Friday, October 11, 2013


I first encountered the term “email” in a Freshman Composition textbook, in an essay by digital journalism pioneer Michael Kinsley. Not that I’d never encountered the concept before. By 1999, when I started college late, digital communications were busily revolutionizing how people communicated, allowing people to send text-based communications internationally, but also giving junk advertisers unprecedented access to ordinary citizens’ information.

No, I understood the idea of “email.” The orthography, however, took me by surprise. I’d always written it “e-mail,” emphasizing the separate pronunciation of the first syllable, /ē’-māl/. Kinsley’s spelling made the word look like it should be pronounced /ə-māl’/, with the emphasis on the second syllable. It resembled the common French name Emile, more than anything electronically analogous to the Post Office, which I still religiously used back then.

This digitally motivated shift in English orthography has not been entirely even. The corporate name Google has become a lower-case verb because of Google’s overwhelming market presence, and because English needed such a word. The comic strip character Barney Google probably helped ease us into saying “to google” when we needed to search the Internet. Yet the spelling of “to google” remains entirely consistent with preceding English language.

Not that Kinsley holds domain on spelling. The MLA Stylesheet, and other print-based usage guides, favor “e-mail,” the spelling that still seems most consistent with pronunciation to me. The Stack Exchange, a linguistics website, indicates that my preferred spelling remains more widely used. Yet the AP Stylebook changed its standards in 2011, now favoring “email” for journalists online and in print. As go journalists, so, probably, will go the vernacular.

Linguists agree that English is probably the hardest language for second-language learners to savvy. Its frequent borrowings from other languages create lopsided spelling shifts, as a word from French may align with another from Japanese, all arranged in an essentially German grammar. Advancing digital technology only compounds this confusion, because we aren’t borrowing from a real language. We lack any precedent for how to spell or organize new words.

Only that initial vowel, usually e or i, has changed how we write. We absorb inconsistencies with remarkable ease: for instance, we’ve never decided how to describe commerce occurring in an entirely digital format. Do we call it “e-commerce,” “ecommerce,” or “eCommerce”? My computer’s digital spell-check accepts the first and third options, but balks at the second, though it had no problem with how I wrote “email” earlier.

Trade names ease some of this confusion. Brands like iShares, iPad, or eBay have easily pronounceable names, because the offset capital letter emphasizes the initial vowel’s separate status. Nobody seriously expects to shop on /ə-bā’/, using an /’i-pæd/. Yet the capital letter doesn’t just steer pronunciation; it also signals these terms’ identity as wholly owned brand names. Nobody “owns” email, though it has many providers, so it won’t get capitalized.

Even the brand-name workaround doesn’t always work. E*Trade is pronounced much like email, yet the Wal-Mart-ish asterisk creates an entirely new orthography, separate from email or eBay. It’s hard to say how seriously to take this, however, since the company still formally organized as “E-Trade Financial Corporation.” The asterisk may be a mere stylistic flourish invented by advertisers. Mercifully, few others have mimicked it so far.

Electronic books may only compound this inconsistency. Not only do we have no agreed means of describing these products (e-books? ebooks? eBooks?), but the large and growing number of programming formats means that books written in one form, Kindle for instance, are unreadable in other formats, like iPad or Kobo. Authors’ surface orthography proves only the tip of the readability iceberg, and people favoring one format develop their own dialect.

While e-book entrepreneurs frantically try to invent new formats, they strive to keep them compatible with old formats, like HTML and PDF. Thus English retains its single shared past, when computers had to be compatible or they’d be useless; but it cruises toward a divided future. The market will certainly shake out certain formats (Rocket yBooks still exist, for instance, but only vestigially). But new technology will hasten new confusions.

English has never had an institution like L'Académie Française, which regulates and purifies French. We’ve never needed or wanted such an institution, and its lack keeps English adaptable to changing times. Yet technology’s rapid and accelerating shifts mean we’ll face new ideas and applications daily. Without mutual standards for new, tech-based language, English will only become harder and more opaque. Earth’s most widespread language deserves such a backstop.

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