Episode 98      17 min 36 sec
Wordlings, weasels and word bytes: Our language on a precipice?

Media researcher Dr Carolyne Lee scrutinizes changes to the English language accompanying the rise of social and digital media. With host Jennifer Cook.

"I think academics have always been great mashers. I mean that is what academic endeavour is often about. It is taking everybody else’s material and mashing it up and trying to transcend it and to do something new with it and so on." -- Dr Carolyne Lee




           



Dr Carolyne Lee
Dr Carolyne Lee

Dr Carolyne Lee joined the University of Melbourne's Media and Communications Program at its inception in July 2000. Prior to that she taught in the Technical and Further Education sector for 12 years, and in the University's Centre for Communication Skills and ESL for four years. From Dec 2006 to July 2007 she worked in France, doing research, studying French, and teaching English media writing at Universite Paris-Diderot.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

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Wordlings, weasels and wordbytes: Our language on a precipice?

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

JENNIFER COOK
Thanks for joining us, I’m Jennifer Cook. In 1916 US President Theodore Roosevelt warned that one of America’s defects as a nation was the tendency to use weasel words. These are words which just like an egg that has been sucked dry by a weasel look fine on the outside but are really hollow shells lacking any true meaning. Nearly a century on in the midst of a world irreversibly dependent on the Internet, Roosevelt’s words have the ring of prophecy. Just how do we write and communicate effectively in an age when newspapers seem to be in crisis and the Internet presents us with a plethora of blogs, wikis, social networking streams and other digital discourses. How powerful is language anyway and who’s using that power for better or for worse? With us to discuss those issues is Dr Carolyne Lee, a lecturer in journalism and professional writing from the University of Melbourne’s Media and Communications Program. In her latest book Word Bytes Dr Lee tells us that not only do words matter, good writing matters more than ever in the information society. She says we are all “wordlings” and that language is meant to make us human. But what happens when language fails? Are we hollow like a weasel’s egg? Thank you for joining us, Dr Lee.

CAROLYNE LEE
My pleasure.

JENNIFER COOK
Now your latest book is called Word Bytes: Writing in the Information Society. Could you just explain to us what is a word byte and I should point out that’s spelt b-y-t-e, and how crucial is it?

CAROLYNE LEE
A word byte is a word or a phrase or piece of writing which is going to stand out from the plethora of competition that is all around us today. Whether that’s on the Internet, the newspaper, how do you find language, how do you write language that is going to stand out from all of the competition. Increasingly on the Internet everybody is writing their thoughts. Everybody is putting up material. A word byte is something that can stand out and can grab you. I still find material; I still find words regularly, often on the Internet which can transport you, which can do what the best writing has always done, which can teach you something about being human. It’s still there, it’s harder to find because there’s so much.

JENNIFER COOK
Now that’s really interesting the power of the word to transport us. Just how does language and writing, do you think, affect the way that we think and we reason and vice versa? I want to further complicate that question by intersecting that with the Internet.

CAROLYNE LEE
It’s tricky. I mean like most media researchers I do believe that we are constructed by language. You mentioned the concept of wordlings, which I used in my book and which I actually took from Kenneth Burke’s beautiful poem which is saying we are constructed in the words. We are constructed in language. I would have first read it long before the Internet and it seemed to me, it just kept coming up. If you’re talking about language, we are wordlings. If our language is hollow what is this saying about our humanity? So that’s why I brought that into a discussion about Internet language.

JENNIFER COOK
How are you teaching your writing students to handle these challenges?

CAROLYNE LEE
I suppose I start off by alerting them to weasel speak that we see everywhere and I bring in examples that I’ve found from pamphlets, PR material, from newspapers. I ask them to give examples as well. One student, just the other week, when I showed him examples - I’ve got columns of weasel words like; going forward; the bottom line; at the end of the day; managerial; synergistic; impacted used as a verb and so on. He said if I’d had this list of words that you’ve compiled when I was doing a recent business examination I would have done a whole lot better in that examination. You know it’s still out there; it’s still being used. So I alert them to it. They know it, but they’ve never actually heard it critiqued. I say, this is what you are not going to do. I’ve actually got a banned words list as well.

JENNIFER COOK
I was going to mention that, Carolyne, you did have a banned word list. Do you still have it?

CAROLYNE LEE
Oh yes and I update it all the time. I first came up with my banned words list when I began teaching professional writing here. Various tutors of mine said, oh, Carolyne, you’re such a fascist, you can’t possibly have a banned words list. I said, well I’m sorry I do. When Don Watson’s book Weasel Words came out in 2003, talking about this and of course I wasn’t’ nearly as thorough as he in his book, I only had a simple list whereas he wrote a whole book about it and had whole chunks from different sources of weasel words. So, I was quite joyfully vindicated when I saw this and even added to it, you know, using examples that he’d found for his book. He’s since published several books on this topic with I think the most recent being Bendable Learnings. He’s still talking about this it still hasn’t gone away although some companies, to be fair, have issued guidelines on clear writing and honest writing.

JENNIFER COOK
Let’s talk a little bit about that. You do give your students quite a startling example, well startling for them and it’s about Facebook, isn’t it?

CAROLYNE LEE
Yes that’s true. The Facebook conditions, the legal - the contract as it were. In early 2009 was written in fairly opaque and wordy language. One phrase within it was to the effect that you remove your material at any time. For a short period they took out that phrase and what was left was several paragraphs that were so opaque that nobody could really understand what they were getting into. And a consumerist blog rewrote those paragraphs in clear language and the clear phrase, the translation was “We can do anything we want with your content, any time, forever” something like that. So there was a huge furore from consumerist organisations and so on and Facebook issued a public statement saying we’re going to clean this up. So, it can have huge ramifications. You know most of us did not know what we were signing up to.

JENNIFER COOK
I’m Jennifer Cook and on Up Close’s episode we’re talking with Dr Carolyne Lee about the complex relationship between language, culture and the Internet. Carolyne, what are some of the positives and the negatives of the Internet for the writer and the reader? I would like to talk a bit about the dangers but also the opportunities. I’m thinking about thinks like the impact of Googling and the speed searching.

CAROLYNE LEE
Well I love the Internet and I love the research that is at our fingertips. I like the fact that I can go anywhere in the world and I can find all the material I need. If I’ve got my laptop and my iPhone I’m set. Of course we still need libraries but we can do a large measure of our research via the Internet. Students do have to be taught to discriminate, because there’s a lot of rubbish on the Internet, of course. I think that’s one of the big challenges as an educator.  In fact it has to be subject to greater discrimination than books in the university library. Because in the university library, books have been through the publishing process. There have been gatekeepers at every point including the university librarians. So we can generally assume that the material we get from the university library is going to be helpful and reputable. We can’t assume that with the Internet. So greater discrimination is certainly needed in using the Internet, but having said that it’s a fabulous resource.

JENNIFER COOK
Now Jaron Lanier in his book, You Are Not A Gadget, he talks about the need for digital humanism and he examines the effect of what he fascinatingly calls the “hive mind” of the Internet. Now he’s just one of a number of commentators who explore this notion that cultural belief is triumphing over fact and that the Internet, this is what Keen says, “is creating a digital forest of mediocrity.”  What’s your view on this?

CAROLYNE LEE
Yes, I’m aware of some of those writers and their arguments.  I think that mediocrity has always triumphed over fact actually. But I guess it’s easier for it to triumph over fact now when there is so much more access to getting one’s words displayed and publicly available.

JENNIFER COOK
Or there’s just more mediocrity?

CAROLYNE LEE
I don’t know.  I’m aware of Keen’s argument in his book and I’m a little bit worried about his thesis because it is that instead of reading everybody and everything that’s on the Internet we should really be going back to the quality newspapers.  Is he talking about the quality newspapers that, in Australia at least, are nearly 70 per cent owned by the Murdoch empire? We all know about the relationship of large media organisations and facts and that tenuous relationship. So I’m a little bit sceptical of those sorts of arguments. While I did say earlier that students certainly have to be taught how to discriminate much more keenly than they ever did and that’s achievable. So I don’t know about this mediocrity over facts’ argument at all.

JENNIFER COOK
That’s heartening. I find that heartening.

CAROLYNE LEE
Good.

JENNIFER COOK
I would like to ask you what is the effect of the mash up of sources becomes more important than the sources that are mashed. Do you think that’s a problem?

CAROLYNE LEE
I think academics have always been great mashers. I mean that is what academic endeavour is often about. It is taking everybody else’s material and mashing it up and trying to transcend it and to do something new with it and so on. So, you know, mashing is not new.

JENNIFER COOK
Now you mentioned newspapers before. In their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism US authors Robert McChesney and John Nichols they say “The real crisis of journalism is the private commercial ownership of newsrooms and that creating a viable and free press is the first duty of the democratic state.” I’d like to hear your diagnosis on the health of the world’s Fourth Estate?

CAROLYNE LEE
That’s a huge, huge question.

JENNIFER COOK
Isn’t it?

CAROLYNE LEE
I think there’s always been a problem with commercial ownership of newspapers. Certainly changes to legislation have made greater empires, but they’ve always existed. There is a lot of very good citizen journalism now in the blogosphere. It is possible if you know what you are doing to read a great deal of independent, reasoned, well researched commentary that wasn’t there before. It is easier because those people can put up their material completely freely whereas previously they had to get pass all of the gatekeepers, they had to get past the editors of the private empires and so on. So, if you know what you are doing it is possible to find a lot of really good independent comment on all issues, on all the important issues.

JENNIFER COOK
Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows is suggesting that this increased Internet use is hampering our ability to multi-task. I mean he has quite a quite a psychological focus but I’d like to turn that more to the language and let’s look at the students doing many, many things at once whilst perhaps they’re meant to be writing essays.

CAROLYNE LEE
The Internet has a good and bad effect. I think that my students now who are 18 who have really grown up on computers and using the Internet are much more able to multi-task than say somebody my age who grew up and did even my PhD before computers. So I think that they are better at multi-tasking. They do, however, often over-emphasise their ability to multi-task. They will try and write essays with Facebook open with their e-mail open so there’s messages popping up and one-liners from their friends popping up while they’re trying to write an essay on the screen. I think the essays suffer as a result. When you think about the most complex material in the world, which might be playing three hours of music which the concert pianist has learnt beforehand and playing it without a score in front of you. Or you think of a brain surgeon performing an operation taking five, six hours. The most complex activities like this in the world they are not done with the concert pianist or the brain surgeon with Facebook open on their laptop beside them. When you want untrammelled concentration you have a single focus. I don’t think that’s every going to change. Many of my colleagues even those my age will say, oh I can have my e-mail open and I can go back and forth. But the psychological literature doesn’t support that. So I think one of the biggest dangers is, whether it’s students or whether it’s people my age, thinking that we can multi-task and not acknowledging the loss of concentration.  The loss of quality to the task that we’re actually doing. I think that’s quite important to acknowledge that.

JENNIFER COOK
You’re listening to Up Close coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia. I’m Jennifer Cook and our guest today is Dr Carolyne Lee. Now, Carolyne, we did mention wordlings. I think you’d say that is a fabulous word byte?

CAROLYNE LEE
Yes.

JENNIFER COOK
Could you give us some others?

CAROLYNE LEE
Can I read an example from the book?

JENNIFER COOK
Yes I’d love you to.

CAROLYNE LEE
I have an example which came about in 2007 from World Poetry Day in the UK. A British mobile phone company ran a competition to find the best romantic poem written in SMS. Entrants could use abbreviated or non-abbreviated words. This was the winning entry by Ben Ziman Bright. It was quoted in David Crystals book Internet Language and I’ll read the poem. “The wet rustle of rain can dampen today. Your text buoys me above oil-rainbow puddles like a paper boat, so that even soaked to the skin, I am grinning.” Written on SMS on a mobile phone, it is beautiful word byte. It is almost like Haiku. It’s beautiful.

JENNIFER COOK
I wish you could see how widely we’re both smiling at the end of that poem. It is beautiful.

CAROLYNE LEE
To go back to an example that was written many hundreds of years ago but which is still a word byte. This example I partially remembered it and just typed it into Google and up it came. So whilst the Internet certainly does contain a lot of dross it can also take us very quickly to half remembered word bytes which would have taken me a very long time in a library to find before the Internet. I am going to just give an example from sonnet four of Shakespeare, which contains one of may all time beloved word byte lines, which has more and more resonance as one ages. “Nature taketh nothing but doth lend.” It is the most wonderful word byte to realise that youth is something which we are loaned and which we give back. Everyone gets the same loan, well not everyone, but most of us get the same loan and that of course it has to be paid back with ageing. You know 500 years ago it speaks to us across the centuries and the Internet brings it to us much more quickly. There are several really good Shakespeare sites that one can go to and find all of Shakespeare’s material. Another one from the 20th century, my favourite poet, Adrienne Rich. And again I put in Adrienne Rich and one or two half remembered phrases and this poem is called Living in Sin. This is a short extract from it, which I found again in about ten seconds. “She had thought the studio would keep itself; no dust upon the furniture of love. Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal, the panes relieved of grime.”

JENNIFER COOK
Thank you so much. You’ve been listening to Up Close and we’ve been speaking with Dr Carolyne Lee about the Internet, the power of language and the effect this is having on our culture. We’ve also just heard some exquisite word bytes. Dr Lee, thank you so much for your time today.

CAROLYNE LEE
My pleasure.

JENNIFER COOK
Relevant links, a full transcript and more information on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Up Close is brought to you by Marketing and Communications of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Our producers for this episode were Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. Audio engineering is by Gavin Nebauer. Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I’m Jennifer Cook and until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Melbourne University Up Close. For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2010 University of Melbourne.


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