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Guest Andrew Moore

Language and technology

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Guest Andrew Moore

The Website associated with Tim Shortis's book is very useful in identifying some of the more important areas of study of the relation of (information) technology and language. It's at:

www.netting-it.com/

The Macmillan dictionary article that Jennifer mentions I find much less helpful.

That information technology begets new lexis is not especially remarkable - the same is true of any activity from water-polo to cookery to stamp-collecting. Looking at a large collection of lexical items does not really show us what is distinctive about the interaction of modern technologies with language. (So what is? I hear you ask. More of that soon...)

The Macmillan article reads like the work of someone who does not really know or use this lexis without some stiffness and formality - it suggests the work of an anthropologist looking at the culture of an exotic tribe (Coming of Age in Samoa, or whatever). This, for instance, looks very patronising, to me:

To get a feeling for computer words, it helps to understand the world that created them — cyberculture, as it is often called. The computer industry is full of young people who think of themselves as very different from traditional business people in suits. It is a world that avoids heavy scientific-sounding language in favour of words that are simple, fresh, and playful.

Not only patronising, it's not even very accurate. (I work with that industry, and see no evidence that everyone therein is young, alas. And people in any occupation other than business will see themselves as different from business people - plasterers, lorry-drivers, teachers and brain-surgeons, police officers, pharmacists, and so on... The reference to suits is gratuitous and daft.) In fact, this paragraph tells me much more about the writer's attitudes in representing technology, than about the thing represented. There are all sorts of people who have reason to speak or write about things relating to the use of technology - but the idea that we belong to some common "cyberculture" is silly. I might as well suggest that people who clean their houses with vacuum cleaners belong to a hooverculture.

Most computer words are short and simple...

That's not so much inaccurate as meaningless, since "computer words" is not a sensible description of anything. But to take, for instance, the abbreviation FTP - commonly used by people who want to upload a document to a remote fileserver (or download one from such a location), that denotes "file transfer protocol" - not especially short, and very far from simple, since it is a short description for a process of digital communication that can be expressed in detail only in terms that would make sense to an expert in electronics. In fact, it's an illogical claim, since the writer goes on to say that there are lots of abbreviations of longer terms. What the writer really means, I submit, is that he or she mostly knows the short and familiar terms like "mouse" and "keyboard". Much of the discussion of ICT on this forum, which is mostly conducted by people (I'm one) who are very far from being experts in network technologies should serve to refute this claim that the lexis is mostly "simple".

The writer of the article finds one interesting thing - that much of the lexicon is metaphorical.

The article is dated - "cyber-" is very much a prefix of the last decade or even the one before that. Think of "cyberpunk", popularized as a description for the kind of fiction typified by William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer. Doctor Who, of course, gave us the Cybermen in the late 1960s...

That's all a bit negative. But I started with the positive suggestion that the site for Tim's book does a good job of mapping the territory for the language scientist. I hope shortly to start posting some of my explorations of that same territory...

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Guest Andrew Moore

After looking at Tim's headings, I have attempted to sort out my own outline. This is what I would expect to look at - and it's the working agenda for a guide I've started to draft.

What do the examiners say about this subject?

What is technology?

What does it have to do with language?

New kinds of text

How the medium affects the message

-Telephone

-Radio

-Television

-Computer

Social functions of technological media

-Social functions in interpersonal communication

-Social functions in mass communication

Discourse features

-Telephone

-Radio

-Television

-Computer

Representation of technology and language

Attitudes to technology and its language

Technology and the lexicon

-New forms and new meanings

-Special and general usage

Technology as a source of metaphor in general usage

Technology and grammar

Researching and investigating language and technology

Readings of example data

I will have missed some things out, and may find this is not the most satisfactory arrangement. But it gives me a way in. B)

Edited by Andrew Moore

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I tend to agree with Andrew. There's nothing special about computer technology and language. While it is true to say that computer technology has generated a lot of new language most of it remains a mystery to the layman although words such as "input" and "output" have found a home in wider realms of language. The computer business is full of people in suits who use impenetrable jargon.

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I often wonder aloud what would have happened if women with children had dominated the early computer industry, instead of single men working out of garages. Imagine if a 'menu' (used by nerds who didn't know how to cook) had been called a shopping list, for example. Perhaps 'catalogs' would have become boxes, with some of them on the shelf and some of them under the bed or in the attic. 'Disk utilities' might have been a sewing kit, and 'miscellaneous' might have been leftovers ("Are you going to make these leftovers into a meal, or do they go in the rubbish?".)

I can't help thinking that we'd have saved a huge amount of time and money that we spend trying to make IT more accessible to real people.

Edited by David Richardson

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Guest Andrew Moore

To be fair to the developers of visual interfaces (Windows-Icon-Mouse- Pointer - like the original Xerox design, the Mac OS, MS Windows, Linux and so on), they have taken up many metaphors that are gender-neutral, by starting with the real-world office environment - thus desktop, wallpaper, trash (which soon became the recycle bin for reasons that are not really to do with environmental awareness). The absence of some common sense - which David suggests is more typical of women - may explain the fact that we can put wallpaper on the desktop...

I've just been looking at some "jargon-buster" type glossaries, which tend to refute the Macmillan claim about things being simple.

Conditional Access (CA)

Introduction

A conditional access system comprises a combination of scrambling and encryption to prevent unauthorised reception. Encryption is the process of protecting the secret keys that are transmitted with a scrambled signal to enable the descrambler to work. The scrambler key, called the control word must, of course, be sent to the receiver in encrypted form as an entitlement control message (ECM). The CA subsystem in the receiver will decrypt the control word only when authorised to do so; that authority is sent to the receiver in the form of an entitlement management message (EMM). This layered approach is fundamental to all proprietry CA systems in use today.

This comes from www.dtg.org.uk/reference/tutorial_ca.html

I shall be using this for some glossing and comment of my own later - but I would challenge the Macmillan lexicographer to sustain the claim of simplicity behind this phrase that uses two seemingly familiar lexemes. I like the way that a term such as "encrypt" has so much history (cultural and linguistic) in, or behind, it...

The culinary metaphor in stack seems probable - there are many uses of food in technical lexis. A notable example is Java - a computer language named after an epithet for coffee, which in turn is named for the island state of Java.

Graham's examples of input and output lead to others - interface and feedback, for instance. Once these leave the technical domain they are very often subject to rapid change (usually simplification) by the lay user. The point about audio feedback is that the amplified sound leaves a speaker, enters a microphone, gets amplified again - so in a second or so, it has reached the peak output of the system and becomes meaningless. In common speech it now simply means any kind of response.

Those who know about mental health will have seen something similar with schizophrenic which is popularly (and mistakenly) used to refer to a dual personality, whereas psychologists understand it to denote various disorders characterized by a weak or distorted perception of reality. The schizo- prefix indeed denotes splitting - but in the sense of splitting (the person) from reality, not division into two or more personality parts. So the popular error derives from inappropriate use of sound information. "A little learning is a dangerous thing..."

David's premiss (that interface metaphors are a male invention) does not bear scrutiny - these systems are the products of teams (often credited deep in the bowels of the software), and there are plenty of women among them - and more to the point, people of either sex with expertise in psychology and ergonomics. But in spite of that, Mr. Gates' operating system requires you to click on a button marked "Start", if you want to stop it or close it down... This helpful feature arrived only in 1994 with the then forward-looking Windows 95 ("Where do you want to go today?") Worse still are the error messages that tell the user we have done something illegal or have committed a violation. The alert boxes might as well have a skull and crossbones on them. Mind you, an experienced user would rather see one of these any day than the Windows' "Blue screen of death" - which is a nickname coined by the users, but pretty ubiquitous in any end-user general interest mag. Search on Google for "blue screen of death windows" and you get almost half a million hits, of which the first takes you to a site that links to another where you can buy a T-shirt that ridicules the software. Follow the link, and you will see an ironic message suggesting there is an error with your URL - see www.errorwear.com/huge-bsod.html

Behind David's claim lurks a dangerous and unfair assumption. It is certainly true that many pioneers of IT were/are blokes (who had the time and leisure to pursue an interest). But I would vigorously contest the idea (dangerous because it can become accepted, and so limit openings for women) that IT generally is hostile to women. The way that demand massively outstrips supply mean that, in England anyway, it is very open to both sexes. So far more men than women have chosen to make a career in it. But so long as there are no unfair barriers, then that reflects people's choices. Of course, the current situation, where there are so many more blokes, can sustain attitudes that deter women from joining.

"Nerd" is no less pejorative than a term that shows disapproval of people for their colour, culture, sexuality, appearance and so on. Like the complaint of the student who finds everything "boring", it tells me much about the speaker's insecurities and prejudices, and nothing about the person to whom it is applied. I accept that many people use it half-affectionately of themselves, but it perpetuates one of the few kinds of bigotry that our society still allows. Expert computer users, like brain surgeons and dog-breeders and fashion models, may have personalities of various kinds. I have not found them to be radically different from the general population. The "nerd" is an invention of arty and media types who want to justify their fear of this stuff that they can neither know nor control. I reckon, from many previous postings, that David would not wish to share that prejudice, and used the noun lightly.

Do you really wonder "aloud", David? (That's a serious question, not intended to be a criticism.) If so, that's something I find very interesting. I think I never wonder aloud, but certainly wonder in connected sequences - many of which find their way into written text (as here) later on.

Edited by Andrew Moore

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>It is certainly true that many pioneers of IT were/are blokes (who had the time and leisure to pursue an interest). <

One vestige of "sexism" in IT is the way Word's spellchecker flags up "rounders" and "netball", both games mainly played by girls, as orthographical errors. And neither of these sports has generated much in the way of clipart when compared to what is available image-wise for traditional men's sports. This state of affairs used to irritate me greatly when I was word-processing my school's termly newsletter.

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/

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David's premiss (that interface metaphors are a male invention) does not bear scrutiny

Behind David's claim lurks a dangerous and unfair assumption. It is certainly true that many pioneers of IT were/are blokes (who had the time and leisure to pursue an interest). But I would vigorously contest the idea (dangerous because it can become accepted, and so limit openings for women) that IT generally is hostile to women.

"Nerd" is no less pejorative than a term that shows disapproval of people for their colour, culture, sexuality, appearance and so on. … I reckon, from many previous postings, that David would not wish to share that prejudice, and used the noun lightly.

Do you really wonder "aloud", David? (That's a serious question, not intended to be a criticism.) If so, that's something I find very interesting. I think I never wonder aloud, but certainly wonder in connected sequences - many of which find their way into written text (as here) later on.

I was writing without thinking seriously, of course, Andrew, but I'm sure that some of my deep prejudices have come through!

However, although the IT world has definitely changed, the original teams which set up most of the metaphors we use today were male-dominated, and, in my view, reflected a male-dominated world at the time.

If nerd is a pejorative term, then I think badly of myself, since I must be one of them too. However, I try hard all the time to escape from a fascination with the 'mechanics' of the technology so that I can see a little more objectively how it can be used, and what some of the consequences of using it are.

I don't think that there is a specific 'male' and 'female' way of looking at the technology … but when I do my wondering aloud, I'm often doing it with groups of my predominantly female students to try to get them to be less put off by the fact that they're going to have to use machines during their English courses. Often, they haven't separated what they think about what the machines look like (and what machine-enthusiasts usually say about them) from the way they can be used, and how they'll fit into the lives of the students themselves and their study groups.

Incidentally, our IT unit here in Kalmar is still predominantly male, but we've managed to arrange it so that one of the few women who works there is the one who fields all the issues connected with our department. It's lovely to have someone you can talk to at last.

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Guest Andrew Moore

I wholly concede David W's point about what seems to be passive (unthinking) sexism by default. But I had a version of Word that would challenge husband and wife and suggest spouse, among other gender-neutral tricks. (I should see if the current one does that.)

But I think there is relatively little sexism by intent. The prejudice against the "nerds" often includes surprise that they give so much away for free (which becomes a cynical suspicion about their generosity). One meets a lot of old-fashioned courtesy and chivalry. David R.'s Kalmar scenario is one that I recognize and have seen elsewhere.

Even on this forum, I have recently seen some very fair-minded and self-deprecating responses from gentlemen (some admitting to being chronologically gifted) to quite overt provocation of an anti-bloke kind.

In a European education context, use of ICT seems well-balanced - there are as many women as men, broadly, at all the European Schoolnet meetings I have attended. Perhaps the male-bias to technology is balanced by a female strength in languages (and thus transnational meetings) and travel... Moreover, I know of many message boards that are more or less bloke-free zones. For younger users, this is especially true. Go to www.neopets.com and see this for yourself...

As an olive branch to David R., I should add that the noun "nerd" is used with more affection and ironic pride in US English (which I guess is closer to your international usage in Scandinavia) than in the UK, which is where the more spiteful attitudes appear.

My error in asking about your thinking aloud was to assume that this was something you did when alone (for which there is no reason at all, other than putting you into my situation, sitting at a computer, now). I see now that you use it for what I, as a teacher, used to think of as flying kites (or flying by the seat of one's pants) - the sort of thing that Socrates used to do. That's not at all surprising to me - it's a very good way to teach and learn, for some kinds of student. (For me, certainly as both teacher and learner.)

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My error in asking about your thinking aloud was to assume that this was something you did when alone

… you mean talking to myself? Well, it has been known!

However, as a language teacher, I often need to 'sound out' ideas and phrases too - as I'm sure you know, our audio 'crap detector' is much more highly attuned than our visual one. So, yes, sometimes I wonder aloud, even when I'm on my own!

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Guest Andrew Moore

This is the opening of my draft guide

What does technology have to do with language?

All technology influences language, in ways that are not always obvious. The development of transport systems, for example, leads people to move around so that language forms used in regional varieties may move into other regions. We use a metaphor such as “all guns blazing” to suggest the idea of an action performed with energy or aggression – so the technology of weapons extends the usage of everyday speech or writing.

Since technology is a means to extend man’s reach, then it is necessarily connected to language, in the sense that both natural languages and technologies will be important in enabling us to do all sorts of things in almost any area of human activity. For example, we use aeroplanes to fly people and goods around the world. And we try to make this safer and more efficient by developing an air-traffic control system.

This uses one kind of technology (radio communication) to support use of language in conversations in an adapted form of international English, that pass on information derived from other technologies (radar, weather-forecasting systems), to the users of yet another set of technologies (the pilots of aircraft).

This may help us to distinguish between the technology in itself, and the things we do with it, from a linguistic perspective. In terms of modelling our ideas about technology and language, we may think

- first of the different technologies (printing, telephony, radio, e-mail)

- and only then about what we do with them.

Alternatively, we may think first of the kind of language interactions we make, and then of the technologies that enable this. In this kind of model, we might usefully think of

· levels of openness and privacy – is the language used in a public or restricted context?

· ownership of the communications – does an interaction or any of its results belong to anyone and if so, in what way?

· topology – are these one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, many-to-many interactions, or something else?

We may then find that particular technologies are designed for, and well suited to, some of these kinds of language use. And we may be less likely to make daft claims such as that the Internet is CB (citizen band) radio for the 90s (as many cynical people once said).

We will certainly find that the designers of the technology do not always anticipate the new kinds of language activity that will come from the ways that people use and adapt it. Think, for instance, of gramophone recording (a late 19th century technology) and text-messaging from and to mobile telephones (a late 20th century invention). In both cases, the technologies developed in ways that their inventors did not foresee, but which we can now explain readily after having seen it happen.

· The first gramophone or phonograph recordings were made to capture the spoken voice. Yet in time, this technology would emerge as especially well suited to recording musical performances for later playback. (We might add that Edison’s idea for recording sound gained massively when it was used in conjunction with Marconi’s idea of radio broadcasting: the sound recordings made music affordable to a wide audience, but the playing of recordings on radio gave the music a reach that is almost ubiquitous.)

· Text messaging is an adaptation of the idea of mobile phone designers to use a simple text display to give the user information about the functions of the handset. Since this information was being displayed on a phone, it soon became apparent that one could use it for entering free text, that the user could transmit, by using the same underlying technology as the voice calls – and that these packets of information would be far smaller, and less costly to transmit. What the service providers could anticipate generally (but almost certainly without foreseeing the scale of its later popularity) was that users would like to be able to do this. (The assumption was more that we would use the technology for broadcast messages, such as weather or traffic information, rather than for personal interactions.

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This is the opening of my draft guide

What does technology have to do with language?

As an Italian teacher of English I think I would like to change the question into "What does technology have to do with English?" or rather into "What does technology have to do with other languages?".

I have been recently asked to translate technical terms from English into Italian for a glossary on electronics and I have wondered if it really makes any sense trying to find Italian equivalents for Input/output, browser, intranet, internet (either with small or capital "I"), host, etc.

Maybe my slightly "provocative" message could find its location in another thread, but I think that through IT, English has really become the most frequently used language for professional communication in the world. The presence and use of IT in every kind of job and business implies that all working people necessarily use the English language at least some times a day now, maybe much more often in the future.

Will English become the language of all technology?

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>I have wondered if it really makes any sense trying to find Italian equivalents for Input/output, browser, intranet, internet (either with small or capital "I"), host, etc.<

It all comes down to usage. The French authorities take a pride in inventing Gallic equivalents of "Anglo-Saxon" technical terms, e.g. "oléoduc", while the French public will often simply opt for the original English term ("pipeline") instead. I don't know enough about Italian to comment. However, I do know that the best glossaries of terms, including multilingual ones, are those containing definitions or explanations of the terms in laymen's language. The precise meaning of terms such as intranet or host is not always clear even to native speakers of English. ICT glossary compilers must know their audience: ICT specialists, technology-using members of the public, or both?

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/

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