Technology is Not Destroying Language
Effect of Democratization of Linguistic Prescription on the Meaning Potential of Language (Original Title)
This article is one of the essays I’ve written in university a while ago (May 2017, to be precise), and it’s one of the few that I still actually like. It is a response to a particular point he made in his lecture on the history of meaning. He was obviously a very accomplished linguist and I don’t possess the knowledge to thoroughly understand his whole lecture, but he did mention the negative effects (as he had perceived) of technology on language, which I don’t exactly agree with. Here’s the original, unedited version of the essay:
The meaning potential of language has evolved throughout human history as environment changed from “the forest to the farm to the factory”. Halliday (2010) has described the increase in the meaning potential of language, relating it to a few factors, namely the change in context and environment, language planning, and translators. He commented on the role of modern technology in destructing language by “reducing meaning to a series of bite-sized chunks”. I will argue that the media and technology of modern society does not inhibit language, but allows language to diversify and evolve for better, as well as comment on the various factors that Halliday raised regarding the increase of meaning potential.
Modern technology, including television, the Internet, text messaging and social media, according to Halliday, has contributed to the replacement of thoughtful discourse with verbal brawling (Halliday, 2010) seen in the sarcastically termed “good television”. This narrow-minded notion has missed the big picture and the overall trend of knowledge in the 21st century. Television and instant messaging are two frequently ridiculed pieces of technology triggering the decline of knowledge and language which Halliday mentioned. They are, in fact, becoming more sophisticated and require more intellectual processing than before, expanding the cognitive capabilities of new generations of consumers of such media and information. Contrary to public perception, narrative complexity in modern television has only increased, following the decline of the principle of “least objectionable programming”. It instead made producers favour more narratively complex shows for a narrower, more uniform audience by introducing longer story arcs in light of the rise of platforms allowing more personalized choices of television programmes (Mittell, 2015). Each series contains multiple timelines and narratives, and frequently makes references to past episodes, meaning that modern television shows are by no means “brainless” and void of thoughtful discourse.
Instant messaging (texting) is the other criticism of Halliday’s regarding the decline of today’s language. However, there is no concluding evidence which proves the harmful effects of instant messaging on how the population uses language. McWhorter (2013) explained that “text-speak” is a newly emerging form of language, which does not replace the current forms of writing. In fact, it is described as kind of “fingered speech”, instead of carefully thought-out writing. Fluency in both text-speak and formal writing is “an expansion of their linguistic repertoire”, as the users are bidialectal, which is full of cognitive benefits in the same way bilingualism is (Marian, 2012). Furthermore, this fear of language being destroyed has persisted over generations, which all were proved to be unfounded. Harvard President Charles Eliot has said in 1871, “Bad spelling, incorrectness, as well as inelegance of expression in writing, ignorance of the simplest rules of punctuation… are far from rare among young men otherwise well prepared for college studies.” The Sunday Magazine in the same year also commented that “We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to have a good talk over a real sheet of paper.” Reality has proved this kind of paranoia is uncorroborated, and it is reasonable to assume that current criticisms on the modern evolution of language is not any different. The capacity for the new generation to mean has only increased with more varied media which they can consume and the ease of communication and knowledge exchange.
Language planning has considerably increased the meaning potential of language, mostly through standardization of language by government or academic institutions such as the Académie française which controlled most of how Standard French should be used. Although these institutions sometimes serve as a bridge between the intellectuals and the commoners in the pre-industrial era when universal education was not a prevalent notion, their role has become more and more limiting, which is analogous to Halliday’s interpretation of the role of corporate capitalism in modern society. He failed to mention, however, how these language regulatory bodies pose a threat to the natural evolution and exchange of language by imposing standards on an educated populace. Although a net decrease of meaning potential due to the existence of these institutions is unlikely, they are likely to inhibit the growth and diversification of language by restraining its users to express their thoughts in ways they favour, and having to instead cater to an arbitrary standard set by a group of unelected academics. Nevertheless, this inhibiting effect is minimal as the advent of communication technologies such as personal computers and smartphones counteract the authority of these linguistic institutions by equipping ordinary people with the capability to influence a large audience, an audience which the author does not know personally, in the same way the institutions had the overwhelming power to dictate how people actually used language in the past. Therefore, language planning does increase the meaning potential of language by enriching the language they regulate, its effects have been diminished due to modern technology enabling everyone to have a louder voice. Translators play a similar role to institutions in setting precedents as to how a new concept should be called in the target language. As Halliday mentioned, a prominent example is the introduction of scientific and academic terms into China in the 1920s. In the modern world, the influence of individual translators have decreased considerably as more people are becoming multilingual, and are able to access more materials previously inaccessible to the majority of the population. Modern communication technology decentralized the process of publishing and thus dismantled the monopoly on deciding whether a language variety is deemed appropriate. It is what made institutions’ and translators’ role on increasing the meaning potential less prominent along with their diminishing influence.
The rise of modern technology has altered the power dynamic between the authorities and ordinary users of language by taking power from institutions and scholars and giving them to everyone else. The decentralization promoted language exchange between individuals, diversifying it, as well as democratized linguistic prescription. These technologies serve to increase the meaning potential by engaging more people into the active evolution of language, rather than limiting it to a handful of elites. Language has been evolving for the better, and it will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
- Marian, V. (2012). The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual. The Dana Foundation. Retrieved from http://dana.org/Cerebrum/2012/The_Cognitive_Benefits_of_Being_Bilingual/
- McWhorter, J. (2013). Txtng is killing language. JK!!!. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmvOgW6iV2s
- Mittell, J. (2015). Why has TV storytelling become so complex? Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/why-has-tv-storytelling-become-so-complex-37442
- Xkcd. (2017). The Pace of Modern Life. Retrieved from https://xkcd.com/1227/