Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Swallowed Whole

So English got it's millionth word today which is, rather strangely, not a word but a phrase: Web 2.0. What's interesting is the methodology, and debate, over what a word is and whether they can be counted at all. From hearsay, it takes use by three different authors in three different literary or scholarly publications to get a word included in the Oxford English Dictionary, which currently has 600,000 entries. This particular count is based on complex mathematical formulas that I can't pretend to understand.

OK, so what does Web 2.0 mean for words, then? We all know and probably have made use of some online linguistic reference, the OED online, Merriam-Webster or even These are more or less static representations of the print medium - they don't take advantage of the interactivity of Web 2.0. But does. synthesizes some other online dictionaries for multiple and layered definitions, but goes far far beyond including (sometimes off-base) usage examples, pictures from Flicker, feeds from Twitter including the sought-for word, sound recordings (and the ability to record and include your own), synonyms, antonyms, and even statistics on how often you can expect to see the word. In other words, it provides a comprehensive if momentary picture of the current usage of the word.

Look up "translation" for example. There are 14 potnential definitions, though none of them are wholly satisfactory for me. This is not wikipedia, it is not user-defined definitions, though there are wiki elements to the page (like the possibility to add your own note following the definitions provided). Scrolling down, from a Twitter feed I learned that Google has launched a translation toolkit today, intended to help humanize machine translation through interaction with wikipedia. I've filed this away for further exploration, and continue looking down where I find a list of synonyms and antonyms and the etymology. Flicker pictures are understandably obscure for this entry, and I'm told that I can expect to see this word twice a month (which would make sense for the average browser, but for me it's closer to twice an hour). I can also see that the word was used heavily in the 1860s and the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, no one has tagged this word.

What's truly wonderful about this is that it fully explores the potential of user interaction. Logged in, I can suggest other synonyms, antonyms, even rhymes - and that's just for starters. It is not going to take the place of print dictionaries for long-term authority, but much like Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia, it may force established ways of thinking about language to shift towards popular usage and multimedia elaboration.

But search on for "Web 2.0" and it comes up with nothing. So by whose standards is it a word, or is it just not there yet? The creator of the Global Language Project, responsible for the formula, criteria and count of English words, says the project is about English as a language of resiliency, expansion and populism. Words appear and become commonly used all the time, and those words, that flexibility of language, is what makes English such an important global language.
"English has the tradition of swallowing new words whole," he said. "Other languages translate."

It is the ability to assimilate new words and new usages with dizzying speed (only accelerated by Web 2.0 interactivity) that makes English such a powerful tool. And perhaps this is also the use of translating into English - to expand the linguistic and symbolic possibilities of the language and allow it to reach further and more significantly than it has before. To encompass more, without subsuming it. To adapt.