Tag Archives: reflections

Accidental time capsule: the internet in 2003

I unearthed some ancient backup CDs in a box today. Last time I moved house, I threw out a huge number of old pirated Linkin Park albums and ancient, third-hand copies of Call of Duty 2. But these CDs… they held some promise. Could be anything on there, you know? What was I doing in 2003? That’s ten years ago. I was online ten years ago, but I was also 15. These discs could be the bomb. They could also be a horrifying glimpse into a past best left forgotten. Naturally, I needed to check.

In the end, only one of the six discs actually worked. The rest had been scratched or bent or otherwise degraded. An indication of the transience of data storage, I suppose. I remember a story about how the Army has got warehouses full of vital, secret records. But the machines used to read those tapes, or cartridges or whatever they are, weren’t similarly preserved. So there’s acres of data and no way to ever access it. I suppose someone could reverse-engineer a machine from the tapes themselves, but… it’s obviously not a priority.

Anyway. The contents of these CDs were clearly not state secrets, but could be interesting nonetheless.

What I found was dull, for the most part. Grade 10 maths assignments. Webcomics. Cool robot illustrations. Images saved (from Internet Explorer) or sent (via MSN Messenger). I was clearly very interested in Natalie Portman and Angelina Jolie back then. There’s also a semi-hidden folder containing some relatively tasteful, massively airbrushed photos of Carmen Electra. Poor old 15-year old me. His head would explode if he saw the internet these days.

Along with Warhammer fanart and plastic breasts, I also found a cache of saved Messenger conversations. If you have any of your own similar records saved anywhere, I would heartily recommend deleting them. Don’t look. It’s not worth it. I remember, when I first began using the internet (it was capitalised back then, a proper noun, not yet inextricably meshed with our very beings), that I point-blank refused to use acronyms like ‘LOL’ or ‘ROFL’. In the arrogance of youth, I believed myself a bastion of the English language, a stalwart bastion against the degradation of speech.

As you can imagine, I was a hit at parties.

Jump forward a few years, and it’s clear that my stoicism didn’t last long. Those chat logs are poorly punctuated and emoticon-filled (of course), but there’s also plenty of work that makes me cringe now. Sentences like ‘hwo r u feelin’ abound. It’s not even saving any time! The word ‘you’ is already short enough!

Cut to now, when I’m (ostensibly) a trained and practicing editor. My lady friend has asked me more than once how I can bear to have uncapitalised initial words and other grammatical horrors in my tweets. Obviously it’s in deference to the medium, or maybe I’m just lazy. The jury’s still out.

These days, though, it’s not uncommon to hear ‘lol’ being said out loud, in real life, by otherwise normal human beings. That was one of the many lines I drew over the years regarding ‘net-speak’ or whatever, but it’s obviously folded into the language now. And that’s fine! This is how languages evolve. Of course a whole lot of new words came out of the internet – they come with the ideas. It’s only been ten years since I discovered the wonders of broadband internet, and the next generation along have had smartphones for most of their lives. Terrifying.

“The evolution of language” is no excuse for the current trend of shortening words. Australia’s always done this. Every Dave is a Davo, every smoke break is a smoko. But it’s getting out of hand, and it’s already wearing away my defences. I started with a blanket refusal to brook the word ‘devo’ for “devastated”. Then we got ‘bevvies’, short for beverages, even though it has more syllables than drinks. Now we have ‘gatho’ for gathering, otherwise known as a party (count the syllables).

This is getting absurd, but in the nature of changing language, it’s also nestling deep within the language centres of my brain. Already I catch myself saying “obvs” only semi-ironically. It’s a slippery slope and I’m no longer convinced it’s worth fighting the slide.

Anyway, everyone loves my abbrevs.

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thon thinks thon’s just great, or, gender-neutral pronouns

Ever since the use of inclusive language became an important element of writing in English – that is, in the last thirty years or so – there has been a huge number of ideas for gender-neutral pronouns.

Originally, a writer could refer to man and mankind with impunity. He (and, invariably, he was referred to as he) was safe in the knowledge that nobody could complain about that generalisation. The late Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind’ is possibly the most famous usage.

As using inclusive language came into style, a number of awkward constructions arose. Replacing man and mankind with human and humankind was simple enough. But then the writer must come to talk about… himself. Or herself. How to proceed? How to refer to the human writer without assuming their gender? Or, at the very least, how to include the possibility that the person being referred to could be another gender?

And so we come to the rather clumsy constructions of he/shehis/hers, or the especially awkward s/he. These are cumbersome in written language, and even more so when spoken.

But wait! one exclaims. Can one not simply use one as a pronoun, rendering all of one’s problems moot? Certainly. But as one sees, the use of one as a pronoun can rapidly get out of one’s control. This is not to mention the archaic tone which arises from its use, certainly not suitable for one’s academic or corporate documents.

In Australia, the Style manual for authors, editors and printers suggests that it may be suitable to use the ‘singular they’. This simply refers to replacing the cumbersome he/she (or similar) construction with they, allowing that word to function as a neutral pronoun, as in ‘When someone is happy, they laugh’.

The use of the singular they is not embraced by all writers of English, however, and so we arrive back at the usual problem in this language: competing standards. The United States, which produces a great deal of the language we read each day, generally prefers the use of he or she or similar.

A huge number of pronouns have been invented in an attempt to fill the gap. A few have entered common knowledge, including zheco, and my personal favourite, thon – though none have actually reached common usage. As before, each attempt to create a standard gender-neutral pronoun simply adds to the long list of alternatives. Illinois English professor Dennis Baron has compiled a (long, long) list of such failures.

Most recently, news of an organically-generated gender-neutral pronoun surfaced in the US. According to the article, linguistic researchers in Baltimore investigated claims that children of the area were using the word yo to refer to themselves and each other, regardless of gender. After performing a battery of tests, the researchers concluded that young people indeed used the word in that sense.

Whether invented specifically, like thon, or evolving naturally, like yo, gender-neutral pronouns are an interesting case of speakers and writers trying to adapt their language for modern needs. It remains to be seen whether any of these useful, inclusive pronouns catch on in any significant sense.

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