language change and slang

New media – friend or foe for the English language?

© Kasia Biel - Fotolia.comIn the beginning there was the letter. Handwritten, focused, thought-provoking and sincere. Sentences would be considered, structured, and formulated in a way that could evoke any number of feelings and emotions, and it was the sort of piece that, when you finished writing, you felt content with the product in front of you: happy to send out to the intended recipient.

Then along came email, crossing the divide between speaking and writing. Dry, to-the-point – often cold – but undeniably and intrinsically useful. Business changed overnight. Expectations rose, and concentration was dispersed across an ever-increasing number of areas. No longer could the same degree of time and preparation be put into the writing, as speed was of the essence. A level of etiquette was deemed necessary when initiating correspondence via email, as, over time, people recognised that the tone could be interpreted as short or blasé.

A little later, with the invention of the mobile phone, arrived text messages. Ideal for staying in touch, whilst at the same time introducing the art form that is text language to English. A colourful combination of symbols, numbers and characters: bewildering or informative, depending on the age of the receiver.

The arrival of the blog represents an open platform ideal for creating worldwide debate, yet so liberal that many forums are called upon to censor content before posting opinions.

But the latest phenomenon seems to be Twitter, on which much has been written of late. Information sharing seems to be all the rage, regardless of whether said information is useful or not. (NB – the irony that we implement Twitter within the Macmillan Dictionary pages has not escaped me …)

But what effect has this media transformation had on the English language?

Well, where has the focus gone? Our attention today is diverted or distracted so frequently that we need to be able to show considerable levels of concentration to resist society’s constant pestering. So surely then the impact on the language is fairly stark. Would researchers and lecturers have needed to pose questions on whether grammar is really important, or should we really insist on teaching spelling, if this were not the case? Isn’t the most important aspect to get the message across?

This debate will continue for years to come, but the dividing line between written and spoken English does seem to be fading, thanks to electronic media and the speed with which our words can be conveyed. So should we sit back, feet up, and admit that it is simply the natural progression of English: like it or loathe it, there’s little that can be done? Or is it the sort of situation, as Churchill memorably remarked, ‘up with which we should not put?’

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Finn Kirkland


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