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Education Technology News: Technology and Language: A Reflection of Our Culture

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January 18, 2011

Technology and Language: A Reflection of Our Culture

By Juliana Kenny, TMCnet Managing Editor

Warning to all English wordsmiths: Our language has acquired a new host of words. And to what do we owe this achievement? Technology, of course.

In a few words, the MLA, the AP, and the Chicago literary styles, which regulate the crafting of newsworthy publications, are soon to be thrown into a tizzy because of the rapid assimilation of words that have been coined via the Internet and its subsequent offspring.

 “Tweet,” “Friend,” “Unfriend,” “Viral,” and “Social Media,” are just a few of the words that have recently been added to the most widely-used English dictionaries. As it becomes more glaringly clear that technology rules our lives, nowhere does it appear more prevalently than within the very structure of our language.

While technology changes and advances at a rate so rapid those of us in the industry can barely keep up, its influences have somehow managed to penetrate the most staunch and rooted institution of our culture: our words. Of course, English today is not what English was when Geoffrey Chaucer was writing it (let’s get serious, it doesn’t look similar in the least), but the swift inclusion of words that have only been around for a couple of years signals the great and powerful influence that technology has on our culture.

All right, we officially gained a whole bunch of new words. So, what? We’ve all been using “tweet” as a verb for some time now, even without the nod of Merriam and Webster. What’s the big deal? Well, there are two sides to every coin, and the flexibility of language is no different.

Children have begun to use tech speak and casual instant messaging verbiage in essays for school. Some students do not realize that putting “u” in place of “you” in a formal essay for their eleventh grade English class is not acceptable. Why would they? They use it all the time while typing to friends, writing notes, and on Facebook (News - Alert), which we know they’re on 80 percent of the day anyway.

Michael Robin, English teacher in New Haven, CT school district said in an interview, “Technology is definitely a double-edged sword in the classroom. Students are so used to writing with informal diction that I've had to remind them to capitalize the beginnings of sentences in their papers, and I have had to take cell phones away from distracted students on a daily basis. But technology can also make difficult ideas more accessible. For example, last year, I had my students compose 'tweets' from the perspective of Hamlet.”

Cultural developments such as this one may bode ill for the preservation of grammar and spelling, which have begun to fall by the wayside, but they simultaneously introduce more constructive ways in which to incorporate a better understanding of how English used to work, and how it works today. This trend poses the question: How important is the preservation of our words?

The French have one answer, possibly the most conservative on this subject. L’Academie Francaise, founded in 1634 by Cardinal Richelieu, exists solely for the purpose of preserving and regulating the French language. The influence of English on French has been a sore subject for “Les Immortels” of the Academy for years. You can’t go to McDonald’s in France, but you can go “chez McDo,” which, literally translated means, “at the house of McDo.” Seemingly petrified of the “Americanization” of its language, France takes the assimilation of words quite seriously. So seriously in fact that the French government has banned the word “email,” as reported by the AP, replacing “email” with “courriel” or “courriel electronique,” which, translated means, “electronic mail.”

This institutionalist attitude from France arguably stems from its historical roots. The country’s notorious nationalism was spawned primarily during the years of Napoleon’s rule. The US, on the other hand, has a starkly different history – one that includes similar functioning to an orphanage: We’ll take anybody who speaks anything. Or at least, we used to. Bill Bryson, noted author, stated in his book The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got that Way, that one of the “glories” of English is “its willingness to take in words from abroad, rather as if they were refugees. We take words from almost anywhere – ‘shampoo’ from India, ‘ketchup’ from China, ‘potato’ from Haiti, ‘slogan’ from Gaelic.”

As speakers and writers of the English language, we are also open to creating words, especially when it comes to technology. TMC’s CEO Rich Tehrani (News - Alert) coined the term “splinternet,” referring to websites that spawn from others, effectively “splintering” from the original site. Bryson writes, “For a century and a half, from 1500 to 1650, English flowed with new words. Between 10,000 and 12,000 words were coined, of which about half still exist. Not until modern times would this number be exceeded, but even then there is no comparison. The new words of today represent an explosion of technology.”

Technology’s influence over the development of the English language extends further than just a few mere words entering dictionaries. Social media speak, or what form of communication people use online while interacting with each other via blogs, instant messaging, Facebook, or other sources of communication now signifies where you are from, and potentially what your background is. Depending on what form of slang you use, you might indicate where you live in the US according to a recent study by computer scientists.

The English-speaking world’s willingness to adopt words, as well as create them and then use them profusely (e.g. Shakespeare) reflects this culture’s priorities as a whole. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that French-speaking people don’t feel like using “email,” it just shows you where that culture’s priorities lie. The only catch is that the recent outcropping of technology-related words we have so quickly assumed into our language may prove to be a type of glue for what has developed into a disturbingly rifted world.

Tehrani noted, “As more terms become common in disparate languages, the potential exists for the world to grow closer as barriers to communications are reduced. It is my hope these developments over time increase understanding between cultures which may not be on ideal terms today. In other words, as you are able to understand people of other faiths and nationalities more easily, we hopefully will end up with a more accepting and tolerant world.”

Out of such an etymological study as this one, if the peacemaking of cultures can be the end result, this reporter is all for it.

Juliana Kenny graduated from the University of Connecticut with a double degree in English and French. After managing a small company for two years, she joined TMC (News - Alert) as a Web Editor for TMCnet. Juliana currently focuses on the call center and CRM industries, but she also writes about cloud telephony and network gear including softswitches.

Edited by Juliana Kenny


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