December 13, 2013

Goodby to th lttr “E”

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The letter "E": so 2004.

The letter “E”: so 2004.

Last week, Wired ran an obituary for the letter “E”, in which Joshua David Stein claims that the letter has become almost obsolete and completely unfashionable in the internet age.

It may be surprising to some to learn of E’s fall from grace: email, e-commerce, ebook are all words that have in recent history relied on the letter to keep them relevant. Such words have flaunted their new prefixes as a way to set themselves apart from their past, old-fashioned selves (see in particular the “book’s” apparent fall from grace.)

But as Stein writes:

Long considered one of the most influential letters in the Roman alphabet, at the turn of the century E had originally been heralded as the signal letter in the digital world. But in recent years, the letter had suffered a series of debilitating setbacks that closely correlated with the rise of online applications. It died May 20, 2013.

The primary experts that Stein cites are not, as one might expect, linguists but rather the founders of tech companies. When in 2004 Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake founded Flickr, they realized their desired domain name was already taken, and it was then that they decided, rather than changing their chosen word, they would change the principles of the English language itself:

 “The most compelling reason to remove the E was that we were unable to acquire the domain Flicker.com … The rest of the team were more in favor of other options, such as ‘FlickerIt’ or ‘FlickerUp’ but somehow, through persuasion or arm-twisting, I prevailed.”

Editorial Director of Tumblr, Christopher Price, had different reasons for forsaking the “E”, each one more absurd than the next:

1. branding considerations

2. environmental factors (fewer letters mean lower power consumption by our servers)

3. stupidity: “At the end of the day, however, it all comes down to one simple, absolute truth: Tumbler.com looks fucking stupid.”

Branding, the environment, and cool-factor are not quite new influences on language evolution. They contain echoes of how languages have been shaped by invading nations and large empires (of which tech companies are surely modern examples) as well as demonstrating how the adoption of new types of speech for reasons of pride and claim-staking are modern version of what humans have always done. We’re dropping vowels to show how innovative we are; we’re dropping vowels to show this new territory is ours for the making is no different to historical examples of adoption and change: we’re speaking French to show how educated we are; we’re speaking English to show how England is better than France.

The linguist David Crystal, who Stein cites in the article, believes the letter “E” had this fate coming for some time:

“What you are seeing is a very natural process – the omission of the letter in final unstressed syllables before /r/, is something that has been a feature of written English since Anglo-Saxon times…Gather’ in Old English was spelled both ‘gaderian’ and ‘gadrian,’ for example.”

Interesting, but doesn’t he mean “Gathr”, the brand-new service that allows you to bring the movies you want to a venue near you?

While these changes might be reflective of how the formation and use of language has always been in flux, the giving over of language to the purposes of commerce has never been so aggressive. Georges Perec composed his lipogrammatic novel La disparition without the use of the letter “E”, which meant that words such mère and frère, mother and father, would be impossible, highlighting a void and an absence both of the author and his origins. Compare these considerations with that of Lockhart Steele, founder of something called Curbed:

 “You take out the E from your company name, and you increase the valuation by millions.”

and Esther Dyson, a venture capitalist:

“Being E-free distinguishes you from the run-of-the-mill vowel-infested world.”

 

Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.

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