Instant Dialect Formation in the Age of Tech


A few decades ago, scholars wondered if being connected via a common set of TV programs (and now YouTube and the Internet) would level out dialectal differences. I was always skeptical, and the evidence is leaning against it. For instance, one of the episodes of the PBS miniseries Do You Speak American? shows how California is developing into its own dialect area.

Acronym Variations

But the proliferation of new tech words (or tech neologisms) shows how differences can arise. For instance today in a class I'm teaching, I discovered that "Web 2.0" had two variant pronunciations - "Web 2 point 0" and "Web 2 0" (no "point"). One student further intoned that dropping the "point" was much hipper (interesting).

Another one with variant pronunciations is "SQL" (structured query language) which I was taught as "S Q L", but others as "Sequel". The most interesting one may be "RSS" because no one can remember what "RSS" stands for - either Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. It doesn't matter though because the lexical entry is now RSS /arɛsɛs/.

Maybe this shouldn't surprise us because so many tech words are introduced to us from print resources. Even if we get to a YouTube source, I suspect that most of us see these terms online in a blog, tech review, documentation, listserv or e-mail. These don't normally come with pronunciation guidelines (or if they do, they're best guesses). That is, programmers may invent new acronyms, but they rarely publish pronunciation guidelines. The only way to get an "authentic" pronunciation would be to hear a presentation from a development team.

What's that gadget?

Another source of confusion may come gadgets with no official name like this one below:

Jump Drive in Computer
A flash drive/jump drive/USB drive/keychain drive. Image courtesy Fredo Alvarez. Licensed by Creative Commons.

This thingamabob is known as a jump drive/flash drive/USB drive/thumb drive depending on the speaker. Actually the first time I saw it it was described as a neat device that plugged into a USB drive and that you could put on your keychain. So for me, it became a "keychain drive" (and apparently for other people as well - although I think I am the lone "keychain driver" speaker at Penn State.)

Surprisingly, I don't recall any major marketing campaigns for this - word of its existence seemed to spread by word of mouth. These are the circumstances which could promote multiple variants, but it really is amazing how many developed in such a short period of time (since about only 2002 or 7 years).

Although we are connected by media, apparently we don't always use it to propogate "official" usage information. In fact, in the new age of Facebook/texting/Twitter/YouTube/multiple cable channels, I would predict that more variations will evolve over time. Unlike 50 years ago, we can't assume that a large segment of Americans will be watching the same show (e.g. I Love Lucy) because there are so many more options. Despite the ubiquity of these technologies, they are actually serving to Balkanize us at the moment.

The difference may be that not all communities will be geographically contiguous - we've seen this somewhat before (e.g. educated people speaking Latin or French across Europe), but I don't think on the scale we're seeing now.