Permalinks, Ensparbulation, Etc.

“Bookmark the permalink” says a link at the end of all posts on Chronicle blogs—an injunction absolutely nobody would have understood a few years ago. There is no sign of the word permalink existing from the origins of English down to the end of 2005. It was a word as yet uncoined for a notion all but inconceivable. Now it’s casually assumed to be meaningful to everyone. Lexical change in human languages can be fast.

The conceptual breakthrough that spawned the possibility of unidirectional hypertext links came around 1990. Unidirectional links don’t call for mutual agreement or action. I can link to a file in your possession without you having a role in the process. All I need is to know exactly where it is on the Web. You get no vote in the matter.

From the moment unidirectional hypertext links were available, it was possible in principle to conceive of a link that would hook permanently to a piece of text so that a daily updated link for a front page or cover sheet could move on to point to more recent content. And such a link—a permanently assigned unidirectional hypertext link—was then a candidate for having a one-word name. It didn’t yet have one, though: Nothing about the World Wide Web really got going until well after the Mosaic browser was released in 1993.

Tracking the history of the word permalink on Google Trends shows it exploding into use at the beginning of 2006. It has had just five and a half years of use. In 2005 the number of English speakers who knew it would have been almost exactly zero. (I assume there was just a small circle of people in techie circles who used it amongst themselves and thinking about introducing it more widely. But even their friends and family would probably not have known the word.) Less than five years later The Chronicle can casually assume that you know exactly what it means and what to do with it.

The lesson I want to draw is this. Nearly all laypeople believe that human languages are simply big bags of words, but that is a disastrously inadequate understanding of what languages are really like. Standard English has hardly changed at all in its structure over the last three or four centuries; the historical and geographical stability of the main outlines of its grammar is astonishing. Yet its vocabulary changes every day. Never confuse a language with its current stock of lexical items.

Knowing English is a matter of controlling a system within which words can be deployed in a norm-governed way. Master that system, and you can understand sentences even if the words in them are unfamiliar to you.

If I tell you that all the quemmicks have been sparbulated by a dortfracket, you know I’ve told you something in English. And you actually know what it is. You know I’ve said that a dortfracket has sparbulated the quemmicks. You can assume that unsparbulated quemmicks are thus likely to be in short supply, and it’s because of some dortfracket’s actions. Not that you have a clue what quemmicks or dortfrackets are, or what ensparbulation amounts to, but those are not questions about English.

English doesn’t reside in its word stock. That’s why the emergence of new words doesn’t render a language unintelligible, and wouldn’t even if they were imported in large numbers. It’s one reason the ravings of Matthew Engel represent such a silly point of view. You could add thousands of new words for quemmicks and dortfrackets and ensparbment-related paraphernalia, and the character of the English language would not be altered by one iota.

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