John Moore at the Guardian blogs about an Oxford University Press study on the effect of blogging on the English language. Meanwhile Andrew Keen has written of The Cult of the Amateur and its ruining everything. Quoting a review of Keen’s book in the NYT it
“is a shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers and replace experts with the “wisdom of the crowd.”
“Mr. Keen has built the book on the premise that the newly gained easy access to content production and distribution technology has enabled the unwashed masses of amateurs to populate the web with worthless drivel that is drowning out the professional culture makers — the artists, the music labels, the publishers, the newspapers, the retail stores.This sentiment, of course, is not uncommon, is not without its merit, and definitely deserves attention. It would even make a good book, as perhaps it one day will. But that good book isn’t Mr. Keen’s.Instead, Mr. Keen’s book is one of bizarre inconsistencies, of self-righteous cliches, of stretched or omitted facts, and of shrill Ann Coulteresque diatribes that are entertaining in their boldness but quickly become boring in their monotony.”
Most linguists agree, however, that the English language has emerged as a dominant tongue because it changes. The well-know reluctance of the French language (as such) to accommodate modernism resulted in its being replaced by English as the language of diplomacy.
Since the 16th Century, because of the contact that the British had with many peoples from around the world, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, many words have entered the language either directly or indirectly. New words were created at an increasing rate. Shakespeare coined over 1600 words. This process has grown exponentially in the modern era.
Borrowed words include names of animals (giraffe, tiger, zebra), clothing (pyjama, turban, shawl), food (spinach, chocolate, orange), scientific and mathematical terms (algebra, geography, species), drinks (tea, coffee, cider), religious terms (Jesus, Islam, nirvana), sports (checkmate, golf, billiards), vehicles (chariot, car, coach), music and art (piano, theatre, easel), weapons (pistol, trigger, rifle), political and military terms (commando, admiral, parliament), and astronomical names (Saturn, Leo, Uranus).
Languages that have contributed words to English include Latin, Greek, French, German, Arabic, Hindi (from India), Italian, Malay, Dutch, Farsi (from Iran and Afghanistan), Nahuatl (the Aztec language), Sanskrit (from ancient India), Portuguese, Spanish, Tupi (from South America) and Ewe (from Africa).
The list of borrowed words is enormous. The vocabulary of English is the largest of any language. Even with all these borrowings the heart of the language remains the Anglo-Saxon of Old English. Only about 5000 or so words from this period have remained unchanged but they include the basic building blocks of the language: household words, parts of the body, common animals, natural elements, most pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs. Grafted onto this basic stock was a wealth of contributions to produce, what many people believe, is the richest of the world’s languages.
And the Wisdom of Crowds?
It strikes me that most of those moaning about the loss of the expert and the rise of the amateuer haven’t actually read, or perhaps didn’t understand, what Surowiecki was saying. He was NOT saying crowds are smarter than experts. He was NOT saying crowds are always smart. He carefully points out the difference between “mobs” and crowds that are decidedly NOT wise and what he describes as the conditions where “the wisdom of crowds” can exist (from Wikipedia – ha ha ha) :
Not all crowds (groups) are wise. Consider, for example, mobs or crazed investors in a stock market bubble. Refer to Failures of crowd intelligence (below) for more examples of unwise crowds. According to Surowiecki, these key criteria separate wise crowds from irrational ones:
- Diversity of opinion
- Each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
- People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
- People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
- Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.
If you understand nothing else about the phrase “Wisdom of Crowds” – understand this. It ISN’T about big amatuerish blogging mobs ruling the world. It’s simply saying that combined intelligence can be managed and even leveraged to predict outcomes.
So what if blogging, teens texting and the evolution of the language squash all those things Miss Snodgrass drummed into our heads in English class. We’ll always have the language as it existed at any given time (we can re-read Shakespeare and Orwell whenever we want). Those who bemoan the loss of the language stand like King Canute while the tide passes them by. It amuses me that those protesting the loudest are those who consider themselves “writers” — the elite.
Of course, there is a lot of crap out there. But there is also a lot of stunning discourse, wonderful creativity and ideas being shared by those who would never have had a way to be seen and heard.
And it seems like the people most afraid of “the cult of the amateur” are those who believe themselves to be experts and seem threatened by facing opinions they don’t agree with or don’t consider “relevant”.
Well, what a surprise. We are going to have to grow up and live with it, folks.