Mar 2007

The language of the internet

Forgive this trivial rant, but I really hate the use of the word “forums” as the plural of forum. I mean, come on folks, “fora” is a great word! Yet you get weird looks for using it, as though celebrating the richness, beauty and plain weirdness of language was something to look down upon. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not someone who strives to preserve anachronism for its own sake, but replacing something pleasing and a little unusual with something dull and familiar seems to me an entirely legitimate thing to oppose (leastways during the replacement process… afterwards what’s the point? You just get the weird looks). There are those, of course, who defend the word “forums” for those very reasons… it’s familiar, it’s easy, it’s uncomplicated, they say.

Bah! May as well be O’Brien extolling the virtues of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

And the principles of Newspeak are one hundred percent applicable in the forums / fora case. By stripping ‘fora’ from our language, we have narrowed, very slightly, the paths tread by our consciousness. Whenever I heard or used the word “fora” it sparked several instantaneous thought-images every single time. The only word like it that we hear from time to time is “flora”. Which, to me anyway, calls to mind the phrase ‘flora and fauna’. On top of that, the slight oddness of the word forces my mind to consider it as a word. I’m immediately thinking about language itself and its lovely quirks. I’m also transported momentarily to Christian Brothers Latin classes and then further back to ancient Rome.

This all happens in an instant of course, and passes as I hear or use the next words. But for that instant there’s a myriad possibilities to be explored and considered. That doesn’t happen when I read or use the word “forums”. I don’t think of flowers, or of the magnificence of language, or of ancient Rome. All of which – of course – is explained at the end of Orwell’s novel…

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted for once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words […] Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

George Orwell – The Principles of Newspeak

All the same, exposure to the internet has dulled my objection to “forums”. Indeed, now I find myself using it. Occasionally with a slight sense of regret… and the regret will itself call to mind an echo of those pleasing thought-images. But usually just as a matter of routine. Those moments of regret will become fewer and eventually disappear altogether. Because once a word like “forums” has become the de facto standard, attempting to resist it by using the now anachronistic “fora” just makes you look a bit of a twit.

So this is not a call for a return of “fora”. Instead it’s a warning, lest this tendency to boil the English language down to some homogeneous convenient mulch continue further. Resist it, dear reader.

Posted in: Opinion