How Tech Is Ruining Language
Networking & Communications

How Tech Is Ruining Language

A few weeks ago, the Oxford English Dictionary added a slew of new words to its hallowed archives. Though the mainstream press in the UK focused on the entirely necessary addition of the word Omnishambles (and hopefully soon its new cousin, Omniscrambles), there were plenty of words added that were spawned in the belly of the tech world. Among them Bitcoin, BYOD, Digital Detox, Internet of things, Selfie and even TL;DR. But aside from a few new words in the dictionary, what sort of effect is technology and the internet having on language?

TL;DR: The internet and technology have a lot to answer to with regard with their influence on language. Also I am aware that the majority of this post makes me sound like an old man.

It’s not the first time that tech words have added to the OED; in June “Tweet” was added, and before that big data, crowdsourcing, e-reader, mouseover, redirect (the noun), and stream (the verb), just to name a few. And it’s always good to see your industry getting some wider recognition. But, that being said, in many ways technology’s effect on language has been maddening:

Stupid made up words: Searching has been replaced with Googling, editing with Photoshopping, pictures with Instagramming & Snapchats. Clouds and viruses don’t mean what they used to,  Tweeting has little to do with birds, and so on. There’s also the recent addition of Phubbing , another social faux pas created by technology which could probably form a blog or Buzzfeed list of its own. It’s not an exaggeration to say millennials can talk in front of their grandparents without ever using a word that existed when they were young. This has annoyed the French so much they actually invent their own French-language equivalents to avoid having too many foreign words invade their language; Hashtag = mot-dièse, email =courriel.

The endless abbreviations- Whether it’s BYOD (or any number of Bring-Your-Own varients), DR, M&A, or the kind of text/Reddit speak, the act of typing on a keyboard is slowly but surely eroding the existence of vowels and long words. Any child of mine heard to be saying “YOLO” out loud would be quickly put up for adoption. It also turns out all those ‘as-a-Service’ providers aren’t doing a very good job at marketing, you could even say they’ve been talking out their -aaS’s…A recent study by Six Degrees found that 16% of business decision makers think that Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) was a new road project, while 22% think that Platform as a Service (PaaS) was a new philosophy in railway management. FML.

Constant mispronunciation: GIFs bring untold joy to the internet. But when its creator, Steve Wilhite won a lifetime achievement award at The Webby Awards he was apparently perplexed that people weren’t pronouncing it right (It’s a soft G, pronounced ‘JIF.’). Why he didn’t make more of a stand years ago, for example actually getting in contact with the OED, is a mystery. Also, why do we say “P-N-G”, but “Jay-Peg”? Or “Doc-X” but never “P-P-T”? File format phonetics, a linguistic minefield.

Text Speak is making kids dumb: While the kids who got their first mobile phones in their mid to late teens may have spent a few years learning correct grammar, the younger generation essentially being  given mobile phones and tablets instead of dummies and traditional mobiles are losing the ability to write coherently and use basic grammar. And don’t even get me started on the endless stream of poorly written blogs online.

And probably worst of all, those ridiculous startup names: The Wall Street Journal did a bit of research, and found (roughly) 161 startups ending  in “ly,” “li” or “lee”,  102 in “ify” or “efy”, 28 in “box” and 10 in “square”. There’s a whole Pinterest page dedicated to the “–lee”s, and it genuinely is almost enough to make you lose faith in humanity. Even if they’re just waiting for Yahoo! to buy them out, a little bit of original thinking doesn’t do anyone any harm, does it? At least use some kind of name generator. Apps that remove vowels are committing similar sins.

A Whole New Language?

As an April Fool’s joke this year, South African news outlet News24 proclaimed that Mxlish, the language used on SA Social network Mxit, would become the 12th official South African language. "We are going to start with street signage as this will have an immediate and visible impact and then work towards enabling matriculants to write their final year exams in Mxlish by November 2013," said Xoliswa Nbete, head of the National Languages Expansion Task Team (NLETT)  at the Pan South African Languages Board (PanSALB). Funny as it was, is the concept really that daft? Is it only a matter of time before the internet invents its own official language?

A recent example of the internet trying to redefine language, one man tried to redefine the word ‘The’.  ‘The’ is the most commonly used word in the English language. Paul Mathis noticed this and thought, ‘think how much time we could save if we didn’t have to type out those damn same three letters every time.’ So what did he do? He mixed T and H together and created ‘Ћ’; a new symbol to use in place of ‘The’, and dubbed the "tap" on the Beeb. While it’s unlikely to ever be anything more than a novelty, it’s not the first time the web has popped up with attempts to change our everyday typing habits. There’s even a font with new punctuation marks including a Morgan Freemark.

Building Bridges

It’s not all bad however. Technology has done some good things too. Aside from obviously connecting people across the world instantaneously, it’s also helped reduce the problems of language barriers, an in more ways than one.

Obviously the spread of translate service such as Google Translate, despite sometimes giving suspect results, means there are few corners of the web that are completely inaccessible. Google is always looking to expand its services, and now features 72 languages. There’s also the Endangered Languages Project, an ‘online resource to record, access, and share samples of and research on endangered languages.’

Aside from providing linguists with a near-endless supply of data to study, Twitter is also useful for communicating across the world. You can Hashtag all you want, but it turns out that smilies (or emojis) are actually the universal language of Twitter. The most popular ones revolve around love, joy and sadness, showing the generally emotional and bipolar nature of the internet. Whether you think a winky face at the end of the post is actually necessary is entirely up to you.

A French company have developed an analytics tool that detects sarcasm. Siri and Google Glass understand what you are saying to them, and even throw in a bit of dry robotic humour in there. It’s an unavoidable fact that technology, and the internet in particular, has a lot to answer for, but it will also have a big part to play in our future.

Does LOL-speak grind your gears? Confused by endless abbreviations and poorly-monickered startups? Vent your spleen and comment below. 

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Dan Swinhoe

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Jim Swain on September 14 2013

"Also I am aware that the majority of this post makes me sound like an old man." Not really. I cringe when I experience the joys of a blithely unaware editor missing egregious syntax and outright stupid usage of the English language. And that the printed word stabilized the language -- I begin to think not.

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Stephen Lander on September 04 2014

I am an old man - so old I am retired - but cannot let the myopic animadversions expressed by Dan Swinhoe pass without comment. For one thing , the craze for acronyms began way before there were text messages, smartphones etc, so technology cannot be blamed for that. David Crystal's book "Txtng" is answer enough to the ignorant claim that "Text Speak is making kids dumb" - read that, and you will see what a genuine linguist has to say on the matter. Also, Swinhoe may say "P-N-G", but even those of my age say "Ping" for that file format. What Swinhoe and other "language correctness" ignoramuses forget is that language changes over time - a quick look at Beowulf makes that painfully obvious. All aspects of our lives are changing more rapidly now, often due to technological advances but also to other factors. The pace of language change reflects that, and is a welcome sign that our language is healthy and not yet moribund.

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Dan Swinhoe on September 04 2014

Hi Stephen, Thanks for commenting. I'm fully aware language evolves over time - I remember reading Chaucer did occasionally notice the words were spelt differently.I'm also a big fan of Urban Dictionary, which is much more on the button with these things than the OED. However not all change is good, and I find Text-speak and endless ".ly" type names very tiresome. As I said, tech can be used in a good way - saving nearly-extinct languages and such. I just find much of these changes tedious. I'm friends with a genuine linguist and he finds it these trends just as amusing as I do.

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Paul Cooperon Sep 05 2014 | 16:25

I am surprised after reading your article that you favor the Urban Dictionary. It has contributed more to the degradation of our language because it imparts legitimacy in redefining the lexicon. For example, take the UD definition of morality as opposed to the OED definition. You see that you have more than just an issue of context, but a cultural shift that impugns the meaning based on ideological standing. The structure and spelling of words may change over time, along with the syntactic form to allow for ease of use. But I find that our language as exercised through social media has actually devolved, when I see journalists using new colloquialisms like "throwing shade" in their articles, when for clarity and impact, the phrase "slammed" would be just as appropriate. Dumb down the language and the people WILL follow.

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Stephen Landeron Sep 08 2014 | 10:03

Hello Dan, I am very happy to see your reply, and even happier that my remarks seem to have spawned more debate. Not all change is good, indeed, but what is good or bad is a matter of subjective opinion. What I cannot agree with is that the language of text messaging is making young people intellectually degenerate - on the contrary, it is a clever, inventive and skilful adaptation of language to cope with a very stringent limitation (only 140 characters allowed). Goethe once apologised for the length of a letter he had written, saying he had not had the time to make it shorter. Conciseness of expression is a worthy aim, and by no means evidence of diminished cognitive capacity.

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Dan Swinhoe on September 05 2014

Hi Paul, I think UD gets Social Media language more than OED and is more reflective of culture at large. This devolution of language is what I'm basically moaning about in this post.

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Paul Cooperon Sep 05 2014 | 21:01

Thanks Dan, it's good to see another person who is unwilling to surrender to the deconstruction of the lexicon. And though I enjoy seeing new compound or coined words come into existence, I would like to pound the person who is perpetuating this "throwing shade" phrase. The mental image of hurled window dressings makes me moan each time I see it occur.

no-images

Jim Swain on September 14 2013

"Also I am aware that the majority of this post makes me sound like an old man." Not really. I cringe when I experience the joys of a blithely unaware editor missing egregious syntax and outright stupid usage of the English language. And that the printed word stabilized the language -- I begin to think not.

no-images

Stephen Lander on September 04 2014

I am an old man - so old I am retired - but cannot let the myopic animadversions expressed by Dan Swinhoe pass without comment. For one thing , the craze for acronyms began way before there were text messages, smartphones etc, so technology cannot be blamed for that. David Crystal's book "Txtng" is answer enough to the ignorant claim that "Text Speak is making kids dumb" - read that, and you will see what a genuine linguist has to say on the matter. Also, Swinhoe may say "P-N-G", but even those of my age say "Ping" for that file format. What Swinhoe and other "language correctness" ignoramuses forget is that language changes over time - a quick look at Beowulf makes that painfully obvious. All aspects of our lives are changing more rapidly now, often due to technological advances but also to other factors. The pace of language change reflects that, and is a welcome sign that our language is healthy and not yet moribund.

no-images

Dan Swinhoe on September 04 2014

Hi Stephen, Thanks for commenting. I'm fully aware language evolves over time - I remember reading Chaucer did occasionally notice the words were spelt differently.I'm also a big fan of Urban Dictionary, which is much more on the button with these things than the OED. However not all change is good, and I find Text-speak and endless ".ly" type names very tiresome. As I said, tech can be used in a good way - saving nearly-extinct languages and such. I just find much of these changes tedious. I'm friends with a genuine linguist and he finds it these trends just as amusing as I do.

no-images

Paul Cooperon Sep 05 2014 | 16:25

I am surprised after reading your article that you favor the Urban Dictionary. It has contributed more to the degradation of our language because it imparts legitimacy in redefining the lexicon. For example, take the UD definition of morality as opposed to the OED definition. You see that you have more than just an issue of context, but a cultural shift that impugns the meaning based on ideological standing. The structure and spelling of words may change over time, along with the syntactic form to allow for ease of use. But I find that our language as exercised through social media has actually devolved, when I see journalists using new colloquialisms like "throwing shade" in their articles, when for clarity and impact, the phrase "slammed" would be just as appropriate. Dumb down the language and the people WILL follow.

no-images

Stephen Landeron Sep 08 2014 | 10:03

Hello Dan, I am very happy to see your reply, and even happier that my remarks seem to have spawned more debate. Not all change is good, indeed, but what is good or bad is a matter of subjective opinion. What I cannot agree with is that the language of text messaging is making young people intellectually degenerate - on the contrary, it is a clever, inventive and skilful adaptation of language to cope with a very stringent limitation (only 140 characters allowed). Goethe once apologised for the length of a letter he had written, saying he had not had the time to make it shorter. Conciseness of expression is a worthy aim, and by no means evidence of diminished cognitive capacity.

no-images

Dan Swinhoe on September 05 2014

Hi Paul, I think UD gets Social Media language more than OED and is more reflective of culture at large. This devolution of language is what I'm basically moaning about in this post.

no-images

Paul Cooperon Sep 05 2014 | 21:01

Thanks Dan, it's good to see another person who is unwilling to surrender to the deconstruction of the lexicon. And though I enjoy seeing new compound or coined words come into existence, I would like to pound the person who is perpetuating this "throwing shade" phrase. The mental image of hurled window dressings makes me moan each time I see it occur.

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