Home > Random > When will people realise that technology doesn’t wreck language?

When will people realise that technology doesn’t wreck language?


Ok, so shame on me for doing such a short post on Saturday, but Rebecca and I were heading down to Cambridge and I had (literally) about two minutes to type something up before I was being corralled out of the flat… I never even had time to properly tag my post I was that strapped for time.

Anyway, quite a lot has been written about Fiennes’ comments about Twitter (and I’m not even going to try and compete with the brilliant analysis/discussion over the the Language Log, here, here and here), but Fiennes’ comments bely a deeper distrust among certain sections of society on the detrimental impact technology (supposedly) has on language. It speaks more generally of the assumed superiority of the printed form, of the divide between standard and non-standard linguistic markets, and of the decline in the ability of people (usually young people) to express complex ideas or concepts in text (because, after all, how much detail can you squeeze into 140 characters?)

But technology has always been the fall-guy for alleged declines in standards (often without any sort of empirical evidence to support this claim), and historically, we can see a change in peoples’ attitudes towards language standards as new technology is introduced, from text messages (here and here), to the internetinstant messaging, radio (I’m not sure how far tongue in cheek that one is…), and Americans (principally through television and movies). Honestly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out if people moaned about how ‘English is going to the dogs’ once the printing press was introduced to Britain, but my mad research skillz don’t turn anything up (I’m sure they would have though).

But Ralph’s comments should be entirely unsurprising, given that technology is blamed for a whole host of social ills, including making us more lazy, more dumb, more anti-social, and more violent, to name just a few. In spite of the all the positives that come out of embracing and exploiting technology, it’s easier to blame an easily identifiable external ’cause’ (like technology) for all that’s wrong with the world…

Ugh, and it seems every sociolinguist’s favourite linguist, Noam Chomsky, got in on the act a few months ago…

– The Social Linguist

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  1. November 1, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    In my more charitable mood, I suspect that poor Noam was talking “off the cuff” and given the opportunity, he’d probably not be as “anti-Twitter” as he sounded. He is. of course, an easy target these days but I’ d like to think he’s also be interested in analyzing tweets as a form of corpus discourse. It would be fun – and maybe even a conference paper – to collect lots and lots of tweets and subject them to a corpus analysis to track keywords, collocations, and contexts. I did a small (unscientifically small so not even enough to call a “corpus”) collection of my own tweets and tossed them into “WordSmith.” Kind of fun!!

    What’s somewhat ironic – and I think I use the term correctly – is that the news that twitter is killing language has caused more language to be used in the Twitterverse than you might expect if the assertion were true!

  2. November 1, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out if people moaned about how ‘English is going to the dogs’ once the printing press was introduced to Britain, but my mad research skillz don’t turn anything up (I’m sure they would have though).

    When words appear in print, people can look back at them at any time. This means that the people who write those words have no incentive to make them memorable. This encourages stylistic sloppiness, lifeless prose, and and banal phrasing. It is small wonder that the younger generation speak with such little vibrancy.

  3. November 1, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    @Speechdudes. It’s great to see twitter being used as a corpora of data and I’m sure that it will turn up some really interesting developments in English and other languages. I have a colleague at Leicester University who is doing work on hashtags and it’s turning up some interesting results.

    @Dan Thanks for your comment and for reading the blog. I take your point about the permanency of print, but I don’t understand why that doesn’t apply to data on the internet, much of which (like Twitter) can be archived, stored, searched and analysed using established corpus linguistic techniques.

    I definitely don’t agree with your point regarding the fact that the medium of the internet encourages “stylistic sloppiness, lifeless prose, and and banal phrasing”. How are you quantifying such measurements? By whose standards? What kind of qualifying rubric is used? And do you have this attitude because it’s young people (a poorly defined and nebulous concept in itself) who are communicating using this medium? How would you feel if the internet (or Twitter, since it’s not clear whether you’re against the internet or against Twitter, although I believe it would be the latter) was the tool of politicians, social commentators, newsreaders, sports personalities, radio personalities, teachers, educators, lecturers, lawyers, doctors etc etc? Such people use the internet (and Twitter) as well, so would you level the same accusation towards them?

  4. November 1, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    And ok, I realise that when you said “this means that the people who write those words have no incentive to make them memorable” doesn’t actually include a reference to ‘young people’, but when you include the fact that you said ‘it is small wonder that the younger generation speak with such little vibrancy”, I think it’s safe to assume much of what you said at the beginning of your comment also refers to ‘the younger generation’ (if not exclusively, although I take the point that it’s not explicit).

    • November 1, 2011 at 11:24 pm

      Sorry, I wasn’t being clear – the intent was to put together a joke complaint about the printing press in the style commonly used by people who complain that technology is destroying language. I was just imagining that just as people insist that word processing encourages sloppy writing because it makes editing too easy (so you have no incentive to get things right first time) so people might argue that the written word had no incentive to be memorable (because people could go and look it up).

      I should probably have made it clearer, but I didn’t want to be too “d’you see what I did there”.

  5. November 2, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Ooops Dan! Sorry dude, I totally took you *far* too seriously! Thank you for the clarification! 🙂

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