is technology making English obsolete?

During my senior year in undergrad, I wrote a term paper discussing the changes taking place in communication technology using Chatroulette as a subject and I performed a sort of “mini-ethnography”. What I found was that using the internet, email, instant message, Skype, text message, and Chatroulette was not changing communication fundamentally as much as it was changing the medium of communication*.

The way I looked at (and still look at) this technology use is that communication as a part of culture and culture isn’t, nor can it be, static. Cultures change. And so does communication.

Having established the that communication changes, I’ve more recently thought about what this change in communication is doing to language. There has been an increase in talk about “standardizing” the English language and whether or not the English language is being destroyed by “text talk”.

In my own observations (thanks to having a younger sister) of the English language I’ve noticed that in public schools, at least, there is not as much emphasis on learning to spell correctly or learning to use grammar properly. Using “textisms” like LOL, b4, and 4ever are being used by students without consequence. In fact, one anecdote I heard on this very topic was that teachers were no longer supposed to correct this: as long as the writing was understandable and legible, it was OK. (There was even a radio show on NPR where a debate was held about the appropriateness of this kind of language use versus the need for a standard English.)

Is this technology’s fault?

It certainly seems that way. These changes coincided with the growth and increased use of digital communication technologies. It is mostly used by the younger generation, typically Generation Y and those born in the 1990s. It seems to have been created as a way for kids and teens to be able to talk (or type) in full view of adults while not being entirely understood. This puts a little bit of a spin on the entire discussion.

If “text talk” is a form of subversive speech that has found its way into everyday language use, then it is more like the dynamic nature of language than its detractors give it credit for. “Text talk” begins to look like what Halliday (1976) called “anti-language”. Simply put, “anti-language” is a form of language derived from the dominant language (in our case English) used by an “anti-society” (or sub-culture or counter culture) as a means to separate itself from the mainstream society (youth versus adults).

Like any other good “anti-language” (Cockney slang, for instance), parts of the “anti-language” have been adopted into the mainstream (think LOL, TTYL, and THX).

So, is this ruining the English language or making it obsolete? Should the English language be standardized, similarly to the way the French has a group that determines what, exactly, is the French language? There really is no single answer to these questions. The English language is a form of communication. It is a part of culture. Cultures change, and with them, so does the English language. English will never be static (which is evidenced by the changes in “modern” English between when Shakespeare wrote his famous plays to Industrial Revolution-era English to the English of today). However, without some sort of basic, mutually understood structure, there might be no reason for English as a language or language at all.

What this points me to, at least, is that the dictionary can change. How a word is spelled isn’t as important as being able to string words together in a coherent manner to other speakers of the same language in order to be understood. This requires grammar and context, neither of which we can live without. While I’m annoyed that I spent so many years learning how to spell, write cursive (which is becoming a lost art), and being corrected for all sorts of small mistakes, as long as I can understand what is being said (or written) it doesn’t really matter how it’s spelled. (I do, however, like when things are spelled properly… it just looks better to me.)

*I’ve written multiple papers on topics relating to technology, it’s sort of an interest of mine if you couldn’t tell.

Works Cited:
Halliday, M. A. K. 1976  Anti-Languages. American Anthropologist, New Series. 78(3):570-584)

Posted in