Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Radio today: does technology change our language?

Today on Radio New Zealand National I’m going to talk about several different things. One of them is how technology changes our language. Read on for my speaker notes or download the audio as ogg or mp3.

Q: Your main item today – how does technology affect the language we speak?

A: Quite deeply, over the years. The arrival of written language, and particularly the printing press, meant that people had much wider access to how other spoke. In the UK, we got the phenomenon of BBC English – I’ll just explain that a little. There is a wide range of accents and dialects within the UK, to the extent that people from some parts of the country have difficulty being understood in London, say. But your accent, as well as locating you geographically, also says something about your social class and your ethnicity, which are both very British concerns. When the BBC first started broadcasting, it was decreed that all announcers would use a version of the language that was called ‘received pronunciation’, but rapidly became known as ‘BBC English’. That’s what generations were told was ‘proper’ English, and regional accents were bad.

Q: Is that like the Queen’s English?

A: Not to my ears – I find Her Majesty’s way of speaking very artificial and unlike anyone I know. That’s probably a class thing as well. Anyway, the BBC has relented rather is recent years and you now hear quite a variation in accents on its radio and its TV stations. So, the radio played its part in molding people’s speech – it probably did in New Zealand as well.

But it’s not just public radio. There are other networks where language gets changed and adjusted to suit the technology. There were – and still are – radio amateurs, for instance, who use a lot of their own jargon, but they were never a high proportion of the population Then you staretd to get the Internet and the various conventions on what you say on email and instant messaging. But to me, the test of whether this is influencing the language is: does the way some new medium encourages people to speak extend outside that medium?

Q: Like txt speak?

A: Yes, that is rather the current moral panic on language, isn’t it? Because of the limitations of the medium and on the phone keyboards people tend to abbreviate very hard, in fairly standard ways. I don’t know if that will change as more and more phone have full keyboards and they silently break big messages into multiple texts.

Also, because mobile phones and the Internet are global, people tend to borrow terms more from other languages in text speak. There’s a BBC item in the links today which wistfully observes that the plain old ‘greeting hello’ is under threat due to texting.

Then there’s computer spell and grammar checking. We all know the problems with just accepting the computer’s changes to our spelling for instance can lead to all kinds of problems. Just last week, the student newspaper of Brigham Young University had to be recalled, after it went to press with a front page photo of twelve leaders of the Mormon church captioned ‘the twelve apostates’. Someone just clicked the wrong option on the spell checker. Oops.

But there’s also a problem with blindly accepting grammatical changes. The most popular word processor out there uses a grammar checker based on a style guide called “Strunk and White”. But many of Strunk and White’s rules are, frankly, arbitrary. One its always dining me for, for instance, is introducing a relative clause with ‘which’ – the grammar checker thinks I should be writing ‘that’. I don’t agree, and neither do some people with a rather better claim to be grammarians than Strunk and White. White, incidentally was an author – he wrote the Sword in the Stone, and most of what people dislike about the style guide was added by him to a work which Strunk had written a long time previously. I’ve included a link to an article about this today, by the head of linguistics at Edinburgh University.

But periodically there’s an outbreak of arguments that amount to ‘text speak will rot young minds’. You know – will examiners accept answers written in text speak? That one surfaces every year or two.

Q: Will they?

A: Generally they say – unless its an English language test, the most important thing is that we can read what the candidate wrote and that he or she is demonstrating that they understand the subject.

But we’ve heard arguments like this before – rock and roll was a symptom of moral decay, wasn’t it?

Q: So you see language change as a generational thing?

A: Very much so. We know languages evolve over time. Shakespeare takes some practice to read, and you need a dictionary or glossary to catch all of it. He’s about 400 years old. Chaucer from about 200 years before that, is very hard for us to follow. And Old English – say 1000 years ago – is really impenetrable unless you have specialist skills. So, the English language has gone through periods of change and its interesting to figure out what has caused the changes. If you look at the changes since Shakespeare, a lot of them relate to changing technology, and our changing understanding of the world – science in other words. Language changes over time and it’s not particularly helpful to try to freeze it.

Q: I take it you aren’t concerned about people using txt speak in everyday life, then?

A: Far from it.


Spelling problems – apostates are not apostles. English grammar – debunking Strunk and White.

The BBC on the impact of txtspeak on language. Using text speak in exams may be OK

posted by colin at 8:50 am  


  1. Regarding Google vs the newspapers, Techdirt came up with a nice term: “Felony Interference With a Business Model”. This is the idea that you mustn’t come up with new ideas (like Google, YouTube etc) that could cause existing, established companies to go out of business—even if such things aren’t illegal, they must lobby for laws to prevent such things.

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 16 April 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  2. Hey, your clock still seems to be on daylight saving.

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 16 April 2009 @ 12:22 pm

  3. “One its always dining me for, for instance, is introducing a relative clause with ‘which’” – I really cannot make sense of that sentence.

    Comment by Peter Lynch — 16 April 2009 @ 4:28 pm

  4. Should be “dinging’. I don’t always proof-read my notes because they are, well, notes.


    Comment by colin — 16 April 2009 @ 5:46 pm

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