Words as Words review

23 February 2012
Reading Time
3 minute read

We’re still talking about and digesting the bounty of information offered up for our delectation last week at Words as Words. Perhaps it was the heady mix of experts – we invited a clinical scientist and speech therapist, a writer and a lexicographer – that really got us out of our comfort zone and asking questions.

Our first speaker was Giles Goodland from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED has a rich history and one we wanted to know more about given the theme of this talk series. A particularly interesting side-effect to the birth of the internet was the effect on the evolution of language; the changing nature of our lexicon as tech speak creeps in has been a challenge for the OED. In Giles’ words, “the internet develops its own language.”

He explained their process for researching these “new” nuanced words has had to adapt. In the past, introducing words into the dictionary involved finding 10 years’ “proof” of their usage but with the fast-paced, ever-changing nature of online content, this can be tricky. Records of some new words only exist online, and are hard to trace. We learnt that they collect, print and archive the evidence from the internet on slips of paper – a funny moment where the intangible and the physical meet.

Richard Beard, a writer and director of the National Academy of Writing, opened up an interesting conversation surrounding experimentation and the search for authenticity. He referenced the formal experimentation of the Oulipo, and discussed how this had influenced his own experimental literary texts. His novel Damascus only uses nouns featured in The Times from one day in November 1993 – it becomes a novel of its times. What an excellent pun!

He had some convincing and well-articulated ideas regarding how play, and testing come about as a reaction to existing conventions and modes.

Although some might not agree with his polemic, Beard believes that new platforms and technology (Kindle, iPad) are causing a stasis in experimental writing. Writers are familiarising themselves with these new formats which, in his view, has led to a conservatism of content.

Showing the results of his collaboration with ustwo for PAPERCUT, he argued the multi-sensory effects (combining image, sounds, interaction) although interesting meant the text needed paring back and simplifying in order to compete with the other media. But it wasn’t all bleak, he said writers would no doubt get to grips with writing code and understanding the technical capabilities in order to experiment anew.

Dr Jenny Crinion gave a mind-bending talk about the brain and the chronic, but little understood disorder aphasia; acquired language problems – commonly caused by strokes, head injury or brain tumors – that impair communication skills.

Jenny had invited along Lotje Sodderland, to share her first-hand experience of aphasia. Lotje gave an incredibly stirring account of waking up a few months ago to find she had lost the ability to communicate (use her phone, write etc), a feeling of “disappearing within her body.”

Despite the brain still being such an unknown territory, Crinion painted a hopeful picture for aphasia treatment. Her research involving brain scanning is helping to develop new techniques. This is when we get into what she called “bonkers science.” The treatment she comically called “zapping”, alters the networks and stimulates the healthy areas of the brain to work more efficiently.

It was amazing to hear how dynamic our brains can be. Their “plasticity” capacity to adapt and change is a good thing for language development meaning we needn’t think that growing older means losing skills. Exposing ourselves to new hobbies and interests, such as learning languages is good for our grey matter.

Real food for thought! – a great combination of entertaining talks and weighty ideas .

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About the Author

Maya Davies

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