get all the data they need to advertise effectively (even if that's not enough data to pass a turing test).

The main benefit of wikipedia is social: it provides a shared public space with well-established rules and norms where every aspect of the format is consistent -- in other words, you know what you're getting. You don't have to worry about Some Random Website being accurate; you can check the logs and see exactly how many people have contributed to the page you're reading and how long it's been there.

What I'm trying to say is that wikipedia is valuable to search engines, but only in the same sense everything else is -- if there's a difference, it's quantitative, not qualitative.

Anonymous said...

"Nobody in the '90s knew that was the origin of sagging. They just knew it made you look cool."

No only douches thought it made them look cool.

But to the point,

"Does Wikipedia slow the evolution of language?"

No, not likely.

Well one should ask what causes a language to change? Wikipedia, the internet in large can and certainly will have an influence on the English language but wikipedia is hardly the beginning. Languages tend to become more "simple" for the purposes of efficacy and due to standardization when they become written down. Think of how complicated Old English is in contrast to contemporary English. It's not just that modern English has dropped some of it's Germanic heritage and added in some nifty French/Latin dooh dads - the language shifted when it started being written down. We've dropped many of the verb endings that were standard at one point. When was the last time you said something like "me thinketh"?

But whereas we've simplified our language in certain ways our greatest hindrance in what the author of this blog considers "evolution" is our alphabet. The Chinese use of characters allowed for them to eliminate entire words (or types of words) to make their language syntactically efficient. Why write "A man bites a dog" when you could express the same with just "man bite dog"? Ironically their spoken language has changed to become more complex from a mainly monosyllabic language to include more polysyllabic words.

So by and large, no I don't think Wikipedia will slow the evolution of language. Language always evolves - just not always in ways one would expect. Languages always change - it's a very human trait to be inventive with language. Also, standardizations of languages have also existed for a long time. The Oxford English Dictionary took nearly 80 years to compile I believe - a rather late standardization btw. But think how much our English language has changed just within the past century or two? Asking if wikipedia will slow the evolution of language is akin to asking if dictionaries slow the evolution of language. The answer of course is yes and no. We're using the same words, inventing news ones, and misusing many still. It would be difficult for any average teenager today to speak with an average teenager from 1812.

Ben Yates said...

Wow, harsh. You just called me a douche because of the way I dressed in middle school?

Look: sagging increases the apparent length of your torso. This (in certain contexts) makes you look more attractive. It's only is only the latest in a line of fashions that increased apparent torso length, dating back at least to the renaissance.

I'd argue that English didn't become more simple because it was written down; it became more simple for two other reasons:

1. People can only hold a certain amount of complexity in their heads at once. Thanks to the normons, English has a vocabulary about twice the size of other languages, so its grammatical structures became simpler to compensate.

2. Wikipedia: "For three hundred years after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English was the language of the kitchen. By the end of that period, English had dropped its case endings of nouns, personal endings of verbs, and other complexities. Grammar was fixed by word order."