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OMFG, Horatio!

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Hang on English speakers, it might get weird.

Here's the thing: the Oxford English Dictionary gives William Shakespeare first citation credit for more than 500 words. In fact, Will is credited with coining anywhere from a thousand to ten thousand new words, with consensus among academics coming in around 1700. Whatever the actual number, Shakespeare was a singular genius, a quantum leap in rhetorical invention, the twenty-nine foot long jump of English -- but he was also the product of a revolution in the language in general, and we may just be rushing into another one.

From 1476, when William Caxton began setting Chaucer and other classic literature into print, until around 1611, when the King James Bible was widely released, the English language consolidated a scattering of regional dialects with disparate spellings and pronunciations into a single language, but a young one that left room for the extraordinary inventiveness of Shakespeare. The printed word moved the English meme in geometric, rather than linear, progressions, causing a demand for more and different units of information (i.e., words), and Shakespeare provided them.

Maybe it's because I've recently written two vampire novels narrated by a tech-savvy Goth girl (You Suck: A Love Story [2007] and Bite Me: A Love Story [2010]) bookending a novel told by a jester speaking Elizabethan-hybrid English (Fool [2009]), but I think we're in the midst of a linguistic revolution that will overshadow the one that Caxton started.

Urban Dictionary, the web's wiki of modern English colloquialisms, has just celebrated its tenth anniversary, and already the site has more than 4.8 million user-contributed definitions. Granted, most of them are terms for fanciful sex acts created by the Great Unlaid, so depraved that the Marquis de Sade would beg for sweet electro-shock to forget them (e.g., when you lube with lard and chant "Delicious!" while smacking that thang, you're pulling a "Bourdain"), but 4.8 million in ten years verily dwarfs the verbiage coined in the first two centuries of printed English.

In his landmark 1919 work, The American Language, H. L. Mencken postulated that American English, separate from the European mother tongue, was the first singular, homogenized language that could be spoken and understood in any part of the country, distinct from regional and economic patois. In short, Mencken felt, our language united us as a people. A hopeful thought, but language has always been used as a barrier, a cultural fence that separates generations as well as academic and social classes. With the exponential expansion of the language on the web, such divisions are becoming more quickly pronounced. One need only look at how the Teabaggers were caught flat-footed and were further enraged when they found out why we were snickering at them.

When I was writing You Suck, in 2006, I constructed the diction of the book's narrator, perky Goth girl Abby Normal, from what I read on Goth blog sites. (Yes, it's a little creepy, but less so than if I had been hanging out at Scissor Sister concerts smoking cloves and eating absinthe Gummi Bears.) What I found were a lot of talented young writers who, despite their self-indulgent mopiness, showed great humor and facility with language. I thought there was real hope for the future of the written word. Three years later, when I reprised the character for Bite Me, and returned to the blog sites for a dialect refresher, they were gone. The writers of '06 had either grown out of their angst or had moved on to Twitter, texting, and Facebook updates, moving from a tapestry of gloomy adjectives to those140-character attention-deficit acronymic alphabet soups of narcissism. The language had moved on: a dialect was rendered obsolete in an instant. (When You Suck came out in 2007, I got a letter from one teen chastising me for being out of touch because no one had said "WOOT" in more than six months.) For Bite Me, I just made stuff up.

From Dickens's cockneys to Salinger's phonies, from Kerouac's beatniks to Cheech and Chong's freaks, and on to hip hop's homies, dialect has always been used as a way for generations to distinguish themselves. (I still cringe at the memory of my cop father using the word "cool," some forty years ago, the word foreign and foul-tasting in his mouth.) But today's generations are reduced to weeks, not years, and the distinction is not so much one of age, but of access to information and curiosity. And even as we gather into our linguistic cliques, we are separated by the new language that rises while we are sleeping. The revolution is here, and it will be YouTubed.

I'm not predicting some dystopian future where we all dress in Mad Max couture and do battle in the shadow of the Tower of Babel. I'm just saying, Hang on, it's happening. It might get weird.

Around the Web

Shakespeare Resource Center - The Language of Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Language and Dictionary

Reading Shakespeare's Language-Folger Shakespeare Library