27 March, 2014

Don't tweet your twerking to the French till they find the words

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday March 27, 2014

Imagine that 50 years ago you stumbled into Dr. Who's Tardis and suddenly found yourself in the middle of today's Melbourne. To orient yourself you read the advertising poster at the tram stop: "Unlimited broadband bundles with no gotchas, from Optus." Your head spins. This must be another country, another language - because that ain't English! You don't understand the words, or not as they are written.

We sometimes need to stand back and look around at our world to realise how much it has changed - and how much we have learned.

Each year the Oxford English Dictionary accepts about 1000 new words. And a lot of them you understand, because bit by bit your own vocabulary is growing. Every day you are hearing and absorbing new words, or new ways to use old words. What do you make of this?

"Check out this muggle who selfied his twerking and tweeted it under his hashtag onto his main's blog but then got unfriended from Facebook for it."

Believe it or not you can understand most of that paragraph, yet nearly all the active words are little more than a decade old, in that usage at least. You're learning a new language without really trying.

Of course this new speech is attractive to the advertiser - it's a chance to look like they are up to date, abreast with trends. That's what leads to those cringingly embarrassing commercials that try to be cool. Sprinkled with "awesomes" and high-fives and, yes, "cools", they turn into omnishambles. (Yes that's another new one for the OED.)

In a copywriting class my advice would be: unless you thoroughly understand the word and have heard it naturally spoken a few times by your target people - don't use it. A group of kids can spot oldies writing trendy copy from a mile off. It ends up tainting your product and your being branded a tryhard.

Of course some prefer to fight against these words. Look at the French. For nearly 400 years their Académie française has defended the purity of the French language. Consequently, while an English speaker has a million words to choose from, the Francophone has only 100,000. (Yes I literally mean it - the latest Global Language Monitor count is 1,025,000 English words.)

Words are born when concepts and goods appear that were non-existent before. English just borrows a suitable word from any other language, or invents one and tosses it into the air to see if it flies. If it does, it eventually finds its way into the dictionary - like laser, pulsar, rom, chill, Blu-tack, ethnobiology. If the world fills the gap we just plug it in willy-nilly.

However even the Academie does makes progress, if somewhat glacially. It is ruled by the most eminent men, and some women, in the French-speaking world. They are called the 40 Immortals and only retire when carried from the grand table horizontally.

To much fanfare they have allowed some 21st century worlds into their dictionary.

These include words for: email (courriel), hashtag (mot diese) and the LOL sign off - MDR (for mort de rire). Their General Commission of Terminology and Neology is another committee, responsible for technical words. After a couple of years they still haven't agreed on a term for 'cloud computing', having rejected several suggestions.

However, they did solve one hard problem: a replacement for the term 'sexting'. The translation has only just emerged, and frankly I find it a bit cumbersome: textopornographie.

Ah well, it's something for the Paris crowd to think on as they go for le weekend.

1 comment:

Sam Navagero said...

Hi Ray,I really enjoy reading your work every Thursday in the Herald Sun.
Keep up the good work and thanks.
Kind regards Sam