Is Technology Killing Language???

Just read Feed by M. T. Anderson.  Here’s one of the questions our instructor raised about Anderson’s views on technology and how it has come to influenced language, followed by my response.  Coming from a linguistics background, this is fascinating stuff to me!

My library doesn’t own a copy of Feed. I still recommend the book to mature 8th graders and tell them that they can find a copy at the public library. Perhaps I am a wimp but I don’t want to see the headline “Book with 3,657 F-Bombs Found in RMS Media Center” in the local paper. Yet for me, Anderson’s use of language is his most brilliant vision of a dismal future. I have noticed that for some middle schoolers, the ability to distinguish between formal language (the type you need to write a paper or email a professor) and informal language (the type you text-message or write on Facebook) has all but disappeared for many of them. Think about the language—not only the abundant use of profanity but also the slang and the short phrases with simple words—and consider the implications of a future whereby language is largely reduced to monosyllabic phrases. Do you think Anderson is right about how technology is influencing language?

When I was a graduate student in Linguistics 12 years ago, I remember a sociolinguistic professor asking us this exact same question — how do we see technology influencing language?  At the time, the Internet was still in its toddler-hood — web pages are just coming out of their monochromatic and hyperlink-only phase and email and ICQ were the newest way to communicate.  Even then, our professor had noticed that his incoming undergraduates were turning in papers without punctuation and littered with abbreviated words.  Many sentences were run-on sentences or incomplete, reflecting the “new” way teens and young adults were “speaking” online.  This trend has continued to this day…except seemingly at a higher rate.  As Nicholas Carr’s Google article and NPR interview on The Shallows point out, the Internet has trained us to read and process short pieces of information, skim and scan, and to expect many distractions in the meantime.  It’s taught us that in order to retain the attention span of our audience, we need to keep things short and concise.  I think maybe this is how a lot of us, especially younger people who were born into the digital age — come to write like that.

Some linguists will call this language decay/deterioration, but others will say this is a natural part of language change (Old English scholars probably consider even the most proper of modern English an abomination).  In his Ted Talk, “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”, John McWhorter calls this development of a whole new language a linguistics miracle.  His main points are that 1) writing and language (speech) are two very different things, and 2) whereas before we could “speak like we write” (for example, when we read from a prepared speech), modern technology today has allowed us to “write like we speak”, with the “writing” that emerges resembling the loose, unstructured patterns that linguists observe in natural, casual speech.  He adds that texting has come to develop its own set of rules too, so it, in fact, follows conventions and has complexities like any other language. On whether this is evidence that technology is causing the decline of the language, McWhorter shows several examples from scholars from as early as 63A.D. lamenting the fact that the language was in dire straits, since the youngsters at the time could neither spell nor punctuate.  These problems existed long before the emergence of technology!

What do you think!?!

Here’s Nicholas Carr’s Google article and NPR interview:

To see John McWhorter’s Ted Talk:


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