An Idea About Language and The Internet

I'm reading a book as I prepare to start the real work on my next book. Called The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker (wikipedia), I'm finding it a fascinating read, if at times a bit too happy with itself. However, I chose it carefully, as I've been developing my…

I’m reading a book as I prepare to start the real work on my next book. Called The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker (wikipedia), I’m finding it a fascinating read, if at times a bit too happy with itself. However, I chose it carefully, as I’ve been developing my own theories about the interplay of language, conversation, and the future of the Internet.

I have a longer post in me about my first revelation upon reading this work, but it’ll take a full day to draft. However, for the record, it has to to with the idea of pidgin vs. creole, and the idea of search as pidgin, and the creole we all are creating, unawares, as we navigate the web.

Yeah, it’s that kind of a post.

Just to let you hardcore readers know – the ones who came to read this site because of my Search meanderings – that I haven’t entirely lost the thread.

Keep me honest, is all I ask.

Author: John Battelle

A founder of NewCo (current CEO), sovrn (Chair), Federated Media, Web 2 Summit, The Industry Standard, Wired. Author, investor, board member (Acxiom, Sovrn, NewCo), bike rider, yoga practitioner.

8 thoughts on “An Idea About Language and The Internet”

  1. Interesting idea. From what I learned in college, a creole becomes a creole when the language is passed on to pidgin speakers’ children … although the definition of a creole has been hotly contested.

    In one sense, you have humans and humans from different first languages who are interacting with eachother over the internet, and are simplifying their vocabularies and grammar for the purposes of a formal social exchange, such as business… but in another sense you have average technophobe user, and the information system designer, who also (frequently) don’t understand eachother, and also need to simplify their vocabularies and activities in order to communicate.

  2. Intriguing topic. When I’m doing a difficult search I definitely feel my language get stilted. Kind of a Bizarro Jeopardy: for the best results, state your question as the (partial) answer.

  3. Interesting topic.
    Have you thought about how the mobile web has forced an even tighter pidgin on us.
    What about emoticons? Are they a form of pidgin?
    Where does jargon fit? We all spew out jargon coded to the groups we identify with.
    Have you looked at Papua New Guinea? In the 80s they had newspapers printed in pidgin. I don’t know if they still do.
    There was an alphabet devised in the 60s in the UK called New Pitman Alphabet (I think) that simplified the alphabet and had symbols for sounds such as ea and ai. It was principally used to make it easier for children to learn to read, as every word could be sounded out phonetically.

  4. I agree with the three commenters above: This is interesting.

    From the article: One ex­plana­t­ion for the new find­ings, wrote Grif­fiths and col­leagues, could be that con­nec­tions among brain cells work si­m­i­larly to Web links. Cells that are tar­gets of many con­nec­tions might be­come more ac­tive than oth­ers, in the same way that highly linked-in web­sites are deemed more im­por­tant.

    Methinks that this highly-linked brain effectiveness is most likely day-to-day effectiveness. The effectiveness that your brain needs to negotiate your way through traffic on the highway. The effectiveness that you need to balance your checkbook and plan a meal.

    But what about when the task that your brain is trying to accomplish isn’t routine? What about when the problem I am trying to solve isn’t mundane, everyday, popular?

    With my brain, I can still go off and find a quiet corner, think for a while, and come up with new, interesting, intriguing solutions.

    But with an internet search engine? How does an internet search engine mimic that “quiet corner” reflective process? When I need to find something that is off the beaten trail, find something that not every else has also found, but find something new, unique, different, interesting. How does, or should I say “can”, an internet search engine do this?

    At this point, it seems like search engines don’t do this very well, at all. It seems like an area where lots of improvement can still be made.

  5. First off, you are actually still in the realm of search. One of the key issues we face with the giant corpus of collected documents we’ve collectively collected and put on the open web is disambiguation. And a lot of ambiguity comes from some very basic linguistic issues, homonyms, synonyms and so on. The basics of how we come to use language are pertinent to how we seek and interpret information. (So now you should feel better that you’re not meandering! : )

    As to the comment “But with an internet search engine? How does an internet search engine mimic that “quiet corner” reflective process?”…

    Part of the answer is use some of the newer functions coming online either from Google Experiments, or Ask, or Yahoo, where you can see “More Like This” and other Narrowing/Expansion tools. (Or for that matter, Stumble) All of them likely use somewhat different linguistic voodoo and various weightings on their selected meta data. All of them are likely a bit off when it comes to recall/precision. As a result, similar to if you use a thesaurus tool, these things may lead you to the byways to your main highway and offer more opportunity for serendipity.

    Oh, and if you like Pinker and want to go deep, (or maybe to sleep), try Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics by John Lyons. Written in the late 60s, it’s plenty pertinent. And Modern Information Retrieval, Baeza-Yates/Ribeiro-Neto.

    If you’re – as you say – “developing [your] own theories about the interplay of language, conversation, and the future of the Internet” you may find that a lot of ground has already been covered. Especially in Lyons’ book as he spends time talking about the evolution of languages, how they’ve forked and co-exist and so on.

  6. John,

    I’ve been subscribed to your blog since your book came out in ’05 – I don’t comment much – but wanted you know that it’s the “meanderings” that have kept me interested – there’s plenty of places to get the industry news – please bring on the meanderings/insights – and the next book!

  7. As much as I’m incredibly excited that I get to read some insightful brain dumps by an author I trust on the internet and linguistics, I’m not quite sure I agree with the connection you’ve described so far.

    At face value, it sounds good, first generation combines two distinct languages (writing and talking) into a pidgin (blogging) that gets the point across, but lacks the structure and fluidity of expression of either source. Then, the next generation builds nuance into the new paradigm and develops it into a full fledged communication tool, the creole. I view this as the spectrum of internet communication available now, from facebook at the ultralight, ultrapersonal end, through twitter, all the way to blogging, at the heavy broadcast end. See this post ( )on A VC to see a hand-drawn graph that perfectly shows what I’m thinking about.

    My problem with this metaphor is that the creole isn’t one language, its multiple channels of communication that play well together for different purposes. Yes, the power of the internet has given us new abilities, and the maturation of those platforms is powerful, but I don’t think it is on the level of the qualitative change from pidgin to creole.

    Still, I’m excited to see what you have to say about it, I miss the dense, brain strain articles you used to write about conversational marketing and the database of intentions.

  8. If you find interesting Steven Pinker book you should check this book of Donald Merlin (
    Origins of the Modern Mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition (Harvard, 1991 – ISBN 0-674-64484-0).
    Donald suggests that the increasing reliance on external memory media in this third stage, which applies in varying degrees to most people in the developed world, may have profound effects on our cognitive development and behavior.

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