Mondegreen and Modernity

There’s a mindblowing insight early in James Gleick’s “The Information” I wanted to share and fix in my mind:

A mondegreen is not a transistor, inherently modern. Its modernity is harder to explain. The ingredients – songs, words, and imperfect understanding – are all as old as civilization. Yet for mondegreen’s to arise in the culture, and for mondegreen to exist in the lexis, required something new: a modern level of linquistic self-consciousness and interconnectedness. People needed to mishear lyrics not just once, not just several times, but often enough to become aware of the mishearing as a thing worth discussing. They needed to have other such people with whom to share the recognition. Until the most modern times, mondegreens, like countless other cultural or psychological phenomena, simply did not need to be named. Songs themselves were not so common; not heard, anyway, on elevators and mobile phones. The word lyrics, meaning the words of a song, did not exist until the nineteenth century. The conditions for mondegreens took a long time to ripen. Similarly, the verb to gaslight now means “to manipulate a person by psychological mean into questioning his or her own sanity;” it exists only because enough people saw the 1944 film of that title and could assume that their listeners had seen it too. Might not the language Cawdrey spoke – which was, after all, the abounding and fertile language of Shakespeare – have found use for such a word? No matter; the technology for gaslight had not been invented. Nor had the technology for motion pictures.

The lexis is a measure of shared experience, which comes from interconnectedness. The number of users of the language forms only the first part of the equation: jumping in four centuries from 5 million English speakers to a billion. The driving factor is the number of connections between and among those speakers. A mathematician might say that messaging grows not geometrically, but combinatorially, which is much, much faster. “I think of it as a saucepan under which the temperature has been turned up,” Gilliver said. “Any word, because of the interconnectedness of the English-speaking world, can spring from the backwater. And they are still backwaters, but they have this instant connection to ordinary, everyday discourse.” Like the printing press, the telegraph, and the telephone before it, the Internet is transforming the language simply by transmitting information differently. What makes cyberspace different from all other information technologies is its intermixing of scales from the largest to the smallest without prejudice, broadcasting to the millions, narrowcasting to groups, instant messaging one to one.

This comes as quite an unexpected consequence of the invention of computing machinery. At first, that had seemed to be about numbers.

Backing up, “what, in the world, is a mondegreen?  It is a misheard lyric,” coined as such by Sylvia Wright in 1954, in an essay in Harper’s Magazine. Her inspiration, a few weak lines from the important Reliques of Thomas Percy.

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