Is Technology Killing Our Languages?

The Internet has made a great number of contributions to mankind, giving us a true sense of global community and an expanse of knowledge that rivals any other library ever conceived in all of human history. However, not much can be said in the way of its contributions to the vocabularies of various languages. In this era English speakers are ubiquitously replacing “you” with “u,” Romanians are replacing “ca” with “k,” Germans are replacing “liebe Grüße” with “lg,” and the Spanish “también” is being erased in favor of “tmb.” What precisely does all of this mean? Is internet slang going to mark the death of an objective standard for language?

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First of all, it is important to note that language evolves organically with the passage of time. The word “selfie,” for example, did not exist for the thousands of years that English has been spoken. Of course there were not very many cases of people taking photos of themselves until quite recently in the scale of recorded history. Once this became a phenomenon, the word “selfie” came into existence as a shortcut used to describe the action in one fluid two-syllable expression. It took a while, but the Oxford English Dictionary officially included the word in its rendition of the English lexicon in the latter part of 2013.

If this sounds ridiculous to you, Shakespeare’s work was in all likelihood equally ridiculous to the gatekeepers of the English language at the time that he published his plays. He was confronted with the frigid nature of the language and made new words that satisfied the need for something more colorful and expressive. It is noted that more than 1,500 words were invented by the man in the span of his life. Examples include things we take for granted today, like “lonely,” “hurry,” “road,” “premeditated,” and “bloody.” We couldn’t imagine speaking English without these words now, yet they were invented a very long while after the language first took shape.

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The replacement of words with short abbreviations is something frowned upon in academic writing for obvious reasons. We want to be able to make public writings like this one as understandable as possible to as wide an array of people as possible without forcing them to guess the meaning of abbreviated words. However, interpersonal conversations do not carry the same weight. While I personally frown upon the use of “u” even in individual conversations, I do not see it as the death of language. The moment we start seeing articles on the Web from serious publications written in the same colloquial shorthand is the moment we should indeed be worried. For now that does not seem to be the case.

We are mostly seeing shorthand either in court transcripts or SMS/IM records.

The sentiment of panic is very natural in a society that is very comfortable with its way of speaking. On a personal level, I believe that language should be amended only when such a thing is useful. However, languages have always changed organically whether we liked it or not. This will probably remain the status quo indefinitely. We no longer speak Latin or Old English. Germans are subtly reducing their use of the “ß.” Romanians no longer write in Cyrillic.

Language has always been – and will always be – an agreed-upon method of communication between multiple individuals with the principle scope of understanding each other. How they choose to speak after grade school is over is beyond our influence.

What do you believe should be the criteria for new words in your language’s lexicon? Tell us more in a comment!

16 comments

  1. Personally, I not only believe that technology is destroying language, it is destroying people ability to reason things out. For example, if the power is down, or a computer is down, people forget how to do things that they used to do on paper. People are also getting too lazy with a myriad of things, due to the fact that they think that technology can save them.
    As far as language is concerned, it is quite disconcerting when people forget how to use words, thus making their communications faulty.
    This reminds me of a very old poem that I found a very long time ago. It was back in the days of the BBS, when I received this. I keep it handy for occasions like this. Here it is:
    Ode to a Spelling Checker
    (by Anonymous)

    I have a spelling checker,
    It came with my pea sea.
    It plane lee marks four my revue
    Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

    Eye ran this poem threw it,
    Your sure reel glad two no.
    Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
    My checker tolled me sew.

    A checker is a bless sing,
    It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
    It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
    And aides me when eye rime.

    Each frays come posed up on my screen
    Eye trussed too bee a joule.
    The checker pours o’er every word
    To cheque sum spelling rule.

    Bee fore a veiling checker’s
    Hour spelling mite decline,
    And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
    We wood bee maid too wine.

    Butt now bee cause my spelling
    Is checked with such grate flare,
    Their are know fault’s with in my cite,
    Of nun eye am a wear.

    Now spelling does knot phase me,
    It does knot bring a tier.
    My pay purrs awl due glad den
    With wrapped word’s fare as hear.

    To rite with care is quite a feet
    Of witch won should bee proud,
    And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
    Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.

    Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
    Such soft wear four pea seas,
    And why eye brake in two averse
    Buy righting want too pleas.

    Now this may all be spelled correctly, but because the author was so lazy, the content is all screwed up. Here’s a challenge. Print it out and read it aloud. It’s a bear to read.
    So even with these spell checkers, which I feel make people lazy, we are losing our language, and because of the over use of technology, we are losing our smarts.

    • “People are also getting too lazy with a myriad of things, due to the fact that they think that technology can save them.”
      While I absolutely agree with you, how far back in time do you wish people to go in their skills? Do you know how to make your own soap and candles? Do you know how to butcher a cow? Do you know how to do a tune up on your car? Sooner or later all skills go out of use, become obsolete and are replaced with new ones. Our skill of driving a horse and buggy has been replaced by our skill of driving a car.

  2. I am probably an old fogie and although I believe technology is becoming a detriment to our oral and written communication, I fully understand that language will evolve over the course of time. While those of the younger generation can communicate in any way they please — and they may fully understand each other — I believe they need to remember that they also, at some time, need to communicate with others (older than them) who learned to write, spell, and speak through what has been the conventional, formal way. While they are free to communicate in any way they desire, they shouldn’t forget to learn the standard, or more structured, way of exchanging ideas with others. This is not to say that they are wrong, but that I hope they learn to use these tools in a more well-rounded way of interacting with others … all this is “in my opinion.”

  3. As RocRizzo says, technology is making us sloppy in the use of language. More and more often journalists and bloggers do not check the syntax of what they write. If a spell checker does not complain, they figure everything is copacetic. However, as the poem provided by RocRizzo shows, things are not all right. Even a year, while reading the local paper, I would find one incorrect homonym a week. Now it has gotten to the point where I find at least 2 or 3 a day. I suppose one of these days l33t speak will become the literary norm.

    • The upside though is less and less people using words like “copacetic”. That surely helps the language :D

        • Should be no more than 140 characters! You also did not use hashtags, so I cannot decipher your text (see my other comment).

        • Anyway, just Google “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective
          of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”, it’s an interesting read (you’ll find it on the Princeton website, it’s a nearly 10 years old study). It has changed my writing style a while ago (yes, I used to love those unpronounceable words too).

  4. Having been involved in science, electronics and varied forms of technical communication for about forty years, I view the current level of alarm over this topic, as written here, with a mixed view. There are actually two issues that, though they overlap, are distinctive.

    Shortcuts (and work-arounds) are common when communicating via a technical device, especially when employing non-verbal modes. As a ham radio operator who has communicated via CW transmissions, I have used devices such as Q-signals, RST codes and accepted abbreviations (“QSL. Yr sgnl is 599. Cpy?”) to communicate around the world. People sending telegrams used abbreviated words and irregular letter groups to make the messages shorter in length because they were charged by the letter. Today many shortcuts are employed when using written electronic messages (texting, posting, tweeting, etc.) Traditionally, it has been understood that the shortcut rules would only be employed on the medium(s) for which they were invented unless one was making a point or being funny. A writer would not turn away from his radio key and start to type an article or story using ham radio CW shortcuts. Likewise, a lawyer would not send a telegram and then use the same verbiage in a legal brief (though I am sure that there are many that wish he would.)

    The real problem lies in the fact that lately many people are either too ignorant, uneducated or apathetic to understand when such communication forms are socially acceptable. As those who have posted before me, educated writing rules are not readily taught. I would like to think that this will be self-repairing, as the electronic hillbillies will either learn to write in an educated manner or die of starvation after they cannot get a professional job. Then again, WalMart and McDonalds are always hiring.

    QSL? Or was there too much QRM?

  5. Addendum…

    As previously stated in a poem, the general populace needs to re-learn the differences between its and it’s, as well as their there and they’re.

  6. As My good old father said when the mini calculators came. These devices are not wrong but due to these devices people become lazyand forgat basic skills. Nowadays; some 20 to 30 years after those calculators became popular; people have indeed mucj trouble to do even the simpåles calculations by hard. Even doing so on paper is dificult for them. The methods are tought on schools still but they are not used in real live.

    What this has to to with the language? Well I see the same thing happening in writing. I; as a Technical Writer; get various input for manuals to write. Those manuals must be written for everybody to understand and I have to filter out the technical stuff. The people that write input for me are highly educated but even they are losing the rules on how to form a sentence.

    Using shortcuts like rolf when playing an online game where you have to write fast while trying to kill a monster is one thing and understandable,. I do this myself. Even using theis language in SMS texting is fully acceptable as you pay per SMS with only 128 characters space. using 129 characters will cost you 2 SMS. But using this when creating a document that is meant for everybody to read you must still use the accepted formal standards for a language. If my copywriters (developers writen C# code) use these shortcuts to often I have to go back to them to ask what they mean.

    going back to the title:
    The technology is not killing the language. The people that use the technology is killing it. But in some way this is acceptable as al others have said before. We have to learn to use what sub language in what situation/device.

    • “Those manuals must be written for everybody to understand ”
      Ahhh, so that is why most manuals are written in Ingrish. :-)

  7. Languages seldom die, they are indeed dynamic, and change with time. As long as there are people to speak it, a language stays alive, even though it might not be anything like it used to be. Think Old-English. if you can read Beowulf without a dictionary, you are a time traveler.

    There problem is with communications, not with languages. Communication means much more, and it is suffering right now. People do not talk to each other. They cannot express themselves, except in the simplest form, in very short sentences, primitive terms, in 140 characters (like a text message or tweet). Prose is becoming degraded to pulp-fiction (50 grades of hay anyone?) It’s not like there are no good writers, but they get no publicity. Anyone writing with a style and talent of e.g. Dostoyevsky would not be published today. On the Internet, people expect everything to be short and superficial. 500 words is the norm. Normally it would not be enough to even begin talking about an idea in any depth. People’s attention-span is practically non-existent…

    I have read an argument on a forum, where one made a lengthy reply, and the other retorted with “I do not read such long texts. I write in a more efficient way. Perhaps one day you will grow to my level.”

    Grow. As in become better by not reading. So sad. Couple this with the tendency of people talking/writing/posting about themselves as a primary subject. They have no interest in listening, they only want to talk. Little do they care what the others have to say, they know instead.

    Visual communications are nothing better. No more do we snap memories we’d like to remember. We snap ourselves to show to others. It does not matter what the situation is, I am the subject. Watch me!

    Yet, while technology plays a fine part in spreading the culture of being self-centered and over-simplified (flat design all the way!!!), it is us the people who make this happen. Technology is only a tool. Only we are to blame for how we use it.

  8. But the same tool that is changing existing languages (and maybe killing some obscure, little-used languages) is ushering in a host of new languages. The ability to freely communicate globally has led to the creation of many new, made-from-scratch languages, or ‘constructed languages’. Most are personal or shared with a small group of people. Others (like Klingon, Na’vi, Dothraki) have caught on, and have a worldwide following.
    So although our current language may be changing (and a language that doesn’t change generally doesn’t survive), there are exciting things happening on the language front, mainly due to the internet.

  9. Nearing “Coot” status myself, I too am somewhat torn between anxiety over the loss of what I was taught at chalk-point way back in my formative years, and the excitement of having new words to play with. However, I guess I’ll never understand why it was necessary to have “ginormous” added to the OED, when the 2 words it is taken from are both still perfectly understandable, still in common use today, and almost completely interchangeable.

    My real concern is not over the use of Internet slang, abbreviations, invented shortcuts, etc., but rather the total lack of understanding or even knowledge of still used words and expressions that today’s kids (and *really* sadly many adults…), no longer seem to understand at all. For instance, as previously mentioned their vs. there vs. they’re (that last almost never seen anymore). But also, to, two and too are all now just “to”. When was the last time you saw “too” used correctly, if at all? And what about your and you’re? I have no problem seeing the Text/IM version “UR” used, as mentioned above “in the proper medium”, but everywhere else all you see now is “your”, regardless of context or conversational intent.
    And the comments about getting a job with so little language/communication skill are apparently all moot these days. I’ve been with a nationwide corporation for 24+ years and you would not believe the typically nonsensical – and usually completely unintelligible – memoranda that comes out of our “professional” HR dept.
    It is evidently more important today to pass kids along to the next grade even though many can barely speak, let alone read or write…
    We were always taught to first learn the proper usage, and only then play around with it for effect.

    • “It is evidently more important today to pass kids along to the next grade even though many can barely speak”
      It would not do if their little, fragile egos got bruised by being told the truth about their (in)ability to speak properly, let alone being left back because of that (in)ability. Besides, it is quite difficult for teachers to teach kids that feel entitled to being promoted to the next grade just for having shown up.

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