According to a recent news article, thanks to Internet magic, online companies can identify hyperlocal vocabulary, which might have an impact on language usage and the development of tomorrow’s vocabulary.
Yelp, the popular online search and review site, now has a feature on its site called Wordmaps, which shows visitors the concentration of use of certain words in certain geographical areas as small as city intersections. (The service, as of this writing, is limited to eighteen words used in a dozen American and Canadian cities, plus London and Paris, but it’s certain to expand its linguistic and geographical scope.)
What are the ramifications of such a surgically specific service? Think of the possibilities for advertising and marketing: Anyone will be able to search a neighborhood, city, or region to determine the relative prominence of certain words. Real estate agents can note the prevalence of Yelp reviews that mention great restaurants, exciting shopping opportunities, superior schools, and sophisticated cultural experiences. Cities, counties, and states can attract prospective residents and tourists by publicizing the incidence of inhabitant- and visitor-friendly keywords. Businesses in general can take advantage of such data to encourage customers and clients to flock to certain places.
Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? I’m not passing judgment on it; I just find it interesting, although it’s simply a more technologically sophisticated way of selling a locale — something people have been doing since the dawn of civilization (and perhaps earlier).
Here’s what interests me: This kind of tool will also have an impact on our language — not necessarily a sea change, but something worth commenting on. People who are more technologically savvy will be more likely to employ this type of service and its offshoots. Technologically savvy people are more likely to drive social and cultural change. Thus, Yelp’s Wordmaps and similar tools are likely to accelerate adoption of slang and trendy locutions, to raise the profile of some words and phrases and speed the obsolescence of others.
Again, this is nothing new, but the way it is accomplished — and the speed with which it might be accomplished — is new. It’s analogous to any form of information dissemination: Think of how alphabets, the printing press, journalism, telegraphy, telephony, radio, television, and the Internet, in turn, each revolutionized the way we communicate, introducing new terms and concepts faster and more widely than ever before. Yelp’s Wordmaps is another chapter in that story.
Will it have an effect on your professional or personal writing? To some extent, it will — but whether it’s measurable or noticeable remains to be seen. However, if you’re in the business of selling — and if you write professionally, you are — you might want to keep an eye on this new technology.