Attn: Literati, Illuminati, & Technorati (code 8DKQNHFPA5W9): High Tech as Vowel Shift?


Hardie Karges

I wander through the local Java Joint—in Ubud, Bali—trying to balance a steaming hot cappuccino with the lowered expectations I’ve come to accept as normal for my life.  Ubud has gone bonkers since “Eat Pray Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, that successful prequel to the other book from that guy in Bangkok: “Drink Play F*ck.”   I wish my life would go bonkers.  I could use the income.  I could use the feeling of success.  It could be worse of course.  I pass a forlorn guy with a battered laptop and a look that can only discourage.  He sits with his local girlfriend, he punching keys on a Blackberry™ while she surfs with an Android™.  I can’t help but eavesdrop.

“How you can use that old thing?” she asks.  “You know… very embarrassing.”  She flashes her Samsung Galaxy™ for comparison, accompanied by a mile-wide grin.

He ignores her, nodding like he’s heard all this before.  He notices me, though.

“Hey, brother, could you give me a ‘like’?” he solicits with the look of a dog that’s been kicked.

“Sorry, man, I don’t smoke… unless you’ve got a kretek…”

“No, man; I need a ‘like,’ not a light; you know: FaceBook.  I need it for my blog.”  He points to his Acer™.

I chuckle.  “FaceBook? Are you joking? That’s for old folks.  Haven’t you heard of ShoutOutLoud, CrowdFunned, KickAss or Mayo Mustered Catch-up?  They’ve all got the latest 3-D plug-ins and voice-activated blog posts.  Where have you been?”

The blogger drops his head a notch distinctly lower.  “I used to be a top travel blogger, until Google trashed the Page Ranks of blogs who accepted sponsored posts.  It all went south then. Now I’m stuck.  I’m just trying to get my ‘Likes’ and Twitter followers up enough so I can get of here.  An old tour-operator client said he’d send me on a blogging tour… to the Mexican Riviera.  From there I can hitchhike back home.  I’ve had enough.  The travel blog just doesn’t pay what it used to… not since my girlfriend left.  She was the cute one.  I was the SEO geek.  We had chemistry.”

“Travel blogger, eh?  Too bad,” I sympathize.  “I remember Twitter.”  It was then that I noticed the Obama 2012 bumper sticker on his trusty old Acer, along with others reading “Rock Coachella” and “Occupy Wall Street.”  How long had this guy been here?  Then I noticed the full beard framing his dejected face, counting the years like disembodied tree rings in an old-growth forest.  There but for the grace of God…


It’s just a hypothetical situation, of course, set some time, oh, maybe, five years in the future, but maybe not so far-fetched as it first seems.  The point is: is technology sexy in and of itself, and the benefits it brings, or is technology sexy because it allows some people to think they’re ahead of the game?  It’s all happened before… over and over and over.  They (the conspiratorial ‘they’) change the rules of the game—language, mostly—and those who can’t talk NewSpeak get left behind, for no other reason than that that seems to be human nature, a hierarchy of souls, so to speak, or a class-consciousness of the ego, if not the conscience.  Is that our fate as humans, to leave other people behind in order to push our selves forward?  If you can’t discuss iPhone apps, are you a second-class citizen?


For the English, the previously biggest threshold was the Great Vowel Shift, usually attributed to the 14th or 15th century, but in fact occurring over a longer period of time, even until the present day.  What is the Great Vowel Shift?  For the uninitiated, it is the transformation of pre-Shift Latin-based vowels, the long ones, into diphthongs and other hitherto unrecognizable forms, which not everyone took to, at least not right away (consonants have their own history; originally ‘right’ would have been a highly logical richt-like pronunciation no doubt).  Short vowels, unknown in Latin, remained largely faithful to the original.  Those who neglected the new forms marginalized themselves.


That is the main reason that Chaucer is barely legible—and clearly medieval—in his native middle English, language of the common people, and Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, written only 200 years later, are read and performed to this day with little need for transcription.  That is the reason that country-folk and low-lifes still to this day pronounce ‘my’ as ‘me,’ which is the original, more Latin-like, and exactly the same as modern Spanish.  That is why the Scottish Loch has to be re-spelled for modern pronunciations when the original ‘lake’ would have been pronounced exactly that way in its original French.  The Old English Germanic term probably would’ve been something more like mire, pronounced ‘meer.’  Anybody got a copy of the OE?


Actually orthography is the great casualty here, and has left modern English as something of a spelling-bee’s train-wreck, totally lacking in laws or logic.  Other languages have undergone similar pronunciation changes and have orthographic changes to confirm it.  English was not so lucky, with more junk DNA there than a drunk sailor’s dirty drawers.  What no one can explain is why all of this happened.  The rationale seems obvious, though, and at least one theory concurs with mine: as French fell out of favor as the prestige language, English had to be upgraded to resist the expanding democracy of thought and learning, which would have been the initial effect of the demise of French and Latin.  Those who missed the cut were left behind, and England was left with a hereditary class system that it can’t shake even to the present day.


Are we doing the same with technology, and the changes in lifestyle—and language—and economic status—that it brings?  Are we relegating whole classes of society to second-class status by virtue of simple lifestyle choices?  I hope not.  I need that guy out there tossing turnips in the truck.  He has knowledge I may need someday…soon.  Properly utilized, increased political participation is the great promise of technology, after all.  Otherwise there is nothing inherently better about technology, really.   It is simply a lifestyle choice…and a very compelling one.  When do we get free universal WiFi?  When do we get true democracy?  That’s what I want to know…

Hardie Karges is the of “Hypertravel: 100 Countries in 2 Years” and “Backpackers & Flashpackers,” a series of guides to world hostels.