When I started taking notes for this blog post, I searched for statistics on how many new words entered the public internet every day, minute and hour. It was an extremely difficult statistic to find. All of the pertinent information talked about data, a currency for which I have no sense of scale or context, so I found myself at a dead end. What exactly does it mean to be a writer on the internet? How has the internet changed the way we write, or the way we must write? Some questions like these have obvious answers, others have no answers at all, but for writers and content marketers, asking is a primary component of success.
I wasn’t able to figure out how much new text pops up on the internet daily, and I don’t have the slightest idea what a terabyte is, but I’m assuming it’s pretty huge. My best guess is that the volume of new content that hits the ‘net at every moment is probably unfathomable. If marketers want their words to stand out, they need to ask a big question – “Is it even possible for my content to stand out?”
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote…
Like all journalists, creative, technical and content writers must keep abreast of myriad shifts and evolutions in written stylistic preferences. For journalists and technical writers, this means being up to date on applicable style guides and industry jargon. For creative writers, it’s more an exercise in artistic reflection, and content writers are somewhere in the middle. Web writing changes every day, and extends in countless directions. Content writers need to use discretion and approach their tonal choices with readership, technical preferences and SEO in mind.
One of the most difficult assignments I ever faced in college was to read a section of The Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English. Interestingly, in that same college class that blindsided me with actual Chaucer, I found John Milton’s Paradise Lost accessible, moving and incredibly beautiful.
As a Modern English speaker, that makes sense. Chaucer’s language is closer to something called Norman than it is to Modern English, and with a few exceptions, Milton’s language is just about the same as mine. But what happened, in those 200 some-odd years in between, to mark such a significant shift?
Crusades, colonies and Queneau
While linguistic evolution is liberating in many ways and gives web writers new forms of communication (consider the emergence of the white paper, the blog and the internet meme), it also presents writers with unique challenges. The sheer volume and speed of textual expansion on the internet is overwhelming, and writers need to make careful decisions.
Serious linguistic evolution, like any artistic movement, is often the product of rebellion. Some major shifts in the English language are the products of circumstance. Others happen slowly, and are marked by nuance. Still others are due to technological advances. The most revolutionary shifts, however, are almost always the product of a much more visceral response to language.
Language is a primary focus in the study of colonization (bear with me, this is going somewhere). Arguably the greatest offense of colonizing nations is their attack on a culture’s traditions, norms and lore. Language is the primary component of a cultural identity. Every aspect of a culture is enclosed within the way it is communicated, and to strip a people of its cultural identity, you need only to strip them of their language. (This was evidenced primarily in the British colonization of India.)
Language is the primary component of a cultural identity.
What’s most interesting is the native response to colonization. Colonized nations are essentially forced to adopt aspects of their colonization while emphasizing the legitimacy of their established cultural identity. The results can be totally fascinating.
Sometimes, these rebellions come from within a culture. French, for example, is a notoriously restrictive language in terms of vocabulary (there are only about 43,000 words in the French language, and the English language has anywhere from 500,000 to 3 million, depending on whom you ask), and has seen some of the most creative deconstructions in literature throughout the 20th century. Barbara Wright, who translated Raymond Queneau’s 1933 novel, Le Chiendent, says of Queneau’s process:
“Written French had become fossilized, spoken French was a totally different language; since he wanted to write in what he considered his maternal language, he could not possibly use ‘the conventions of style, spelling and vocabulary that date from the grammarians of the sixteenth century and the poets of the seventeenth.’ He wanted to write in a living language, the language of the ordinary man.”
English or english?
Though it’s a challenge for writers to make the correct decisions with regard to their stylistic approach, the endless options can also be liberating, and a good writer sees opportunity where an inexperienced writer may falter.
French writers like Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec are often studied for their analytic approach to writing because it was, well, analytic. With only 43,000 words in the dictionary, it’s relatively easy to explicate their texts and understand their processes, which were explicit and often mathematical.
English is a completely different story.
English has seen too many chaotic, explosive evolutionary stages to count. Language evolves to reflect social realities, and as our social realities become increasingly expansive, so too does our lexicon. One interesting note of comparison is that when the printing press was introduced in England, it marked a major move toward the standardization of the written word. Now that works could be easily disseminated, it was worth it to standardize spellings, grammatical constructions, letter shapes etc. in order to keep everyone on the same page.
If we compare the technological innovation that is the internet, however, we see that the opposite has happened, raising the subject of expression vs. communication. At what point will we simply not be able to understand one another anymore?
A more pertinent question is whether it’s possible to honest-to-God reach your audience with effectively crafted content the way writers like Joyce, Queneau and Chaucer reached their readers.
There’s a distinct difference between English and english, and to effectively reach your audience, you need to consider the fact that your grammatical, tonal and thematic decisions as a writer are going to define your relationship with your readers. Is it possible to “stand out” with really good content? Probably not, but that’s because it’s so difficult to objectively determine what “really good content” is. A more pertinent question is whether it’s possible to honest-to-God reach your audience with effectively crafted content the way writers like Joyce, Queneau and Chaucer reached their readers. With so many available options at your disposal, the answer here is yes.
What comes next?
Twenty-first century literature is still heavily influenced by colonialism. Writers like Salman Rushdie still see the Western European influence on Eastern culture as a significant factor in Eastern modern cultural identity, and globalization has exacerbated this influence. As our language continues to evolve, writers and marketers need to keep up with its many changes, embracing expansion and deconstruction academically and understanding how to harness an ever-expanding, connective system.