Letters from the linguists: technology idioms
by Kathryn Fisher
How does the language we use to describe ourselves change according to technological innovation?
Steam power was a game-changing innovation and the hallmark of the Industrial Revolution. Steam powered great engines that set trains, ships and turbines into motion, but if the steam created too much pressure then there was a danger of explosion. To alleviate the pressure boilers were equipped with “blow-off valves” that prevented explosions by blowing off steam. And there came about the idiom we all know today: to blow off steam. Common usage transformed this literal phrase into a well-known figurative one, meaning to release emotional pressure or energy, mapping the figurative interpretation onto the real-world imagery.
We use idioms every day, sometimes without even realizing it, to describe events, experiences and ourselves. Idioms have well-established figurative meanings that are not deducible from the individual words that construct them, but they were once literal phrases that referred to something physical. We borrow these more tangible visuals to illustrate something less concrete and, frequently, use current innovation as our reference point.
Humans are complex beings that come with a whole set of bewildering emotions. Articulating these emotions can prove rather difficult and, quite frankly, exhausting at times. Real-world mechanics offer us a way of verbalizing the workings of our own brains in a more accessible way. When a new invention comes about, a new way of analogizing ourselves is invented too. Using a physical reference to depict what’s going on in our heads helps us to navigate this grey area and, ultimately, communicate this to others.
In the Digital Era we are more likely to compare ourselves to computers than anything else. When we wish to get away from it all and recharge instead of saying to blow off steam, we tend to opt for its more modern counterpart: to disconnect. Disconnecting can be a difficult feat to achieve when almost all of us are constantly connected to the rest of the world via our phones. Language reflects the society and culture of its time – projecting technology onto ourselves is indicative of our close relationship with it. And, as is becoming more and more true, shows it to be an extension of ourselves.
Parallels between humans and machines will be drawn more and more as technology continues to advance and our affinity with it grows stronger. Artificial intelligence’s ability to process natural human language is the closest technology has come to behaving like humans. As a result, the discourse we use to describe it and us is becoming increasingly interchangeable. Heck, AI even has its own neural networks! But perhaps the true marker of intelligence will be when machines are able to understand and utter figurative language, such as idioms, with the same ease as humans. Until then, I think it’s safe to say we don’t need to blow a gasket at the prospect of these bright sparks stealing our bread and butter.
‘Letters from the linguists’ is a collection of thought-provoking articles about language and new technologies, contributed by Phrasee’s team of AI language technicians.
Phrasee’s language technicians program language generation frameworks to produce marketing copy that’s authentic to a brand’s voice. By combining art with science, and linguistics with artificial intelligence, they build custom language models that optimize marketing performance to drive more revenue for global brands.