The Human Condition:

The Language of Technology – July 29, 2012

I’m in the middle of reading John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, which studies language families and language mixing. It’s full of fascinating ideas, the most controversial of which seems to be that what laymen think of as a “language,” like English or French or German, is really only a collection of dialects that flourish in their own separate localities which are spread over a wide area. Thus Yorkshire English versus Cornish English, or Swabian versus Swiss versus Viennese German. Dialects constantly keep growing apart, and the concept of a “national” language is mostly a philological construct. What we think of as national languages—French, Spanish, Italian—are really local dialects of Latin that grew apart over time.

Some of this was known to me before reading McWhorter’s book. It’s common knowledge in the age of modern telecommunications that BBC Radio created “standard English” out of the dialect spoken in southeastern England centered around London. In the same way, the rise in U.S. broadcasting of announcers from the Midwest, like Johnny Carson and David Letterman, helped create a kind of national American accent. In the same way, the new media of the printing press helped Martin Luther make his particular dialect the standard “high German” through his translation of the New Testament. And the language of Parisians became, through central government influence and Académie française enforcement, the definitive form of French.

One area of linguistic mixing and borrowing which McWhorter hasn’t addressed (at least as far as I’ve progressed with the book) but has always fascinated me is how technology is changing language. Like the spread of foreign words into a new area after conquest—think of the spread and mixing of Spanish words and grammar into Central and South American native dialects in the 16th century and later—new technology words and the concepts behind them change not only the way we speak but also how we think.

Imagine an English speaker from Tudor England. He lives 550 years removed from the present day and about 200 years removed from the start of the Industrial Revolution, which really began the changes that we see all around us today. Our Tudor specimen knows about machinery, but only in limited and what we would consider primitive forms. A grist mill powered by water or wind, with its great wooden gears to convert the water wheel’s or the sail’s circular energy in one plane into turning the millstone in another, would be the most complex machine he might usually see. For the rest, his life uses much simpler machines: the wedge of the plow to break the soil; the turn of a wheel to carry the load in his cart; the screw that forces the platen and paper against the type bed of a printing press; the hinged lever that works the bellows of a forge or a pipe organ. In fact, the most complicated machine he might ever observe—if he could look inside the cabinet to study the mechanism—would be the system of stops and keys that direct the air flow in the organ.

Now imagine going back in time and trying to explain to him the workings of an internal combustion engine. The basic principle of a piston moving inside a closed cylinder and pushing on a connecting rod to turn a crank would be foreign to the Tudor mind. He could understand it, surely, but he would probably need drawings, a demonstration model, and a new vocabulary to grasp what’s going on. And that’s long before we get into details, like whether that piston is pushed by expanding steam in Mr. James Watt’s engine of 1765, or spark-ignited exploding gasoline in Mr. Edward Butler’s model of 1884, or compression-ignited oil in Mr. Rudolf Diesel’s of 1893.

Although most people in the modern world who drive automobiles and trucks every day may be hazy on the technical details, they still can understand the basic concepts and are familiar with the language necessary to discuss them. One cannot really talk about the internal combustion engine without using now-familiar terms like “piston,” “carburetor,” “crankshaft,” and “spark plug.” But take any of these words in this context back to Tudor England, and you would have a difficult time making yourself understood. “The carburetor, well … you see, that’s a little box attached to the intake manifold that mixes the air and the fuel vapor in correct proportions for ignition. It’s connected by a lever or cable attached to the throttle.” Disbelieving expressions. Sideways glances. Presumptions of lunacy.

In Shakespeare’s England, “throttle” was a verb meaning to choke someone, and so you might make some headway with the idea of opening up an air passage. “Piston” and “carburetor” were totally unknown words that would not see their first usage for about 150 and 300 years, respectively, although with time and patience and a sketch pad you might introduce the concepts to the Tudor mind. But “spark plug,” embodying as it does the use of electrical energy in a circuit, would require opening up a whole new discussion in the unknown realm of physics. You would have to start with lightning and work forward from there.

But we’ve been dealing with steam engines for about 200 years now, and with internal combustion and electrical circuits for more than 100 years—to the point that we take them for granted. Now consider the true magic of our age: computers. These machines, which really only arose in the past 60 years or so, have become ubiquitous and in their own way more powerful than the steam engine.

They, too, use their own language. Often the words are acronyms for complex thoughts compiled from word chains: CPU for “central processing unit,” RAM for “random access memory,” ROM for “read only memory,” USB for “universal serial bus,” KB for “kilobytes,” MB for “megabytes” (which are a totally different measure from the MH of “megahertz”), and so on. Anyone who has ever bought a computer and done comparison shopping among the available brands and models must deal with these terms.1

Now consider taking these terms back to Renaissance England. The Tudor mind has some experience with machines that twirl and spin. But machines that can, well, think and respond; can send messages down a wire or through the air; can capture, store, and recreate ghost voices and ghost images; and can communicate with and control other machines all by themselves, all based on these little pieces of lightning called “electricity” and little fragments of enchantment language called “software” … Within five minutes you would be condemned for witchcraft and communion with demons. An hour later they would be burning you at the stake.

Most of us will never have the chance to go back and visit Tudor England and confuse the locals with our technologically tainted language.2 But one group of people travel there and elsewhere in history all the time: writers and their more freewheeling brethren, filmmakers. Anyone who has attempted to write a historical novel or the script for a costume drama must be continuously on guard against casual references to impossibly modern thinking.

Some slips are easy to avoid. For example, the word “keyboard” had historic usage only in relation to musical instruments: pipe organs, pianos, and the stringed predecessors of the piano, the harpsichord and the virginal. The word’s relationship to writing, through typewriters and computers, is so mechanical and obvious that the modern writer is not going slip and describe a Shakespeare or Marlowe working away at his keyboard. Similarly, the mouse was just a small gray mammal until the Palo Alto Research Center put a box on tiny wheels to aid eye-hand coordination in manipulating the cursor on a computer screen.

But some thoughts are modern and have no place or usage in the past. My favorite is the song from The Phantom of the Opera, about Christine going “past the point of no return.” We think the concept is obvious: a stage in the journey where you know you cannot turn back. In the Phantom’s usage, she is passing a moral station, a level of knowledge about dark and secret things that nice girls should not know. And this can be explained in a 19th century context—but not in those specific words. No one’s journey had ever reached a “point of no return” in the days of horseback or sail. You could always go ahead.3 The concept, and that precise verbal formulation, only became current when pilots began flying over large bodies of water. Since the amount of fuel available in the plane is both limited and essential to survival, every such journey reaches a precisely calculable point at which the plane lacks enough fuel to turn around and go back to the original airport. You must fly on and either make it or not: the point of no return. The Phantom, who was singing long before the Wright brothers’ first flight, would not have used those precise words: “point of no return.”4

Use of modern words and the concepts behind them need special care when placing a story in a historical context. The writer of science fiction, however, who travels forward into the unknown future, faces a different and somewhat more complex problem: how to suggest technologies, their concepts and language, that do not yet exist. Some writers prefer to leave things vague and treat far-future technology as a sort of invisible magic. Isaac Asimov created robots that move and think on their own, and he explored their moral relationship to the universe through the Three Laws, but he never probed deeper into their mechanism than reference to a “positronic brain.” On the other hand, Frank Herbert in the Dune series imagined a future 10,000 years in the future, and he made it come alive with references to things like Holtzmann effect field generators, electrostatically controlled oil lenses, the paracompass, and ornithopters flying with their “primaries” and “coverlets” and using “jetpods” for takeoff. Herbert wove similar glints of language into all kinds of familiar-but-hidden technologies and training regimens.5

Ever since James Watt created a workable and efficient steam engine some 250 years ago, languages around the world have been grappling with a new wave of conquest: the imperatives and underlying concepts of an ever-expanding technology. For most of the world’s languages, the choice has been adopt the English usage, which itself adopts and adapts many root words from ancient Greek.6 But all of them must deal with the warping effects of an accelerating and relentless advance. We’re all—linguistically as well as socially and economically—on an express escalator to … who knows where?

Blink, and you’ll never catch up. Live another fifty years, and the world you knew as a child will seem as distant and primitive as that of the Tudors, while the world you live in at that future time will be as unimaginable to a person of today as ours would be to a citizen of 16th century England.

1. However, the need to immerse yourself in these words of power has recently started fading, as computer processing has become so ubiquitous and the power described so huge and standardized that no one bothers to think in terms of its applications and limitations anymore. Consider the smartphone, which has become the most advanced and complex of Univac’s children. Aside from asking about memory capacity—stated in GB for “gigabytes”—which affects how many songs, photos, and videos the phone can store (“Videos … on my telephone?”), no one cares how fast or powerful the central chip is. We just presume it’s wonderful enough to keep up and get the job done. We don’t much care about the “pixel” dimensions of the screen, either, because it will simply be so dense as to look and feel like … reality.

2. Or not yet, anyway. But the physicists of our own era, who are playing with concepts that the average person of today can barely comprehend, may be getting closer to understanding the true nature of space, time, and energy. Who knows what travel possibilities lie ahead of us? Although that opens up another whole can of wormholes, doesn’t it? If people from our future will have the ability to navigate backward into the past, then why haven’t we met them? Either they’re very good at hiding, camouflage, and dissimulation—or they just never mastered the fundamentals of time travel.

3. Odysseus went ahead for ten long years through the strangest of physical and moral adventures. No thought of when he might pass beyond the possibility of returning to his original starting point, the burned-out hulk of Troy.

4. Which, according to the dictionary at hand, was first used in written form in 1941, although pilots had probably been speaking of this particular point since the time of St. Exupéry and Lindbergh.

5. Of course, Herbert also avoided a lot of technical grief in a land of talking robots and other semi-magical beings by positing a future revolt against the machines, the Butlerian Jihad, followed by a re-ignition of human mental powers in the Great Schools. And that took his stories into a wholly fascinating new direction.

6. For example, “telescope” from tele (far) and skopein (to see); “microscope” from micron (small) and skopein; “telephone” from tele and phonos (voice); “microphone” from micron and phonos; and so on for a century or more of industrial advances. And let’s not forget the words representing orders of magnitude: kilo, mega, giga, and tera (representing thousands, millions, billions, and trillions, respectively) as applied to “watts,” “volts,” and “hertz” (all derived from the names of the discoverers or first propounders of certain physical properties) and, of course, “bytes.”