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Imagine the robot’s choice of word

On the surface, a weekend book review in the Financial Times reads like another gentle spin through today’s fashionable view that language is constantly in flux and the pedants who would presume to lecture us on correct usage need putting back in their box. If “most people” choose to say that black means white, then that’s that. In the face of dictats from the (customarily self-appointed) style Nazis, the proper response is a chorus of raspberries, middle fingers and whatevs, innit.

What may have been missed in Rebecca Gowers’ “Horrible Words: A Guide to the Misuse of English”, and was certainly absent in the FT review, is the extent to which language is a reflection of how its user thinks and feels. Scaled up to community level and played out over time, it becomes the aural heartbeat of an evolving culture. The choices made in speaking reflect the thinking process, and are often political, as anyone who has “put their foot in it” will have learned the hard way. And those who have learned, say, the difference between imply and infer will have learned something vital about the passage of meaning between speaker and listener. Explaining what they understand does not make them self-appointed style Nazis.

This is more than a trivial detour down the byways of nominative relativism: anyone more fastidious than I am about language is a pedant; those less so, barbarians. We will all feel the point of the principle of standards if the day comes when software developers make and monitor the rules. When the robots stand to humans as did the British army mapmakers to the rural Irish in Brian Friel’s great Translations, we may then better understand through loss what we had when we didn’t know its value.

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