- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 21/02/2011
- a curious lacuna, language, Linguistics, technology, Translation
There is a curious disconnect in the English language which has only opened itself up in recent decades. It is connected to the new electronic media, above all social networks, and it has to do with the transferal of certain types of information between individuals.
Prior to the internet, if we had a document or a photo which we wanted to give to someone else, we said ‘I’ll send it to you’. This was appropriate because it was exactly what happened: you took the item in question, put it in an envelope and posted it. The verb ‘send’ has had this meaning since the first days of the postal system.
With email, things became a little more complicated. Of course, you still ‘send’ things by email, but there is a slight ambiguity in saying ‘I’ll send it to you’, because we still automatically connect the verb ‘send’ with snail mail. If it isn’t clear from the context that the speaker is referring to email, we find ourselves obliged to specify what we mean in one of three ways.
The first is ‘I’ll send it to you by/via email’, which is perhaps not an adequate solution, in the sense that it takes a (relatively) long time to say, not to mention the fact that any action that we perform regularly should really have a verb all for itself. The second option is thus the rather inelegant transformation of the noun ’email’ into the verb ’email’: ‘I’ll email it to you later’ (c.f. ‘I’ll fax it to you’, ‘I’ll FEDEX it to you’).
This second option has the virtue of being shorter, but still doesn’t flow as easily as it might. Perhaps this is because it is almost always used in the future tense (‘I’ll email’) which is somewhat tricky to get out.
Thirdly, you will sometimes hear people trying to use ‘attach’, as in ‘I’ll attach it to you’, which sounds almost as forced as the egregious ‘I’ll c.c. you.’
In any case, ‘I’ll email it to you’ seems to have become the de facto way to transfer documents or images via email.
But with the rise of the social networks, as so often happens, technology has outstripped language. Imagine that you are watching a YouTube video which someone posted on your Facebook wall; someone comes into the room, catches the end of it and expresses an interest. What do you say? ‘I’ll post it on your wall’? ‘I’ll give it to you via Facebook’? Some similar situations: you have a file on your computer. You are offline. Your colleague needs the file. Do you say ‘I’ll copy it onto a USB and give it to you that way’? You are under twenty five and therefore don’t use email for anything other than work. You want to send your friend some pictures. Do you tell her ‘I’ll send you them via Facebook’ or opt for the abominable ‘I’ll Facebook you them’? And what do you do when you transfer files via Skype or Dropbox?
Clearly, all of these actions are manifestations of the same basic process, the transferal of digital information, generally from one computer to another. Ideally, there would be a verb which covers all these situations, and could then be clarified if necessary by appending the relevant channel (‘…on Facebook’, ‘…through Dropbox’, ‘…via Tumblr’).
In Spanish, this curious disconnect never happened, due to the marked promiscuity of the verb ‘pasar’. This verb is related to the English ‘to pass’, but encompasses more possible shades of meaning. From the first days of email, people have been saying ‘te lo paso’ [I’ll pass it to you], and each subsequent development in the digital world has been seamlessly integrated into this use of ‘pasar’: te lo paso [por Facebook/a traves de Skype/con USB]. The great thing about this is that it evokes quite clearly the fact that all digital information is fundamentally the same sort of thing, and what differs is only the method of transferral.