Wednesday, February 15, 2017

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf
A long time ago I remember reading Stephen Pinker discussing the evolution of language.  I had read Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare, so I was quite interested in these linguistic adaptations over time.  Language shifts rapidly through the ages, to the  point that even English of 500 years ago sounds foreign to us now.  His thesis in the piece was about how language is going to shift toward the Chinese pronunciation of it.  Essentially, the majority of speakers will determine the rules of the language’s direction.  There are more Chinese in the world than native English speakers, so as they adopt and adapt the language, more of us will speak like the greater factions of our language’s custodians.  The future speakers of English, will determine its course.  By force of "majority rules", language will go in the direction of its greatest use, which will be the Pangea of the global populace seeking common linguistic currency with others of foreign tongues.  Just as the US dollar is an “exchange currency” standard at present between foreign economies, English is the shortest path between any two ESL speakers, no matter which background.

Subsequently, I heard these concepts reiterated in a Scientific American podcast.  The concept there being that English, when spoken by those who learned it as a second language, is easier for other speakers to understand than native-spoken English.  British, Indian, Irish, Aussie, New Zealand and American English are relics in a shift, very fast, away from all of them.  As much as we appreciate each, they are all toast.  Corners will be cut, idiomatic usage will be lost, as the fastest path to information conveyance determines that path that language takes in its evolution.  English will continue to be a mutt language flavored by those who adopt and co-opt it.  Ultimately meaning that no matter what the original language was, the common use of it will be the rules of the future.  So we can say goodbye to grammar as native speakers know it.  There is a greater shift happening than our traditions.  And we must brace as this evolution takes us with it to a linguistic future determined by others.

I’m a person who has greatly appreciated idiomatic and aphoristic usage of English.  So I’m one of those, now old codgers, who cringes at the gradual degradation of language.  But I’m listening to an evolution in process, a shift toward a language of broader and greater utility.  So the cringes I feel, are reactions to the time-saving adaptations of our language as it becomes something greater than it has been in the past.  Brits likely thought/felt the same as their linguistic empire expanded.  Now is just a slightly stranger shift.

This evening I was in the kitchen, and I decided to ask Amazon Alexa to play some Led Zeppelin.  This was a band that used to exist in the 1970’s era during which I grew up.  I knew their entire corpus very well.  So when I started hearing one of my favorite songs, I knew this was not what I had asked for.  It was a good rendering for sure, but it was not Robert Plant singing.  Puzzled, I asked Alexa who was playing.  She responded “Lez Zeppelin”.  This was a new band to me.  A very good cover band I admit.  (You can read about them here: http://www.lezzeppelin.com/)
But why hadn't Alexa wanted to respond to my initial request?  Was it because Atlantic Records hadn't licensed Led Zeppelin's actual catalog for Amazon Prime subscribers?

Two things struck me.  First, we aren’t going to be tailoring our English to Chinese ESL common speech patterns as Mr. Pinker predicted.  We’re probably also going to be shifting our speech patterns to what Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google Home can actually understand.  They are the new ESL vector that we hadn't anticipated a decade ago.  It is their use of English that will become conventional, as English is already the de facto language of computing, and therefore our language is now the slave to code.

What this means for that band (that used to be called Zeppelin) is that such entity will no longer be discoverable.  In the future, if people say “Led Zeppelin” to Alexa, she’ll respond with Lez Zeppelin (the rights-available version of the band formerly known as "Led Zeppelin").  Give humanity 100 years or so, and the idea of a band called Led Zeppelin will seem strange to folk.  Five generations removed, nobody will care who the original author was.  The "rights" holder will be irrelevant.  The only thing that will matter in 100 years is what the bot suggests.

Our language isn't ours.  It is the path to the convenient.  In bot speak, names are approximate and rights (ignoring the stalwart protectors) are meaningless.  Our concepts of trademarks, rights ownership, etc. are going to be steam-rolled by other factors, other "agents" acting at the user's behest.  The language and the needs of the spontaneous are immediate!

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