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Technology and language: What changes, what doesn't

Gerard Van Herk
Department of Linguistics
Memorial University of Newfoundland

2014-02-24

A widely held belief among language pundits and much of the general public is that technology is exerting a dramatic effect on language, generally for the worse. It's easy to see where such an idea might come from – those of us who work with language and/or technology regularly see new words and expressions surface and spread around the world with remarkable speed. But empirical research suggests that core areas of language change very slowly, and that technology plays a peripheral role at best.

The idea that language is getting worse, or that standards are slipping, has been around for a long time. Sociolinguists James and Lesley Milroy (1985) associate this with a widespread "complaint tradition" in which believers assume that language (and manners, and other social traits) used to be perfect at some ill‑defined earlier time, and that everything's gone downhill thanks to music, or rowdy youth, or slack teachers, or, frequently, new technology. In fact, language changes very slowly, beyond often‑ephemeral slang or words for new entities. A change in the English pronunciation of wh‑ words (so that whale and wail now sound the same) has taken generations to approach completion (Chambers 2002). And many apparently recent changes have been around for centuries – research by Shana Poplack and colleagues at the University of Ottawa shows that deletion of ne (as in J'sais pas for Je ne sais pas) was already near total in the speech of Quebeckers born in the 1850s.

It seems that people have feared the pernicious effects of technology for a long time: an anonymous author writing in the 1850s predicted that British dialects would soon disappear, thanks to the then‑new technology of steam trains and the telegraph. (Train travel would presumably lead to more face‑to‑face contact between speakers of dialects and the standard language, so that assumption is not too far‑fetched. But it's hard to imagine the linguistic influence of the telegraph… perhaps earlier generations of young people sent Morse code "LOL" messages?) In fact, dialects are alive and well today, although often with slightly different linguistic features and geographic boundaries than those of two centuries ago.

Why, then, is the assumption that language changes due to technology – especially due to mass media – so widespread? Several culprits can be identified. Journalists love stories about language, their bread and butter, and really love stories about the influence of electronic media. Educators and educational policy‑makers have long hoped for cheap and easy technological fixes for problems of language learning and literacy (Sesame Street originally started largely to address perceived and largely illusory deficits in the language of working‑class children). In practice, though, traditional electronic media like radio and television have had little effect on language. Language change is driven by interaction, and traditional media is too one‑way.

Given those facts, readers might wonder about the effect of the Internet and its relatives on language use. Contemporary technologies are far more interactive than earlier media, and some technologies (such as instant messaging or Twitter) do impose linguistic constraints. Research to date (e.g., Baron 2003, Tagliamonte & Denis 2008) suggests little effect so far. Instead, online language use reflects users' existing language variation. What online language use does affect is what users know about language: today's youth are much more aware of the social and stylistic uses and meanings of different genres and language types, and are able to discuss them using metalinguistic terms like meme and trope. Our own research (Van Herk & OIP 2006) into online subcultures suggests that users are able to manipulate this knowledge (and their language use) to situate themselves with respect to other subcultures (for example, young online nerds avoid gender‑stereotyped forms, even more than their parents' generation, suggesting that they are engaged in conscious identity creation practices through language).

It remains possible that interactive technologies will eventually have an effect on actual language use, beyond the superficial, through an intermediate effect on linguistic attitudes. Users' metalinguistic awareness is fed by ideologically‑rich representations of the speech of others – comedy shows like the Simpsons and sites like Engrish.com stigmatize the English of non‑native or dialect speakers, presumably leading users to develop or solidify negative views of the language features involved, and try to remove them from their speech. And technology is also exerting an effect on how we study language, allowing researchers access to far more data and far more sophisticated analytical tools.

So perhaps we will need to re‑examine the question in 50 years!

References

Baron, Naomi. 2003. Why email looks like speech: Proofreading pedagogy and public face. In Jean Aitchison & Diana M. Lewis (eds.), New Media Language, 85‑94. London: Routledge.

Chambers, J.K. 2002. Dynamics of dialect convergence. Journal of Sociolinguistics (6), 117‑130.

Milroy, James, & Milroy, Lesley. 1985. Authority in language: Investigating language prescription and standardisation. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Poplack, Shana, & St‑Amand, Anne. 2007. A real‑time window on 19th century vernacular French: The Récits du français québécois d'autrefois. Language in Society (36), 707‑734.

Tagliamonte, Sali A., & Denis, Derek. 2008. Linguistic ruin? LOL! Instant messaging and teen language. American Speech (83:1), 3‑34.

Van Herk, Gerard, & the Ottawa Intensifier Project. 2006. That's so tween: Intensifier use in on‑line subcultures. NWAV 35, Columbus, OH, Nov. 9‑12.