Tweet, web, cloud: technology transforms meaning of nature words

Tweet, web, stream and cloud may once have evoked the wild outdoors, but they are now predominantly used to describe technology, according to new linguistic research.

A study of datasets of informal conversations from different decades has found that the implied meaning of some common nature words in Britain has almost completely changed in a single generation.

Tweet, web, cloud

The meaning of “tweet” has changed most dramatically, with all mentions of the word in the 1990s referring to birdsong and just one in 100 in the 2010s retaining that natural meaning, with all other usages referring to social media posts.

In the 1990s, seven in 10 mentions of “web” referred to a spider’s web, but in the 2010s less than one in 10 did, with more than nine in 10 meaning the internet. All mentions of “streams” in the 1990s referred to flowing water, but only 36% did so in the 2010s. Branch, net, fibre, field and cloud have also seen their meanings become predominantly commercial or technological.

Dr Robbie Love, a linguistics fellow at the University of Leeds who conducted the study for the National Trust, said: “Language represents what’s important to a culture or society. Nature language being replaced or used less frequently suggests nature potentially becoming less important or being replaced by other things.”

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