Friday, January 03, 2003

Recently, Language Hat blogged about an article about communications professor Joseph Turow in the NY Times on capitalizing 'Internet'. LH is normally pretty smart about linguistic issues, so I'm a bit confused as to why the phrase "proper noun" never appears in his entry. Instead, like Turow's rant, it's all about brand names, and how the Internet is more like air or water than Kleenex. Yes, I suppose that's true. But it's more like Istanbul (or even Springfield) than like air or water.

There is certainly a debate to be had here, but the debate is over Internet being a proper noun. For instance, this guy says it shouldn't be. His argument, in a nutshell, is "these two terms would be understood to be simply descriptive phrases that happen to identify unique things, were it not for the fact that they were popularized by techno-happy folks with little intimate knowledge of English capitalization style."

Of course, he's wrong, but at least he's in the right fight. Why is he wrong? Well, there are two levels here. First of all, the 'net was invented by techies, but brought to the world by wordfolk. The World Wide Web is an incredible engine for the presentation of text, which is why technically literate text people were the ones to fill the new medium with content which drew in more text people, slightly less technically oriented than their predecessors. Second of all, he bases his understanding of proper nouns on a one-line dictionary definition and he never gets into the issue of names.

Why, he asks, is "my mother" not a proper noun when he only has one mother? And why is "Fred" a proper noun when there are so many Freds? Why questions have a tendency to be bottomless, especially when they're about language, but I'll take this one on anyway: "My mother" refers to a role played (in my case) by a person named Dotty Terry. That role is mutable, in that while I have only one mother (Dotty Terry), other people have other mothers, and Dotty is other things to other people (a spouse, a grandmother, a friend, etc.). Only by using her name can I ensure that a magical reference string runs from my words to her, showing my compatriots in conversation who it is that I'm referring two. Thanks to the magic of naming, the same thing happens with Fred. Even though there are many Freds, and I'm only talking about one, the magic string knows which one I'm talking about and attaches only to him.

That's probably not the way it really works, but if I started to dig into how naming does work, in no time we'd be up to our necks in the philosophy of language, talking about speech acts and direct reference, throwing around fancy made up works like "dthat", and I have real trouble imagining anyone getting real excited about that sort of thing. And in the end, we'd still come around to the fact that naming is a kind of magic, which may be why, in English, we treat names as special words, and we capitalize them.

Most interesting to me, however, is Language Hat's comment, "I've always thought of the word as lowercase, and it irritates me every time I see that capital I." Personally, I have the opposite reaction. Capitalizing the word reminds me that I am referring not just to one of many intereconnected networks (internets), but to the One True Network. Capitalization helps me make what is an important distinction between phenomena, and that I'm naming something that existed well before companies like Microsoft or AOL came to the trough and may very well outlast them.

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