Why do we revere the written word?

If you ever ask me to lend you a book, I’ll probably make up some elaborate excuse about why I can’t—that is, if I don’t flatly refuse. I try to keep my books immaculate and I always treat them gently; I know that many people aren’t so pedantic. Thus, rather than risk getting back a damaged book, I just don’t lend them out.

I understand that books will age with time and love, but I do my best to help my books do so gracefully, and not before their time. Thus I’ve been known to send them back to Amazon if they arrive imperfect in any way. I privately weep when I see scuffs at their corners or little indentations… And the surest route to a sour mood is discovering a crease in a page. Books are special to me. It’s probably overly cliche to say that they’re my children, but it’s something like that. Books are lower-maintenance, at least.

I know I’m not the only one. A number of my friends are this way. Jorge Luis Borges was. And perhaps you are, too.

Where does this come from? I think it has a lot to do with sacred texts.

VEYAGANA, BOOK OF CHANTS OF THE LITURGICAL KAUTHUMA SAMHITA OF THE SAMAVEDA

Until a few hundred years ago, writing was quite rare; few could write, and few could read. Thus, only important things were written down, and it took a thing of tremendous importance to be preserved.

Interestingly, Hindu priests originally resisted the transcription of the Vedas because they thought it would make these sacred poems too accessible, too commonplace. Everyday things are not important, and they certainly are not powerful. (There was certainly also an element of fear for their own social status as the purveyors of a scarce resource.) Perhaps this is why, when sacred things were finally committed to writing, we were conditioned to treat them with supreme reverence.

From there we witness a phenomenon known as the cult of the book: texts are often seen as sacred objects, even apart from the contents of their words. Regarding the Lotus Sutra, for example, a Buddhist text, it was promised that anyone who copied, or even paid someone to copy, the text would live a trouble-free life. Similar beliefs were held for other Buddhist texts: Merely seeing or holding them were esteemed as actions of great merit.

This concept has culminated in the modern-day Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, which is thought of as a living guru of the faith. It’s even written in its own, dedicated script. This book is treated with the utmost respect by Sikhs: It is kept on a raised platform, often under a canopy of feathers, and it is never allowed to touch the ground. When in the presence of the book, Sikhs cover their heads and remove their shoes. In Sikh homes, it is not uncommon for this book to have an entire room of its own.

So meticulous is the treatment of the Guru Granth Sahib that it was copied by hand only until 1864, well after the invention of the printing press. Today, most copies are printed, but any copy that exhibits even the most minor of defects is cremated in an elaborate ceremony.

Speaking of printed works in particular, it’s worth noting that the oldest mechanically printed book we know of is the Diamond Sutra, another Buddhist text from China. Fast forwarding to when Gutenberg invented a printing press of his own (though not the world’s first), we can recall that the first book printed in the West was also of a sacred nature: The Holy Bible.

Thus it seems that from this precedent, reaching back to the ancient Brahmans of India, we are conditioned to treat books with respect.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are the exact opposite: those who underline and dog-ear freely without thinking twice… the people who make me shudder. What’s up with them?

Translation tech: We’re getting there…

Language barriers seem to be frustrating us more than ever before. What cognitive dissonance it is that in today’s globalized world we can get in touch so easily but still be unable to communicate. For this reason Rosetta Stone is a $300-million company and growing every year, and language-instruction apps like Duolingo and MindSnacks are coming out all the time.

We have fantasies of Matrix-like brain implants that give you instant fluency in any language you’d like to install. Nearly as futuristic but actually existent is Word Lens, an app that translates written language that you point to with your smartphone’s camera (and actually works quite well). The company was recently bought by Google, who is implementing the technology in their Glass productOur dreams of instant communication with speakers of other language are still far off, but we’ve certainly come a long way from pocket phrasebooks.

MuuziiNext up is Muuzii, which promises to be an instant, SMS-based translation service. The basic use-case is this: Two people who don’t speak the same language both have basic cellphones. Person One types a message in his language to Muuzii, and Muuzii quickly responds with the message translated to Person Two’s language. Person One can then forward or sound out the message to get it to Person Two. It’s a subscription-based service (quite reasonable at less than $5/month) that currently works on AT&T but is planned for all U.S. carriers soon.

They have a promotion going on right now where you can try out the service for free from any carrier. I tried it out, and I was somewhat disappointed. Here’s why:

As I see it, Muuzii has three main claims to fame. It follows through on two of them, but flops on the third. One: It’s meant to be fast, and it certainly is. In my tests, the response always came within a second or two. Two: Dumbphones welcome. Since it’s an SMS-based service, you don’t need a smartphone. That’s key; we like to think that everyone has a smartphone these days, but that’s just not the case.

Three: There’s a real, live person doing the translating (supposedly). Here’s where Muuzii doesn’t live up to its potential—at least not yet. The problem with machine-based translators is that they’re not infallible. They generally aren’t good with casual sentences, slang and idioms, first of all. And what if you spell something wrong? What if you tried to write something, but inadvertently spelled a different word? An actual person would see what you meant, but not a machine. I was really excited to hear that Muuzii has “a robust team of skilled linguists on-call 24/7,” because such a team could translate so much better than a machine. But in practice, Muuzii can’t seem to translate spelling errors. In my test, I sent the query:

did the untied sttates win the game agains Germanny?

And Muuzii replied in Spanish:

¿los sttates desatados ganó el juego agains Germanny?

The translation is interesting. Muuzii caught that sttates was meant to be plural, even if it couldn’t manage to translate it. Strangly, it gave me the verb conjugation ganó, which is for third-person singular, when it had already identified the subject as plural. It correctly translated untied (plural) as desatados, but it didn’t realize that I actually meant united rather than untied.

I believe a “robust team of skilled linguists” would have been able to translate my original sentence perfectly. Maybe they would have included fun spelling errors of their own—but that’s a discussion for a class on translation theory. Perhaps it’s the case that Muuzii isn’t showcasing the true extent of their product during this free trial (which would be a shame, because then what’s the point?), or maybe they’re simply over-promising.

When acronyms should not be capitalized

Acronyms, abbreviations in which each letter is the first letter of a word in a phrase, are customarily capitalized. But not always. Laser, for example, is an acronym that stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation; the word is now so common that nobody thinks of it as an acronym, and subsequently nobody capitalizes it. This seems to be governed by the same mechanism as the disappearance of hyphens in compound words: as words get more common, they tend toward the style of normal running text—that is, lowercase.

Benelux is another acronym, standing for Belgium Netherlands Luxembourg, but it’s not written BeNeLux. A growing convention, which I first came across in Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, dictates that if an acronym is pronounced as a word, then it should not be written in all caps. (As opposed to initialisms, which are pronounced as a series of letters. Compare Nato to USA.)

Still, plenty of people capitalize NATO and AIDS and NASA, and I don’t think anyone would argue that doing so is incorrect. (People have certainly argued about stranger things, though.) But one case comes to mind wherein capitalizing certain acronyms is seen as gauche at best: The neographic texting/Internet shortcuts, most notable among them lol.

22344_250266667263_5206655_nPeople who capitalize LOL have long been the subject of Internet ridicule. There is no shortage of forum messages, Facebook pages, tweets, or blog posts about the practice. The Internet community, so varied in other respects, seems to be in agreement here. And just as Apple iOS’s autocorrect feature has caused strife for other reasons, people seem to hate that it capitalizes LOL for them. Why is this?

The consensus is that capitalizing LOL is the purview of old people and other e-newbies. And no millennial worth his weight in iPhones wants to be seen in this light. “We get why you people might think it should be capitalized like a normal acronym,” the collective voice of the Internet seems to say, “but you need to get with the program and realize it’s not.” It’s quite interesting that the convention evolved such that this acronym (along with others, like ikr, idk, btw) should be treated quite differently than normal.

What’s going on here? The preference stems from the pervasive practice of writing casual text in all lowercase. Casual text values simplicity and speed, and pressing that shift button is seen as unnecessary. In such environments, sentence starters, proper nouns—even the letter I—tend to be written in lowercase. Given that such acronyms are found almost exclusively in casual contexts, it makes sense that it would need to be written in lowercase as well.

It seems lol is here to stay, and it’s being used in more and more places. It’s crawled from the trenches of Internet subculture to some less-important business emails, which has been quite a journey. I don’t foresee that it’ll go much further, but who knows. In any case, it does seem to be shifting a bit as it goes. For example, I am seeing Lol more and more often: The first L is capitalized when the word begins a sentence; in other words, we see this neographic token in environments where not all orthographic norms are flouted (we relent to capitalize the first letter in each sentence, but no way are we going to capitalize LOL).

On a somewhat unrelated note, you might be interested in the equivalents of lol in other languages.