Category Archives: language

What to learn from NYT banning ‘tweets’


Social media users shared a mighty laugh this week upon hearing The New York Times’ standards editor Phil Corbett had asked its writers to not use the word “tweet.” “We don’t want to seem paleolithic,” Corbett wrote. “But we favor established usage and ordinary words over the latest jargon or buzzwords.”

At first, this seems an obvious boner. Twitter now has more than 100 million users worldwide, and its brief 140-character posts are unique formats that can include hyperlinks to web articles, retweets of others’ messages, photos, and hashtags for tracking conversations. If the Twitter service is a fad, no matter; a large chunk of the human race is using it today, and there should be a word to describe it.

Yet The New York Times points to a deeper issue — language, like society, is splintering. Wired magazine reported two years ago that there are now more non-native English speakers in the world using the language, often incorrectly, than there are speakers in nations where English is the mother tongue. More than 300 million Chinese, for instance, use English tinged with strange vowel tones and wildly incorrect terms. In Singapore, “think” is pronounced “tink.” Even the logic structure is shifting; Wired author Michael Erard noted that in Mandarin, subjects are not required in sentences, so “Our goalie not here yet, so give chance, can or not?” makes perfect sense. English is morphing into Chinglish, not a bad thing, just a new language entirely.

Technology, the great divider

Technology and the Internet were once thought to be great unifiers, but instead they may be accelerants helping us form divergent microbubbles of interests, expanding new niches of humanity that lead to more rapid evolution of language, concepts, and culture. Like the oceans and mountains that once divided us, we can now use web browsers and mobile handsets to set up walls against others and see only others like us. Readers of Fox News self-select conservatively biased reporting; readers of Salon click to find their own liberal viewpoints reinforced. Global warming is a threat/hoax. Obama is saving the country/slinking toward socialism. BP is corporate evil writ large/a victim of all our personal oil consumption. Politics, news, jargon, argot, slang and the ideas behind them are all fragmenting in new directions. It’s not right or wrong, New York Times; it’s progress, and perhaps something worth tweeting about.

Image: TarikB

English as your second language


The boy said, I want to kiss you here. The girl stepped back and said, no way — so many people here. The boy said, just a light one on the nose. She did. He pressed her cheek, and said “thank you.”

A sweet love scene recorded in China by Ernop. In Chinese? Or English?

Wired magazine notes that English is fast becoming a foreign language. By 2020, only 15 percent of English speakers in the world will live in countries such as England, Australia or the United States where it is a native tongue — the other 1.7 billion people will be Chinese, Japanese, Romanians, and hundreds of other nationalities who are learning, and shifting, English as the worldwide language of business.

Wired notes that this global usage is creating dramatic shifts in English grammar. In China, adding “did” or “do” to questions is being dropped. The sound of vowels is changing, and subjects are disappearing. It’s a fascinating combination of how language has always evolved, and how the removal of geographic barriers means your own tongue today may be owned by others on the other side of the world tomorrow. “Soon,” Michael Erard writes, “when Americans travel abroad, one of the languages they’ll have to learn may be their own.”

Learning to speak

This is a little deep, and only vaguely related to advertising, but you’ve been good and can handle it. Here goes. Does communications have to have a point? Think back, way back, to being a child, no, a toddler, maybe 18 months, just before language and words structured your thoughts and you just toddled outside to see the blue sky and green grass and smelled the world in all your toddle-toddlehood. We all learned to intake information not with logic or words … but sound, images, colors, aromas, sparks, feelings. That’s easy to forget in traffic or meetings or The New York Times.

Watch a few seconds of this clip and try to remember. Just remember. Then go back to your Excel and Twitter, suffer words and numbers, and sling those arrows into PowerPoint.

Ah, we can never go back.

Tx Make the Logo.

The M&M effect: Why frequency in communications builds loyalty


Here’s a thought for Saturday coffee. Researchers recently found that as language evolves, the words least likely to change are the ones used most frequently. We all know language transforms over time; this is why Spanish is slightly different from Italian, and why you may be comfortable using the word “got” while your stodgy parents still claim “have” is proper. But repeat words a lot, and we want to hang on to them. Call it the M&M effect.

Language apparently evolved from one common tongue about 10,000 years ago, and the simplest words — used most often — still remain similar across the Indo-European spectrum. The word for “three” in English is “tres” in Spanish and “theen” in Hindi. Lots of our more colorful words describing body parts and functions are very close to ancient Chaucer, too, because we use them all the time (especially when mad, or in the mood).

All of which makes us wonder: if frequency keeps words alive in our minds for centuries, then maybe frequency also leads to loyalty in brand communications. Maybe Talbots with its red postcards and BP with its yellow newspaper highlights have the right idea in running the same ad campaign year after year after year. Perhaps the trend of companies firing CMOs every two years, looking for someone smarter with a new solution, hurts their results since they never have a chance for consistency to develop. Today’s Santa Claus, all plump and red, started out as a thin saint, then miniature elf, but became firmly rooted in the public’s mind as a human-sized red-suited grandpa thanks to a series of Coca-Cola ads by Haddon Sundblom from 1931 to 1966. With all those frequent impressions, Santa’s doing fine. Hate to think what would happen to Christmas if some new agency updated Santa’s suit to Web 2.0 orange and blue.