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Words are funny things.

Haphazard, abstract, profound, silly, shape shifting, infinitely playful, confounding, eternally powerful and utterly malleable. Language is a remarkable technology.

Glyphs, scratches and symbolic signing of sounds eventually dragged kicking and screaming into some vaguely coherent order that ticks a few syntactical boxes and language rules and shazzam! the fun begins.

Suddenly these scatters and blocks of marks, letters and symbolic sounds forge themselves into desires expressed, thoughts formed, theories expounded, opinions offered, information fixed, stories told and dreams captured. Sounds cut into the wax cylinder of our minds and played out through sharp stone point, stylus, quill and nib onto cloth, wood, parchment, stone and flax.

And our eyes scan across them and our tongues run along them like a needle in a vinyl groove, transforming them into the sound of speaking.

As time has marched the expression of our expression has been altered by the nature of how we generate the text. We have hopped skipped and jumped from painful rendering every letter by hand over vast tracts of time, illuminated by curlicues, cartoons, motifs and scenes – and the silent furious industry of re-rendering the same again and again for the benefit of a rare few – to carved crafted blocks to be set in lines, paragraphs and pages – inked rolled and pressed into sheets to be shared and distributed amongst the many.

Technology elevates technology as the presses become mechanised and the inks become jets. Vast universal printed broadsheets supplemented by the intimate particular of typing machines that throw metal letters through ink ribbons onto pages layered with carbons for multiple copies. Until the binary marks of programmes on a different ribbon digitised everything at the speed of light.

So we now find ourselves with the ability to use these marks and symbols at the speed of swipe and type in real time to fire them across the world via networks and platforms.

Yes the books still fill shelves and the magazines still scatter coffee tables. But they have become the paper monoliths of what was. The  printed word and how we consume it versus how we consume its digital cousin have become fundamentally different.

For your words to be ‘in print’ still carries a deeper value. Words on a physical printed page feel more meaningful, eternal, immortal. They are the Easter Island Statues of the written word. Their digital counterparts the writing in the sand on the beach.

The way new technologies have gamified they way we think and more importantly the way we express those thoughts through writing enables a very particular kind of playfulness rooted in eclectic multidirectional multi channel distribution. The Ephemeral Passing nature of the txt blog tweet and the written content of the live in-flow constant beta site allows everyone to ‘play’ – text as balls to be lobbed tossed kicked, rolled and scattered in every direction, only to return transformed, tweaked, built upon liked loved berated and bludgeoned.

The creativity inherent in the technology of language and subsequently in the technology we use to generate language in flow seems to have two forms when it comes to words and how we express ourselves with them.

Creativity is still as much about liberating expression as it is about liberating distribution. Language as a technology has been tinkered and played with by everyone from the lowest order to the highest mind since the technology was invented. Derivation. Disruption. Disorder. All of these traits have been alive in the spoken and written language since its inception.

New technology does not advance innovation. It accelerates our ability to unpack and play with the given wisdoms and expressions to seek something new and different. This is the fuel of innovation – new technology merely the accelerator.  And the role of language in innovation and technology’s ability to accelerate it is remarkable.

Word play – a lightness of spirit and a subversive nature in regards to language – has always enjoyed turning the given rules upside down and back to front – messing with words and language because we can – as a mark of our individual nature and curiosity.

Thats why vernaculars and slang and idiom are so important to individuals – and why corporate language is so disliked avoided and derided by ordinary people. Corporate language and ‘speak’ smacks of an Order of the Few inflicted on the Spirit of the Many.

It is an intellectual door policy – if you ain’t got a ticket you can’t come in – the bouncer on the door of the exclusive club.

Ordinary people like to own and share the language they use to express their most individual selves, in their own way on their own terms. They reserve the right to speak as they wish, express in the manner they feel most comfortable with.

It is unsurprising that fads and trends especially in the highly socialised accelerated age see @everything and #anything already running out of steam. This is not due to the academics deriding them. It is mainly due to ‘rules’ being applied. A new higher order or High Priest of Digital Expression has risen out of the chaos – defining rules of use and relevance. Thankfully it spikes the oldest of human responses. Dissent.

Rules? #myarse.

The intellectualisation of language will always occur while the human nature of assertion and pursuit of social exclusivity remains. We simply can’t help ourselves.

Language gets used to include and exclude. It always has and it always will in some shape or form. It is a tool in our tendency to assert and control. You’re not in our club. How you order sentences. How you punctuate. How you correct and edit yourself. How you use common signifiers of expression. Words and language are the cutlery of expression. How you use your knife speaks volumes about you. And there will always be those that use it against you.

BUT.

If thats the case, I say fill your boots. Subvert at every opportunity. Break a language rule everyday. Smash the shackle.

Start with fridge magnets and madness. before you take one step towards the workplace, make some shit up out of a load of words on the fridge. Set your mind free. Gobbledegook is good for the soul. Have a BFG day. Using phantasmapoppingful words. Go Yoda and reorder a sentence – like someone’s put a Germanic grammar filter on your English. Pop some nonsense in a sensical world. Embrace puns at every opportunity.

And if you’re in business – especially one that involves speaking to ordinary people – use pub speak in board meetings. Ask a 70 and a 7 year old to edit the CEOs keynote. And see the tyrannical use of language for what it is. An ugly veneer behind which mediocrity and insecurity can often lurk.

If you are working with multiple nationalities there has to be some common ground. But at least allow every one to bring a little of their own cultural idiom into the room before you set out on some highly controlled over strung and soul-less corporate conversation. Allow their free mind out as a matter of course. Build a ‘Sling Some Slang’ into every meeting. Allow each nationality to ‘play’ in their own language and share it. You will be far more likely to find yourself with human beings in the room. Much more helpful to collaboration and co creation.

Innovation starts with language and how it is used and embraced. Rote cultures create Rote people. And innovation and creativity withers on the vine. The confidence to ‘mess’ with language shows an ability to break from the norm, to turn something upside down and the wrong way around to take a different view. Mistakes are the fuel of invention. Failure is a central tenet of Kaizen. We should embrace failings in language. Before dispensing with them, check to see if there is anything good hidden in there.

So can everything be chaos and subversion? No. Like anarchy, it only exists meaningfully if there is a counterpoint to it to keep it relevant and focused. If everyone is an anarchist. Their is no anarchy. Just conformity.

A perfect example of deconstructive/destructive language play was to be found in a conversation I had with a friend of mine. Both utterly child-like far to often, we found ourselves discussing Purpose and Purposeful businesses and the manner in which this word has been taken and chiseled into a corporate straight jacket. It has lost its original profundity; replaced with a pompous self-righteousness. We found ourselves having to use ‘cod’ Noo Yawker accents to continue the conversation with any feeling.

So Purpose became Poiypuss. What! Who knoo! Badda bing badda boom. I gotta poiypuss ‘n’ I’m gonna use it.

Cue more cod accenting until eventually Blackadder and the Prince and The Porpoise sketch prevailed. And so Purpose became Porpoise.

Happiness.

PORPOISE. The prefect name for an agency that believes deeply in Purpose but with a profound dislike for the way in which it has been hijacked; made humourless, confined, dislocated; rendered inhuman and spiritless.

Porpoise. Creating Purpose with a difference: purpose with a human touch. Nice logo. Disney meets Vector with a scattering of fun.

Ridiculous. perhaps. But I do have evidence that this childlike view of the world can sometimes create breakthroughs in communication and engagement.

In a recent project – Socialising the Genome – I worked with Dr Anna Middleton to try and unpack the arcane language of Genomic science and the impenetrable academic and clinical terminology it uses when speaking to ordinary people. The objective? To be able to engage with a greater number of ordinary people around the benefits of GENOMIC science and data gathering to improve individual and collective health care.

We found that in almost every qualitative research group people had a tendency to drop the first E in GENOME, and quickly deconstruct it into something far more friendly and more palatable and less scary. GNOME.

So the massed intellect, discovery and genius at work in the world of GENOMIC science and discovery – and the gateway to understanding our most precious personal selves and the data that defines it – was enshrined in a picture of a small bearded man with a fishing rod. Cue Double Helix fish and chats about fishing in our DNA for answers – and the idea that sometimes that fishing just comes up with an old shopping trolley and river bed junk. And sometimes with something more remarkable and enlightening.

So language – a beautiful technology accelerated by newer ones. But it is not sacrosanct. It demands that we flex with it, play with it, mess it up, test its edges. Because in doing so we test our selves and the ideas we have – and through it we find new iterations and expressions.

Which is a good thing, No?

 

LANGUAGE NOTE: My use of No? at the end of the final sentence is in homage to the idioms of the French “…, nest pas?”, the Spanish “…, No?”, the Scandinavian “…, Nej? and the Glaswegian “know whit ah mean, big man, no?” and ending one’s sentence with an upward inflection “No?”.

And because it really, really irritates purists – as does the doubling up of adverbs like ‘really’.

 

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