Language change and new media


Researchers studying language — perhaps especially those of us who use the words "language evolution" on our webpages — often get asked about the effects of new technology on language. Are texting abbreviations a radically new form of language? Do emoticons mean that alphabetic writing systems are being replaced by pictographic systems? And so on. This page presents some of my thoughts on that topic. 

A brief history of new linguistic media
Perhaps a good way to start is by emphasising that new technologies do have an effect on how we use language. Both oral transmission and writing are interesting in this respect. Before the introduction of writing and other recording devices, for example, stories about the past had to be transmitted orally, a practice that involved memorising huge amounts of information and being able to recall it rapidly. This was made much easier by employing techniques we associate with poetry: metre, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, vivid imagery, etc. These "technologies" all aid memory and help to ensure that stories are transmitted reliably. (That's not to say this is why poetry came into existence, but it's almost certainly part of the story.) To put this another way: A special niche opened up and language adapted to fill it (an example of cultural evolution), leading the language of traditional stories to differ quite markedly from the conversational language the same storytellers would have used to chat with their friends. 

Something similar happened when writing was invented (or, for a given language, when speakers of that language started writing things down — writing was invented long before English started to be written). Written texts for most of the history of writing have had to be autonomous. That is to say, they have to stand on their own. If I'm chatting to you face to face (or even on the phone), you can interrupt me, ask questions, make various indications that you understand (or don't understand) me. But that's not true of most written texts. When you read Dr Zhivago, you can't ask Pasternak to clarify — most people couldn't even easily do that when he was alive. So writing created another niche for language, with its own pressures, and language evolved culturally to meet those pressures. This is part of the explanation for why written language differs somewhat from spoken language. It's not, as people have often imagined, that written language came first, and that spoken language is a modified (denigrated?) version of it. It's the reverse: Humanity was speaking long before we invented writing, and everyone still learns to speak before they learn to write. Writing is based on speech. But it's different from speech because it has to do a slightly different job.

Of course, for most of human history, most people couldn't read or write at all, and many who could couldn't do so well. Over the last century or so, world illiteracy has dropped dramatically. In fact just under half the world's population was illiterate in 1950; now world literacy is at about 85%, and even higher in the developed world. At the same time, technology has been developed that allows us to communicate instantly in written text with people anywhere in the world. One of the consequences of this is that a lot of what we used to do with speech is now being done in writing. This kind of writing is not so autonomous; the pressures acting on language in this domain are much more like the pressures acting on speech, so the writing we see in places like Facebook looks in some respects more like speech than the kind of writing we see in books or (perhaps a better comparison) we used to see in, say, the physical letters people would send each other.

But there are also new pressures. Typing text messages on a small hand-held device can be tricky and time-consuming, especially without full keyboards. So this encouraged abbreviations (btw, lol etc.), some of which spread outside their niche, because people found them attractive or useful for one reason or another. Of course, the introduction of predictive text has changed this niche somewhat. There's a similar story with emoticons and emojis: In face-to-face conversation you get information about the speaker's mood (etc.) from their face; even on the phone you can pick up on prosodic information lacking in writing. And it turns out that our intended tone in writing isn't picked up as reliably as we might think. So people started trying to make this information explicit :-)

These are all examples of language adapting to new niches it finds itself in. (If you like, you can of course see it in terms of humans adapting their language to different contexts, but I prefer the first way of putting it, which is more agnostic about human intentionality.) And, as the examples of oral transmission and writing show, this has happened many times in the past. Even the abbreviations aren't all that new — OMG has been around since at least 1917, and the invention of telegraphy in the nineteenth century introduced yet another technological niche for language, and one that encouraged abbreviation. (Of course, mobile phones and similar devices are now more ubiquitous than telegraph stations ever were, but the pressures acting on a telegram were also more restrictive than the pressures now acting on most texting and social media.) So texting has changed language in a really interesting sense: A new niche has opened up for languages, and the language that has filled this niche looks a bit different. But that's about all; and new niches opening for language are nothing new. What's more, the impact of texting on the wider language is pretty small. It's led to the introduction of a couple of new words, such as when people start using "lol" as a word in its own right (something like how "OK" came into the language about a century ago), but it doesn't go much beyond that.

Two common questions
I'll finish by answering a couple of questions that get asked a lot in this context. The first is whether text-messaging abbreviations (or similar) can be said to constitute a new language. The answer is really no. They're an example of new writing conventions, and a language is very different from the conventions used to represent it. In the early twentieth century, Turkish stopped being written in the Arabic script and started being written in the Latin script. This wasn't a case of language change: The Turkish language remained the same; its (literate) speakers just started writing it differently. The introduction of text-message abbreviations is similar — people have simply introduced some new writing conventions. And text messages vary in the extent to which these new conventions are employed: Some messages differ very little in style from paper letters, or at least emails; others are packed with abbreviations and emojis, and look very different. But calling this a new language is extreme; it's a new register perhaps — like a new dialect, but for a particular situation or context rather than a particular region or social group — but calling it a new language is pushing it. Comparisons with Egyptian hieroglyphs, made from time to time, simply betray a misunderstanding of how the Egyptian writing system worked: Yes, it employed small pictures, but they worked quite differently from emojis. Some of them actually worked very like letters in our alphabet, representing single consonants; others represented two consonants, or three; and some did other jobs, classifying words semantically. (If you'd like to learn more about how hieroglyphs actually worked, here's a wonderful book on them.) So emojis aren't really all that much like hieroglyphs, and texting isn't a new language.

The second question is whether any of this is a bad thing. The answer, as you can probably predict, is no, unless you think change in linguistic behaviour or writing conventions is inherently bad. If you don't know a particular set of conventions, then you'll have trouble understanding what's being said, but that's true of any change in a communication system. But the idea that this makes language inherently worse in some sense, or will lead to a situation where no one understands anyone else, is ill-founded. Partly this idea is based on a very subjective idea of what's good and bad in language — a lot of people, in other words, just personally don't like the way some other people use the language and think that a matter of taste is objective. And partly the worry is based on a misunderstanding of how language operates. Language is actually self-organising; that's why it adapts to these new niches in the first place. If we need to be able to communicate with language (and we do, even if we don't do it as well as we think) then language will adapt to allow us to do so. 

Which is pretty cool. And in one way or another it's what I spend my time studying.

TLDR: Language adapts to all sorts of pressures, and fills new niches. It always has done, and we don't need to worry about it.