English in a Social, Mobile World; Evolution or Devolution?

Posted in 2013 The Gnovis Blog

American society’s shift into a text-based communication environment has roused concerns about the integrity of the English language as it adapts to new contexts for exchange. Purists argue that the prioritization of speed and word economy inspired by quick and compact communication methods is corrupting English speakers’ command of their own tongue. Many warn that conventions like punctuation and capitalization are being abandoned, while existing words are being inappropriately repurposed and new “slang” terms are given too much clout.

This view is myopic for two reasons: first, it falsely assumes that these types of changes are unprecedented and unnatural; second, it assumes that modern text-based communication represents a new standard for written language. In reality, these criticisms are merely the latest iteration of grievances that have recurred over centuries as English has naturally evolved. What’s more, digital technology isn’t threatening the integrity of the written word, because we’re not using it to supplant the written word; we’re using it to communicate in a text-based form of our existing spoken language (McWhorter, 2013).
We’ve Been Here Before

By nature, language is dynamic.  Since the genesis of spoken communication, language has been shaped by factors like geographic shifts in population (e.g., colonization, slavery, immigration), socio-economics, commerce, politics, and the advent of technologies that foster exchange and dissemination of ideas. It is no surprise, then, that as digital and mobile communication technologies have achieved a certain degree of ubiquity, observable linguistic phenomena have followed.
Many educators, writers and other linguistic prescriptivists bemoan the supposed deterioration of language stemming from social media, texting, chat, and other forms of digital communication.  As the functionality of technology has evolved to accommodate a public that embraces mobility and brevity, so too has the way users structure their linguistic exchange on these technologies. Expectations for near-instantaneous responses, character limits, and the physical limitations of typing on smaller keyboards – with one’s thumbs, at that – have resulted in a prioritization of speed and concision over formalities like capitalization, punctuation, and spelling complete words. This, many argue, signals an unprecedented shift towards certain death for the English language in its proper form.
This outrage is not new.  For generations, linguistic hardliners have foretold the impending end of days for language as they knew it, usually due to some sociological or technological shift that influenced how people used their words. Benjamin Franklin is one example. As a newspaper editor and printer, Franklin was particularly concerned with word coinage and usage.  He supported preserving the practice of capitalizing nouns, as was common in 18th century English.  He lamented the emerging practice of his printer contemporaries, who began dropping noun capitalization in favor of a more visually even aesthetic in the final printed product. Franklin was equally vexed by the phenomenon of “verbing” – using nouns (or “substantives”) as action words. In a letter to Noah Webster –  originator of Webster’s Dictionary –  Franklin lamented,
“..I find that several other new Words have been introduced into our parliamentary Language…I find a verb formed from the substantive Notice…also another verb, from the substantive Advocate…another from the substantive Progress….the most awkward and abominable of the three.” (Franklin, 1789)
Franklin believed that noun capitalization helped readers distinguish between nouns and verbs that appear identical in print. (For example, “progress” versus “progress”.)  Without this standard, Franklin feared an orthographical muddling of English and difficulty for those learning to read it. (It’s ironic that while Franklin commended Webster for “preserving the purity of our language”, Webster’s Dictionary would later receive flack for being the first to recognize “ain’t” as an official word.)
Progress is Progress
Happily, the English language has managed to prevail over the last two centuries. Words that Franklin considered so abhorrent have become mainstays of our lexicon, and few modern speakers would guess that the verb “advocate” was ever considered an abomination. And we continue to “verb” – see, I just did it myself – as Internet technology continues to introduce new terms at warp speed. “Friend”, “Google”, and “text” –  all nouns traditionally – are now used regularly as verbs, while verbs like “tweet” and “like” are now commonly employed as nouns. Acronyms (“LOL”) and neologisms (“selfie”, “sexting”, “blog” – first a noun, then a verb!) abound. We’re also inventing new noun definitions for existing nouns; to say that you “pinned” something may mean that you used an actual pin to connect pieces of fabric, or it could mean you posted an image on the Pintrest website.  OMG. The horror!
What’s unprecedented is not the linguistic change taking place, but the rate at which it is occurring. Never before have we been graced with such easily accessible, inexpensive tools that allow instantaneous exchange.  These tools merely accelerate the rate at which new linguistic practices reach critical mass (Brown 2012).  The novelty lies in the speed of the technology with which change is being propagated, not in the change itself.
Texting As Speaking
Another element of purists’ anxiety is the misperception that chat, texting, and social media are somehow debasing our written communication skills. The mistake here is assuming that these exchanges are meant to function as formal written communication. What they really reflect is what John McWhorter calls “fingered speech” – we’re typing the way we talk.  The content of our chats, tweets, and texts more closely resembles the spontaneous, casual, synchronous nature of spoken language than it does the reflective, formal nature of writing. We don’t think about punctuation and capitalization when we talk, and thus it falls to the wayside when we text.  If anything, this phenomenon demonstrates an advance in our ability to converse – to translate our thoughts immediately and unconsciously into written exchange.  Arguably, it’s a brand new skill set.
Watch John McWhorter’s TED talk on texting as just a new form of spoken language, and not a sign of the linguistic apocalypse:

Technology Facilitates the Inevitable
When examining language shifts alongside emerging technologies, we would be wiser to examine the dynamic between ideas and network effects.  Technology isn’t causing society to intellectually and linguistically devolve; it’s enabling society to continue shaping and applying its own language, and at a phenomenal pace.  Future generations of enlightened linguists may one day retroactively view this event as a linguistic marvel, marking an age of unparalleled Progress.
Related topics:
What Character Was Removed from the Alphabet but Is Still Used Every Day?” Dictionary.com.
Some words whose meanings have changed without controversy  MotivatedGrammar
Photo credit:
Lee, See-Ming  http://seeminglee.com
Works Cited
Brown, Alex. “How Social Media Is Changing the English Language (and Why It Matters to Marketers) Read More: Http://www.marketingprofs.com/articles/2012/8889/how-social-media-is-changing-the-english-language-and-why-it-matters-to-marketers.”MarketingProfs. N.p., 12 Sept. 2012. Web.
Franklin, Benjamin. “Unpublished Letter to Noah Webster, Jr.” Letter to Noah Webster, Jr. 26 Dec. 1789. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Yale University, n.d. Web. 8 Sept. 2013.
Gardner, Anthony. “You’ve Been Verbed.” Intelligent Life Winter 2010: n. pag. Intelligent Life Magazine. The Economist Newspapers, Limited. Web.
McWhorter, J. (2013, February). John McWhorter: Txt is killing language. JK!!!
[Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/john_mcwhorter_txtng_is_killing_language_jk.html
Nunberg, Jeffrey. “Not Another Word; When a Dictionary Could Outrage.” Editorial. The New York Times 25 Sept. 2011: BR35. The New York Times Company, 23 Sept. 2011. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.
Paton, Graeme. “Standard English in Decline Among Teenagers.” Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Ltd., 24 Oct. 2008. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.