Language Change and Technology

Following up on my last blog, it is worth discussing another important cause of language change: technology. While technological innovation and dissemination have always influenced language change, some speculate that the scale of such influence today may lead to more rapid and significant changes than in the past due to the nature of contemporary technological innovation and dissemination.

Historically, technological advances tended to increase the social and economic phenomena to talk about thus requiring new words, new phrases or semantic expansion of old words and phrases as well as to increase contact between peoples and the consequent impacts of such contact (and domination). These types of changes are obviously still occurring today and doing so on a greater scale. The contemporary extinction of minority languages and expansion of dominant languages, especially English, are the most drastic and sensational of the latter type of changes, and new words/phrases such as “google” (transitive verb), “infomania”, “hypermiling”, and “password fatigue” are interesting examples of the former type (of which Webster’s New World Dictionary language monitoring program finds about 2,000 examples a month).

In addition to these types of language changes, however, there is another speculated, if not evidenced, change that seems entirely novel, which we might call the minimization, the simplification or the “dumbing down” of language. This process is the speculated consequence of a new generation of speakers who have developed their daily use of language significantly, if not predominantly, through chat rooms and text messaging rather than through books, lectures, radio and face-to-face conversations. It is to be seen of course just how serious this process might be and the labeling of it as “dumbing down” or “making more efficient” (i.e., linguistic economy) may be more of a matter of value judgment than description.