An unshort answer to an unsimple question

I have not been as diligent as I should have been in completing a post that I’ve been thinking about for well over a month now. As her prize for successfully deciphering the unusual Wayne StatE UniversitY public inscription I posted back in September, my colleague Katherine Tong earned the right to ask a question relating to the subjects of this blog. Katherine asked me a question that is seemingly simple and yet highly complex. She would like me to address the question of in what ways computers (or by extension, other technologies) may have affected the way we use language. In particular she would like to know whether the morpheme ‘un-‘ has become more common (and more productive linguistically) since the advent of information technologies that allow operations to be readily reversed. I’ll deal with the broad issue first, followed by the more specific one.

This topic is broadly part of media ecology, whose anthropological proponents include such luminaries as Edmund Carpenter and Jack Goody, but which is better known through the work of people like the Canadian public intellectual Marshall McLuhan (Carpenter 1973, Goody 1977, McLuhan 1962). I was first introduced to these ideas through my teacher Christopher Hallpike at McMaster in the mid-90s, expanded my knowledge of them during my Ph.D. under Bruce Trigger (Trigger 1976), who was influenced by ‘Toronto School’ thinkers like Harold Innis in the 1950s, and most recently was influenced by the work of the developmental social psychologist of literacy, David Olson (Olson 1994).

The Media Ecology Association website defines the field as ‘the idea that technology and techniques, modes of information and codes of communication play a leading role in human affairs’ ( In this fairly broad conception, virtually every social scientist is a media ecologist. More narrowly construed, it is the idea that differences in the way that information is represented and communicated affect our perception and cognition of that information. It ranges from studies of Paleolithic art to text messaging – very broad, nonetheless.

Now, Katherine is asking about the effects of information technology and media on language, and this is a tricky issue. Perhaps the trickiest of all is establishing any sort of causality. How do we know, for instance, that any particular linguistic change is the direct result of a change in medium? But beyond that, there is the question of what non-trivial effects media have on language. There are obvious changes, such as the introduction of new lexical items: blog, spam, blogspam, blogosphere, Internet, web, intarwebs … the list could of course be expanded virtually indefinitely, without telling us very much about how people categorize and perceive the world. But I’m a cognitive anthropologist, so establishing meaningful links between language and non-linguistic behaviour is what I’m really interested in. So what about it?

So let’s look at ‘un-‘. One of the fascinating things about this morpheme is that it was actually more heavily used in Old English (prior to the Norman Conquest) than after. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that “the number of un- words recorded in OE [Old English] is about 1250, of which barely an eighth part survived beyond the OE period.” This reduction came about as many of the artificial constructions attested in Anglo-Saxon poetry ceased to be used, words which would never have been used in everyday usage but which were coined for specific metrical purposes. This is media ecology par excellence: the medium (poetic oral presentation) influenced output, and when the medium disappears, so do the linguistic forms.

One of the odd things about ‘un-‘ words is that a number of Anglo-Saxon negations survive even where the positive versions of the word have disappeared. Michael Quinion, author of the brilliant site / e-newsletter World Wide Words, has a fascinating article on ‘unpaired words’ such as unwieldy, unruly, and disgruntled, all of which formerly had positive counterparts, but which have now disappeared. But what’s important to note here is that the loss of these terms was not predictable from any sort of social or technological change, and that despite these gaps in our lexicon, we seem to get along quite fine with synonyms, or with multi-word phrases.

Important for this discussion is the word *uncleftish, which doesn’t exist, and never existed until the publication of ‘Uncleftish Beholding‘, science fiction author Poul Anderson’s fascinating account of atomic theory using only words and morphemes of Anglo-Saxon origin. Despite the fact that chemical jargon is filled with Greek and Latin terminology, it is possible (though not simple) to construct an understandable discussion of atomic theory using words like ‘uncleftish’ for ‘atomic’ (both mean ‘indivisible’). I’ve used this essay to get students to think about how language affects thought (linguistic relativity), most recently on my devilishly fiendish Language and Culture take-home exam last term, but also in my Evolutionary Anthropology class at McGill. It’s worth noting though that while you don’t need the word atomic to express the concept of indivisibility, nor indeed any Greek or Latin roots whatsoever, Anderson does need to coin uncleftish out of three existing morphemes, un-, -cleft-, and -ish.

The most famous ‘un-‘ neologism is the Orwellian ‘ungood’, a classic example of the form of linguistic relativity known as doublethink. “If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not.” (Orwell 1949: 53). Pace Orwell, ungood has a long history in English, going back to Old English and attested sporadically thereafter right up until Orwell’s writing, at which time, of course, the word took on a far more sinister meaning, and acquired a very different connotation.

But despite the obvious media-ecological implications of the quotation, there is no reason why ‘ungood’ requires a cognitive gap of ‘bad’, or that the absence of the word ‘bad’ has any cognitive implications whatsoever. I’m a humanist of generally left-ish political persuasion, and a great admirer of Orwell’s novels and short fiction, but his essay, ‘Politics and the English Language‘ (Orwell 1950) is not one of his best pieces of thinking, and falls prey to this sort of muddle-headed thinking, equating the products of thought (in this case, written language) with the thoughts themselves. This is a form of linguistic relativity to which few if any linguists or anthropologists subscribe. I criticize this view in my short little humorous article, ‘The perils of pseudo-Orwellianism’ (Chrisomalis 2007); without denying that good writing is easier to understand than poor writing, it simply isn’t sustainable that the use of jargon, or buzzwords, or neologisms, or clumsy phrasing, inexorably leads to laxity of thought, or to particular political positions. The literature in the use of metaphor in linguistics is less reductionist, and far more sophisticated, than Orwell’s pronouncements, and requires that we understand, cognitively, exactly how words are used by human beings (e.g., Lakoff 1987). Shocking, I know.

In fact, there’s pretty good evidence for non-linguistic concept formation, which means that we have access to cognitive resources other than language to allow us to sidestep or ignore the cognitive frameworks that our particular language(s) might encourage. From my own narrow research perspective, I’m fascinated by the differences between linguistic and non-linguistic representations of number, with the implication that there are structured patterns of thought which follow from the use of particular graphic numerical systems, regardless of the structure of the number words of its users’ languages. Numerical notation is a visual technology for communicating numerical information: does it matter that we write 238 instead of CCXXXVIII? And if so, how so? In a couple of weeks I’m going to be giving a talk here at Wayne where, in part, I discuss the effects of the Western (Hindu-Arabic) numerals on the grammar of English numeral words, using telephone numbers as an example domain. For instance, if your phone number is 639-4625, you most likely pronounce it ‘six-three-nine-four-six-two-five’, and certainly not ‘six hundred and thirty nine, four thousand six hundred and twenty-five’. For a user of Roman numerals, the pronunciation of digits as distinct lexemes would be nonsensical, but for users of Western numerals, this is commonplace.

But now we are back to the effects of technology on language. I do think there are effects, but specifying where and when those effects will occur is tremendously complex, domain-specific, and (unfortunately) not predictable in any obvious way. Some people do in fact say ‘LOL’ and the verb ‘to lol’ may actually be achieving some currency; this of course is an acronym derived from ‘laugh(ing) out loud’ and emerged from online communication. LOL exists as a social lubricant, mediating online text-based communication in a medium that denies its participants the ability to see each others’ expressions and other nonverbal cues. But could we have *predicted* that LOL would emerge? I don’t think so. (Incidentally, I just used asterisks to indicate emphasis on ‘predicted’ – another media-ecological effect on language. In a Facebook chat conversation with a friend last week, she inquired about this usage, which was non-standard for her, but to me, indicates stress WITHOUT QUITE RISING TO THE LEVEL OF YELLING, WHICH REQUIRES ALL CAPS). Having both these tools in my repertoire of online communication techniques – as well as the emoticon :o – gives me choices that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

You may have noted my use of the term ‘intarweb’, which emerged out of Usenet newsgroups in the early 90s as a means of gently mocking the ‘noobs’ – the new users of the Internet whose mastery of online lingo was sub-par and indeed mock-worthy. Of course, people have been blending words for as long as there have been words, probably, but this particular coinage reflected a particular moment in the history of electronic technology, in which terms like ‘internet’, ‘web’, ‘online’, ‘e-‘ ‘Information Superhighway’, and ‘Information Age’ (cue laughter from those of my readers in on a particular inside joke) were well-known in the public sphere but where knowledge of how to deploy these terms was less well-developed. But again, we can explain this phenomenon only in historical and sociocultural terms, rather than as a known effect of the new technology itself.

This is why, in my opinion, media ecology is most profitably practiced today through linguistic anthropology, which has as its central goal the comparative study of patterns of relationships between communication and culture. If we ever hope to get beyond the recitation of media-ecological anecdotes, we need a comparative framework within which to examine similarities and differences among communicative situations. Of course, I’m talking about a linguistic anthropology informed by biological and cognitive constraints on human communicative capacities, and which includes archaeological and historical as well as ethnographic data as its sources. But only if we make this endeavour will we truly be able to answer Katherine’s unassuming and unfoolish question.

Works cited
Carpenter, E. S. 1973. Oh, what a blow that phantom gave me! Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Chrisomalis, S. 2007. The perils of pseudo-Orwellianism. Antiquity 81: 204-207.
Goody, J. 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge University Press.
Lakoff, G. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press.
McLuhan, M. 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto Press.
Olson, D. R. 1994. The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading. Cambridge University Press.
Orwell, George. 1949. Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
Orwell, George. 1950. Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. London: Secker & Warburg.
Trigger, B. G. 1976. Inequality and Communication in Early Civilizations. Anthropologica 18.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

3 thoughts on “An unshort answer to an unsimple question”

  1. Katherine: You’re welcome! I don’t know if it is exactly what you were looking for or expecting, but it’s what came out, so … glad you liked it! Sorry it took so long.

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