Insights: Blogs

Eleanor Southern-Wilkins
Eleanor Southern-Wilkins Linguistic Specialist

‘Humans today communicate – and read and write – more than at any time in our history.’

Linguistics is, in my moderate experience, a widely and grievously misunderstood subject. People know it has something to do with language; from there, assumptions tend to branch off into two disparate but equally misinformed areas. First, that linguistics is learning how to speak other languages – all other languages, some seem to believe. (“Hey Eleanor, you studied linguistics – what does this Icelandic/Swahili/Dothraki word mean? How do I say that in Danish? Why aren’t you reacting?”) And second, that linguistics is the study of grammar, spelling, and correct language use.

I’m happy to confirm that neither of these slightly alarming views is correct. To the first point: I can see where the confusion comes from, as people who speak multiple languages are often referred to as linguists. I’m therefore even more sorry to disappoint, but during my study of linguistics, I didn’t learn hundreds of other languages.

The second point, too, is somewhat grounded in common sense, or in history at least. In the past, linguists (or grammarians, as they were called then) were concerned with telling people how to speak, how to write, and generally the best way to use language. They laid down grammar rules; they decided what was right and wrong. This is where many of today’s grammar rules stem from and is known as prescriptive linguistics: it prescribed the correct way to speak and criticized those who didn’t speak like that.

Nowadays, however, the field has swung in the opposite direction. This is perhaps a result of increasingly tolerant views, or maybe the growing realization over the decades that no matter how much you tell people how they should use language, they will continue to use it however they want and there’s nothing you can do except become more and more enraged – or maybe it’s because this is a far more fascinating and richly varied field of study. For whatever reason, the field has shifted to a descriptive rather prescriptive approach. A particularly accessible and fascinating area of study is language variation and change, which considers things like how people actually use language, whether and in what way and why it’s changing, and what this means.

We’re living in an incredibly exciting time for linguistics. The immense surge in new technologies in recent years, most notably the advent of the internet, has brought ground-breaking changes to every aspect of our lives, and the very language we use is no exception to this. If we consider for a moment the way humans used to use written communication in the past – books, newspapers and letters were the most common channels – and then we think about what is available to us today, it’s clear that we’re living in a different world. Humans today communicate – and read and write – more than at any time in our history. The plethora of new mediums we have at our fingertips means there is also a vast variety of channels for communication.

Each of these channels – not just books and letters anymore, but phone calls, texting, Skype, Snapchat – comes with its own affordances, that is, enablements and constraints. The enablements of a medium are the positive features which improve or enable your communication; a phone call, for example, allows you to hear tone of voice, to converse in real time, to be a great distance apart from your conversational partner. The constraints, on the other hand, are the aspects that make communication more difficult; during a phone call you can’t see facial expressions, or gestures, or judge interruptions as easily as in face-to-face conversation.

All the enablements and constraints of the mediums we use to communicate have some impact on the language we use. If we tried to use language in exactly the same way when writing a letter as when phoning a landline, for example, communication might break down, or at least be extremely difficult. Fortunately, we humans are really, really good at language. We subconsciously vary our usage – our speech and our writing – to make it medium-appropriate and therefore effective and comprehensible.

There is a riotous profusion of new mediums available to us in our modern world, with not only the more obvious channels that have impacted working life, like email, conference calls and video calls, but also platforms intended (at least in part) for social use. These channels – WhatsApp, Snapchat, Skype, FaceTime, iMessage – alongside the social media platforms of the moment – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, to name but a few – have risen to global popularity within a few short years. And crucially, as they develop, so too does the language we use for each one.

“Language itself changes slowly but the internet has speeded up the process of those changes so you notice them more quickly” – Crystal, 2010

Language is changing all the time – it always has, and it always will. As those grammarians of yesteryear should have known, there is little we can do to halt these changes; now, thanks to the internet, they seem to be getting faster and more noticeable all the time. This doesn’t mean, however, that language, which used to be elegant and beautiful, now isn’t; it doesn’t mean children are forgetting how to write or speak; it doesn’t mean we are losing our ability to communicate ‘well’. On the contrary, you could argue that language now is at the most advanced it has ever been, simply because there are just so many brand new ways of using it.

Stephen Fry wrote a characteristically joyful and verbose blog post about this subject, which manifests as a sort of love letter to language and language change. It may also provide some help and advice if, say, your natural reaction when people mix up ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ is irritation and teeth-grinding. See also this post, for a more internet-specific look at recent language changes, and why we should be celebrating these new developments rather than wringing our hands in despair.