July 10, 2014

Dictionary art

OMG LOL is a sculpture by Michael Mandiberg. Credit: See-Ming Lee / Flickr Creative Commons

Guest:

To the annoyance of teachers everywhere, students now turn in papers with abbreviations they learned from texting, sentences with lower-case “i”s, and other grammatical taboos. 

Frustrating, yes, but do these tiny shifts really change language itself?

“People notice the novelties, the sudden inventiveness that people do when they get this new technology and they think ‘oh dear, oh dear the entire language is changing.’ But in actual fact, only small bits of the language are changing,” says David Crystal, a British linguist and author of over 100 books, including “How Language Works” and “Language and the Internet.”

While LOL and OMG have gotten lots of attention, kids have actually reduced their use of abbreviations. In part, this is because predictive text makes it easier not to abbreviate. Also, as a student told Crystal, “I stopped abbreviating when my parents started.”

Another fear that’s been blown out of proportion, according to Crystal, is that texting and tweeting will prevent students from doing long-form writing. 

“People must remember that the Internet is enormously varied,” so while Twitter’s 140 characters is one extreme, “at the other extreme, you’ve got blogging. I know some kids who keep their online diaries and they are like huge essays, they’re thousands of words sometimes.”

Crystal believes that language is in a period of rapid change. Though that change hasn't happened steadily through history.

“When the Renaissance came along in the fifteenth, sixteenth century, then there was a huge influx of words into English, then there was a lull. And then a hundred or so years later there was the Industrial Revolution and again, suddenly thousands and thousands of words start coming into English because of the new technology.”

 
We’re in another peak, says Crystal, thanks to technology that has sped up the adaptation of new words. Before the Internet, if someone coined a new word or phrase, it took time to spread from person to person. Now words can spread globally in a matter of minutes.

Ultimately, only history can reveal a language’s fate.

A thousand years ago, everybody in the educated world knew Latin, so in another thousand years, who knows what the dominant language will be? We may have said C U L8R to English.

language, Culture, David Crystal

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