A few weeks ago, we talked about how the rise of computing, a field wherein English is the primary language, is affecting smaller languages, and more specifically, the Dutch language (because that’s my native tongue). Of course, it’s not just the smaller languages that are affected – English, too, experiences the pressure.
We have to talk about something called camel case. Camel case, as the name vaguely suggests, refers to the practice of using capital letters for elements in compound words or phrases – like iPod, PowerPoint, or WordPerfect. You also see a lot of camel case in names, such as MacGuyer or McDonald’s.
Not too long ago, this was a practice quite frowned upon. Up until 1999, The New York Times only allowed for one stray capital letter, but only if the second element of a compound was a proper noun. For instance, somewhere in the 1950s, the Bank of America dropped the “of” and became BankAmerica, which was allowed by The New York Times. From 1999 onwards, The New York Times allowed up to three stray capitals, and today, we are instructed to just follow the whim of corporations.
Camel case quickly took off from the 1950s onwards, mostly because of the rise of computing. There are a number of different theories as to why camel case became so prevalent in the computing industry especially, and many claim it has something to do with the limited space programmers had to write identifiers. The small size of displays in the early days of computing may have played a role too.
In any case, it didn’t take long for camel case to spread like wildfire. CompuServe, WordPerfect, NetWare, ClarisWorks, HyperCard, PowerPoint, ThinkPad, and so on, and so forth. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Apple decided to take it all to a whole new level with their iMac, iPod, eMac, iPhone, and all the other i-somethings that the rest of the industry copied.
In fact, I’m currently involved in a silent and lonely struggle concerning the name of this very website – a struggle vaguely related to the issue of camel case. Certain individuals (you know who you are) are secretly trying to change “OSNews” and “OSN” into “OSnews” and “OSn”. These certain individuals argue that this is the way our logo is written, and that we should respect that. I say to hell with our logo – common sense dictates that our name is OSNews. In fact, I’m starting a
secret counter movement to preserve the proper and traditional way of writing our name. I’d even prefer “OS News”, but I’m willing to let go of the space.
When it comes to camel case, it isn’t actually the capital letters that are the issue. It’s actually all about word spacing, or more specifically, about how corporations think it’s cool not to use word spacing. Apparently, someone in a dusty marketing room decided that camel case was cool, and the entire world just kind of ran with it.
Caleb Crain of The New York Times draws an interesting parallel between today’s camel case and ancient Greek and Latin. Most of you are probably aware of the fact that the ancient versions of these two languages did not use word spacing at all. More specifically, ancient Greek didn’t use them, and Latin ceased to use them by the second century. This may make reading more difficult, but that wasn’t a problem since readability was not a goal of the ancients.
Back then, reading wasn’t a strictly private matter as it is today. There were few books, and few people could read anyway so that wasn’t a problem. Those who could read were supposed to read aloud and commit entire texts to memory; I even learnt the rhythm in which they did this in Latin/Greek school (I envy those who didn’t). In short, reading was a public act – not a private one.
Spaces in Latin and Greek texts didn’t start coming back into fashion until somewhere around the 8th century. Monks and clerics had a lot of troubles with ancient texts without spaces, and as such they were added back in to make it easier for them to copy these texts. As a very important side effect, this made it possible for them to copy these texts in silence. In fact, people noted that reading became easier for everyone if you used spaces.
This was a major shift. For the first time, reading became something you could do in silence, as a private thing. You could read texts without anyone ever knowing you did, because you read silently. You might be able to see how this subtle shift made a whole lot of things possible – it caused a psychological shift. “Psychologically, silent reading emboldened the reader,” paleographer Paul Saenger explains, “because it placed the source of his curiosity completely under his personal control.”
Consequently, you could argue, says Crain, that camel case is not something new and modern, but in fact harks back to a time in which reading was “effortful, public and loud – like a visit to a contemporary shopping mall”. I’m sure you can see the link here, right?
“Perhaps camel case, like intrusive music, baffling floor plans and aggressive fragrances, is deployed to weary and bewilder us, to render us so addled that we have to say corporations’ trademarks aloud to be sure of what we’re looking at,” Crain argues, “It doesn’t have to be this way. Put some distance between you and your Master Card; don’t let your Iphone make the rules. You don’t have to buy their language. It already belongs to you.”