The first and only time I met Mark Abley, he acted like I was some kind of deranged fanboy. I guess he isn’t used to having fans. Am I still one of them? I don’t know anymore. Probably, but only just.
I spotted Abley’s new book, The Prodigal Tongue, at the library and pulled it to my bosom without a first thought, let alone a second. The subtitle, Dispatches from the Future of English, turns out to be aspirational rather than strictly accurate, as the book is a world tour of national or regional Englishes, plus quite a bit of discussion of cyberspace. (That latter is the most retrospective topic in the book, since Abley goes all the way back to the dawn of cyberpunk.)
The Prodigal Tongue has a Canadian price of $34.95, but was printed in the U.S. and uses American spellings all the way through. It shouldn’t have surprised me to find the text bowdlerized – several mentions of fuck elided the word (almost to New York Times levels of suppression), though shit appeared twice. The list of books by Abley in the frontispiece includes the book you’re reading but excludes a half-dozen others. Documentation by omission seems to be a theme here.
Unwisely, the book begins with Coldplay (MORRISSEY: “Oldplay”). There’s a lengthy discussion of a single from X&Y, “Talk,” that is best heard in the Thin White Duke Remix – so good it is a course in how to make a remix. After I met Abley, I wrote that he looked like a textbook Boomer. Apparently I got that right.
He pays a lot of attention to online writing (even mentioning LOLCATS), which is to his credit, of course. But he keeps lumping acronyms from distinct subtopics in with language change in general. No, you are not supposed to understand the acronyms and jargon used by the Queensland government or in a car advertisement. I thought we beat that issue into the ground in Web accessibility: Some things just aren’t going to be clear to every reader, and you had no business expecting them to be.
Abley gives a pass to the deputy chief editor of the OED, Edward Weiner.
“The Internet,” Weiner said slowly, “poses problems.” He closed his eyes and rested his head on his right hand, as though suffering form a migraine. “We tend to avoid citing the Web unless we feel we really have to. What we’ve tended to cite are newsgroups and discussion groups – they guarantee to archive them for a long time. We’ve occasionally taken quotations from Web sites. But we don’t like doing that.”
When the OED documents a word, it wants the result to be checkable. That’s difficult to achieve with language on the Internet, which is ephemeral by its very nature; its words survive at the mercy of Webmasters and search engines.
Yeah, ’cause paper is forever. This is bullshit from start to finish. If you want a permanent checkable record of an online word usage, print it out and put it somewhere. And at any rate, the idea that every citation is checkable is nonsense: Just how exactly are you going to get your hands on some obscure publication? Or one person’s correspondence, if used as a citation? Are you going to fly to small-town Pakistan and rifle through somebody’s credenza?
And all those lovely old citation slips slowly turning to dust at Oxford University Press: Are those the source texts? In some way they are, yes, since you can look at the original citation that way. But they do not show the document cited. (What’s “checkable” there?) But if those little slips are important and valid, why wouldn’t a printout of a Web site be?
These aren’t scientists trying to replicate your experiment. They’re editors writing a reference book that assures its readers that the source is genuine. It does so by citing the source. If I wanted to check a dictionary’s entries, I’d write my own dictionary. We’re paying you to do that for us.
How many people in the entire history of Oxford have “checked” random entries by looking up, and touching, the source documents? Did all those people work for Oxford? Or for rival dictionary houses?
Has anyone not in those categories ever done it, even once?
Listen, after I wrote about Lola – a well-read small magazine in Toronto – I was contacted by the former editrix, who told me to hold on to issues one through three if I had them, as there might only be three copies in existence. How many “copies” of most Web sites are in existence? Why is the Web viewed as ephemeral, when it can be backed up and stored somewhere else, while a single page is viewed as eternal, even though it can be damaged by a few droplets of water? (What if the water lands right on the word you’re looking for?)
Abley’s documentation of online terminology might warrant a citation in the OED’s database because it’s in a printed book – but the actual original online usage won’t. That’s because Oxford operates under the ideology (readily disprovable, as ideologies tend to be) that Web sites are here today and gone tomorrow.
Abley also failed to actually carry out journalistic research on the fact that decades of Usenet archives almost were lost. Google bought Dejanews (owner of the best Webmail domain ever:
My-Deja.com), inhaled its archives, then found that thousands of messages were missing. They were eventually located on CD-ROMs and a few copies of an outdated tape format. (You can read all about it in a six-year-old article that, contrary to Weiner’s expectations, is still online.)
If Dejanews had gone tits-up and those tapes and discs had never been found, nearly the entire Usenet archive would have been atomized and dispersed to a hundred other servers, most of which would automatically purge their archives after n days. In other words, Usenet archives would not exist in any usable form. Or at all.
What happens when Google goes tits-up? (Think it can’t happen?) Where will Usenet archives be then?
The printed work you cited yesterday may cease to exist tomorrow. The Web site you refused to cite may be online for your great-grandchildren to read. Lexicographers need to be more like my esteemed colleague Grant Barrett and less like Edward Weiner. (Abley gives Grant half a page. UrbanDictionary gets 4½.)
Abley spent a lot of time in L.A. and has a solid chapter on Spanglish. But that chapter also describes the huge populations of Iranians (in some American English dialects, “Eye-raynians”), Vietnamese, Koreans, and Armenians in Los Angeles. We know all about Spanglish already. It’s been done.
What do we know about Farslish, Konglish, and Armlish? Bupkes. Still. (Too few established academics, memoirists, and radio hosts to write about?)
I really doubt that there’s a business in Pomona called Hūng Dįch Vu, since those are not Vietnamese diacritics. Isn’t it Hùng Dịch Vụ?
I absolutely do not share the conviction, held by Abley and by my other esteemed colleague, Michael Erard, that Asiatic Englishes are in some way “important” – to us. Widely spoken, sure. But if anything, they’re infuriating to native speakers. A topic for a book in itself, Abley all but dismissed it by devoting a half-page to the task of training Indian call-centre employees not to endlessly repeat a word they want to emphasize, which drives native speakers crazy.
Indian call centres are a problem – for native speakers. Don’t we count more?
It’s great that these quasi-pidgins emerge in different parts of the world. They work just fine there. But native speakers don’t have to put up with their invading our turf, as Erard and Abley suggest they might. The fact that there may be more speakers of Chinese English than New Zealand English does not imply that New Zealanders somehow lost a vote and need to start talking like the Chinese. (Do New Zealanders get voted off the island?) This isn’t a popularity contest.
Every time this comes to mind, I think of the word “gentrification.” I’ve never understood it. Does it mean that rich people (“the gentry”) move into the neighbourhood, knock on poor people’s doors, and tell them “We’ve got more money than you do, so you have to leave”? (“This used to be your house. We can afford it better than you, so it’s ours now”?) What does it mean if nearly everyone in Singapore speaks a certain Chinese-influenced dialect? They outnumber us somehow? We’re outgunned? Do they show up at our door and holler, in an accent that Abley admits sounds harsh to native speakers, “We talk Singlish. We here now. Now you talk Singlish”? (“Come out with hand up. You surrounded”?)
If, as Erard predicts, “more and more spoken English will sound increasingly like Chinese,” it’s gonna sound that way in China. An accent like that makes you unemployable here, at least if you want to work outside ethnic or national ghettos.
I am living testimony to the fact that one can still be a descriptive linguist while insisting that these pidgins are gonna displace, replace, take over, or conquer real English over my dead body. I’ve got my hands full as it is defending one minority English (Canadian). You speak your language and we’ll speak ours – and nobody’ll get hurt.
I was flipping through the book again, to remind myself of the various points of interest, but then, in accordance with my recent distaste for unremunerated work, I realized I was actually writing an unpaid book review. Meanwhile, Abley probably got an advance, and certainly received two travel scholarships – one of which, from Guggenheim, was recommended by Michael Ignatieff. I’m not sure he needs my help anymore, or any more of my help. (Try getting that distinction across in Singlish. Then again, not everything needs to be clear.)
In other news, Organizing Our Marvellous Neighbours comes out in September. It’s gonna be so ideologically descriptivist your head will spin. It proves exactly how this is a popularity contest.