Linguistic Anthropology

How is technology changing the way we use language?
Answered by Professor Naomi Baron and Anya Kamenetz
  • Professor Naomi Baron

    Professor Naomi Baron

  • Anya Kamenetz

    Anya Kamenetz

  1. Professor Naomi Baron Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director, Center for Teaching, Research and Learning, Department of Language and Foreign Studies, American University

    The popular press has led many people to believe that the explosion of first email, and then IM and texting, has led language down a destructive path: all that bad spelling and grammar, random punctuation, and all those abbreviations, acronyms, and emoticons. There are two presumptions in this assumption: first, that language has indeed changed and second, that the change is destructive.

    Has contemporary digital technology really changed language that much? If you look at writing patterns over the past fifty years or so, you’ll find that our notions regarding the importance of “writing mechanics” have shifted dramatically. Grammar? Don’t be so prescriptive. Punctuation? Follow more the way we speak (so-called rhetorical punctuation) rather than traditional rules for writing (so-called logical punctuation). Spelling? Isn’t that what spell check is for? It turns out that many of the “errors” we complain about finding in IMs or text messages have their roots in the writing of young people before online and mobile communication became available.

    As for abbreviations and acronyms, a quick check of history shows that such shortenings date back centuries, even millennia. With emoticons, while there are hundreds of options out there, empirical research indicates that unless you are a teenager or young adult wanting to show how “in” or “cool” you can be, the vast majority of people stick to at most a small handful. I’ve written about some of these issues in Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It’s Heading and in Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World.

    More answers from Professor Naomi Baron »

  2. Anya Kamenetz Author, Fast Company Writer, Educational Futurist

    I think it is a really fascinating time, obviously. Oddly enough, I studied postmodernism in college and critical theory. And they talked a lot about the death of the author, and the permeability of the text, and all of these kinds of very abstract ideas that are actually coming true today in the sense that anyone can write anything, they can put it out there, it can circulate freely.  Other people can comment on it and dissent. 

    And, as someone who makes my living through writing, it’s a really exciting time because you always want to be in conversation.  Ideally, if you’re going to survive in today’s world, you’re going to be in conversation.  And, the word of the author is never the final word, and that is a really interesting and exciting place to be. 

    It’s almost merging, I think, the oral and the written culture, which have been separated for a long time. Almost since the time of Homer, we have had this idea of let’s just memorize and recite it versus what is written down.  And now, those two things are coming back together and I think it’s actually really cool.

    More answers from Anya Kamenetz »



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