Technology’s role in the demise of the English language

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The English language is dying.

I know that languages evolve over time and that change is inevitable, but I would say the vast majority of people in England do not write (or even speak) good English. Witness the number of signs with mis-placed apostrophes (e.g. HGV’s use next entrance) – and one of my recent customers even has painted markings on the surface of their car park which suggest walkers possess that particular area (i.e. pedestrian’s).

My own English is far from perfect; but I can blame that on being a child of the 1970s and 1980s who had a state school education. I remember one teacher at my middle school who was so frustrated as the class struggled with basic punctuation such as full stops, commas and apostrophes that they decided not to teach us how to use semi-colons and colons. That was that and I never learnt how to use them.

So what has this got to do with a (we)blog about technology? Well, I recently read Lynne Truss’ best seller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation“. In the last chapter, Truss discusses technology’s role in the destruction of our language. To quote:

“…by tragic historical coincidence a period of abysmal under-educating in literacy has coincided with this unexpected explosion of global self-publishing. Thus people who don’t know their apostrophe from their elbow are positively invited to disseminate their writings to anyone on the planet stupid enough to double-click and scroll”.

She continues:

“…Even in the knowledge that our punctuation has arrived at its present state by a series of accidents; even in the knowledge that there are at least seventeen rules for the comma, some of which are beyond explanation by top grammarians – it is a matter for despair to see punctuation chucked out as worthless by people who don’t know the difference between who’s and whose, and whose bloody automatic ‘grammar checker’ can’t tell the
difference either”.

I did chuckle when I read about Bob Hirschfield’s pluperfect virus (the Strunkenwhite Virus), which first appeared in the Washington Post. Intended to provide a satirical view on the rise in hoax virus e-mails, it describes a virus (named Strunkenwhite after the authors of a classic guide to good writing), which returns e-mail messages that have grammatical or spelling errors.

Somewhat unfairly IMHO ;-), Truss also attacks emoticons but all of this does leave me wondering whether my son will grow up to read text or txt, and, does all of this, like, really matter as the erosion of our written language is just part of a wider issue with the spoken form, innit?

In the UK, The Economist recently ran a poster campaign which read something like:

“You can so tell the people who don’t like read the Economist”.

For those of us who do care about the correct use of language, provides an online dictionary with definitions (e.g. blog), pronunciation, explanations (courtesy of Wikipedia); or there is WordSpy (the Website devoted to lexpionage, the sleuthing of new words and phrases).

I commend these as examples of where technology can help us to become more expressive in our online use of language.

Long live the English language!

Online dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia and much more…

4 thoughts on “Technology’s role in the demise of the English language

  1. Language is a living thing that evolves and changes; the English language is an extremely rich language and has changed beyond all recognition during the last thousand years; take a look at some Old English (Anglo Saxon, spoken c.6th Century – 1066), and Middle English (spoken 1066 – 1485) and you see exactly how much the language has changed. Even the English spoken a few hundred years ago is hard to fathom – the copies of Shakespeare we all read in school are modern renderings of the original texts, which were written at a time when there were no accepted standards of spelling – you wrote the word how it sounded (note also that Shakespeare’s original notes and texts were heavily edited by Heminge & Condell, & later by Nicholas Rowe, who corrected more than just spelling). The idea of English being some glorious fixed thing spoken & written in the same way since 1066 is incorrect.

    Latin is considered a dead language – it ceased to be spoken because too many rules fixed it in time and killed it off; the common people spoke a more “corrupt” version of Latin (“vulgar Latin”) that was easier to learn and speak precisely because it had few rules, and so continued to evolve into the existing Romance languages of Europe.

    The use of apostrophes is a case in point: just a few hundred years ago many English words were pronounced very differently to how they are now – for instance the word “deserved” was pronounced with the emphasis on the final syllable (deserv-ed); then, in the seventeenth century, when youngsters (who probably listened to new fangled Baroque music & wore wigs) started pronouncing it in a recognisably modern way, they added an apostrophe to the written form: “deserv’d” to indicate the new pronunciation.

    In Victorian times, the word “Shan’t”, which is an abbreviation of “Shall not” was spelt “Sha’n’t” because some pedant decided that, as one of the functions of the apostrophe is to indicate missing letters, then the word “shan’t” should have two apostrophes to indicate the two sets of missing characters.

    So, my first point is: living languages that are spoken and written on a day to day basis will shake off any rules and tend towards abbreviation and simplicity. I hope English continues to evolve in this way rather than going the way of Latin, spoken by and appreciated only by pedants, lawyers and Ecclesiasts.

    My last point: until sometime within the last 50 to a hundred years regional dialects in the UK were noticeably diverse – each region had their own dialect (words, grammatical nuances) which tended to be impenetrable to outsiders (and still are in certain parts of the country, such as the North East). Technology has led to a divergence of these dialects – I guess because we all watch the same TV programs. Likewise, we all read the same national newspapers, and we all use computers now, with the same spell checking software and we all use the Internet now for news, opinions, and blogs… so if anything, English is standardising because of technology, not dying off because of it.

    English is alive and well, and far from being a fixed thing, it’s better to think of it as a stepping stone – in a few hundred years readers will have difficulty following the spelling and grammar used on this blog, but they’ll still be able to communicate effectively with each other – while at the same time smiling to themselves as to how old fashioned and quaint our use of English seems.

  2. Not to point too fine a point on it, but your first sentence has a grammatical mistake. People do not write or speak English well. I’m sorry to be a nit-picker.

  3. Well spotted – nit picking is welcome – but I did say that my own English is far from perfect!

    By the way, I think you meant to say “not to put too fine a point on it” ;-)

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