Friday, September 14, 2007

Language, Contextualization, and the Web

So the other night, to relax after my evening communication theory class, I picked up C. S. Lewis's Studies in Words. Especially since we'd just been talking about contextualization of meaning, I was fascinated when he drew attention to the power of context to help us understand a word's meaning (p. 19-21).

The idea was that if you said "her philosophy is poor," and had no context, you might think it meant that she had a bad philosophy of life, but if it was admittance counselors for grad school looking at a transcript, they might be speaking of her grades in a philosophy class.

I've always loved this sort of thing--it's these delightful ambiguities in language that make it so delightful (while at times frustrating) to write using it.

Thinking of it in the context of the Web, though, I was fascinated by the potential ramifications of this medium for language. Specifically, it brought home to me why writing up navigation bar wording was always so frustrating for me--if you're forced to state a big concept for your web visitors into a single word or two, you're not trying to be poetic with multiple meanings, so you have to think of all the ways that word can be read and misread, because the person could have found the page from anywhere or could have been searching using an entirely different mindset.

Linguistic contexts, in other words, are to a certain extent challenged by the Web. Sure, if there's a navigation item, there's a certain amount of context from the other items and from the page, and if you're unsure of it, you always can click to find out more of the context through the destination page, but no one's going to click on everything to find out what's behind it, and without doing that, navigating the Web can be like overhearing a bunch of snippets of conversations without knowing what the speakers are talking about. That's not entirely a bad thing or an entirely new thing, but it's fascinating to think about what this new widespread application of it might be doing to language and the way we read, write, and understand it.

Except, wait--if actually relevant, links can not only add that context back in, they can add richness to the context. That richness was there in reference and academic books in the form of footnotes, citations, and bibliographies, but it's fascinating that it's been brought to another genre.

Both aspects are true, actually: words on the Web are both contextualized less and contextualized more than they are, say in an academic article. Wonder what Lewis would have thought of it.

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