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What follows is a hypothesis of mine. I'm wondering if there's historical merit for my hypothesis.

It seems the English language has a much bigger change between the documents produced in the early 1800s to those produced in the early 1900s, than the early 1900s documents have until now. For example, in the late 1700s/early 1800s, the letter u was still sometimes represented as v (i.e. as in the US Constitution), but no such changes in the glyphs used to represent the language, nor "structure words" (words critical to language structure, i.e. "is" or "the" or "a"), have occurred in the last hundred years. There have been significant changes in typical vocabulary, but not in language structure.

I suspect that a large reason for this is the spread of mass communication systems, such as office typewriters, Xerox machines, rail transportation, telegraph, and (most recently) computers. My guess is that the reason is that when you have mass communication at the scale these technologies span, standardized language becomes much more important. Consider if the letter u being represented as v (as I pointed to earlier) -- this would be a monumental change which would be unlikely to appear in the modern era, simply because of the number of standards (i.e. ASCII, Unicode, most all information exchange definitions, fonts, most programming language definitions, etc) which would be affected would be enormous. Couple this with the fact that English is already easy for computers to work with (no letters running together (like those which require complicated typesetting systems i.e. Uniscribe), relatively small number of glyphs, no stackable accent marks, etc.), and it seems like major changes to the language itself would be prohibitively expensive in the modern era.

Does any of this make sense, and is there historical justification for it? Or is this my own subjective babble? :)

EDIT: To clarify: I think the typical vocabulary of the language is still going to change (who ever heard of Googling something 15 years ago?), but that the glyphs and structure will not.

EDIT: The reason for the bounty is that at this point th only posted answers have merely been opinions; I'm interested in historical precedent in either direction.

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The future generation will have no idea that "fail" was once a verb. –  jbpjackson Jan 27 '11 at 2:33
    
@jjackson: Because it's now often used as an interjection? :P –  Billy ONeal Jan 27 '11 at 2:57
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Fail is still a verb. –  kiamlaluno Jan 27 '11 at 6:52
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@kiamlaluno & Billy ONeal: It's, sadly, now often used as a noun. e.g. "That was massive fail!" I find it annoying but it's increasing popular. –  advs89 Feb 23 '11 at 19:30
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@horatio: Nothing on the English language is authoritative. That doesn't mean that you can't look at texts from a long time ago and see differences in how the language is used. Just because you cannot think of an answer does not mean the question is unanswerable. –  Billy ONeal Feb 23 '11 at 20:14

10 Answers 10

up vote 7 down vote accepted
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Consider if the letter u being represented as v (as I pointed to earlier) — this would be a monumental change which would be unlikely to appear in the modern era, simply because of the number of standards (i.e. ASCII, Unicode, most all information exchange definitions, fonts, most programming language definitions, etc) which would be affected would be enormous.

I don’t think this is a particularly useful example for your hypothesis. If the English language needed to create another letter distinction such as the one that evolved between u and v, many of these pragmatic considerations might be avoidable if we simply borrowed another commonly-available glyph (from another language, a ligature or currency symbol, or whatever) instead of creating an entirely new letter shape. After all, that’s pretty similar to what happened with u and v: as you point out, the two shapes started off as orthographic variants of the same letter. In the 1800s, it would have been extremely expensive to add a new glyph to the metal type on printing presses — so when a distinction arose, they stuck to the glyphs everyone already had on hand.

Spelling reforms might be another “systematic change” in the English language. While it’s true that popular dictionaries have regularized formal spelling in the past couple centuries, that shift began before your hypothesized timing. Also, note that informal spelling has resisted such change; the orthographic shorthand often used in SMS and instant messaging represents one obvious example of the continuing evolution of accepted spelling in informal contexts.

You’ve indicated that adopting new vocabulary isn’t a systematic change, so widespread importation of words when English is forced to co-exist closely with another language doesn’t seem to be a relevant issue either. You also mentioned “structure words”, but those haven’t changed noticeably in the last couple hundred years, either. I’m pretty sure there haven’t been any major changes in the acceptability of different syntax structures in modern English, although I don’t have handy data for that one.

I’m unsure how to get solid data about the frequency of significant morphological and grammatical changes on this 100–200 year timescale, so I can’t address those aspects.

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Switching to a more opinionated response — I counter-hypothesize that, to the extent any current major decreases in the rate of structural change to the English language have resulted from adopting new communications technologies, such trends stem from the introduction of moveable type as the point (1) where economies of scale reached a significant tipping point for the (relatively) widespread geographical distribution of many distinct works, and (2) when publishers began to invest in technology systems that relied upon the continued use of a single standard orthography. –  Lucas Feb 24 '11 at 0:22
    
This is an awesome answer. +1 (for now at least). –  Billy ONeal Feb 28 '11 at 23:27

I think the meanings and subtle connotations of words change far less now, principally because people read so much now from such a geographically wide range of writing. Especially those who use the internet, who are likely to read many articles and perhaps write some that will also be read worldwide. For example, before the internet people might be exposed for the most part to content written quite locally, whereas now, blogs, news websites, question and answer websites, general websites, computer operating systems (menus, help instructions, etc.), adverts etc. all use very standard english that will seem normal to most who view it; therefore minorities (of those using some other meaning of a word, a little known word or phrase, etc.) consume material almost solely intended for the majority, and so are likely to adopt that over time.

These reasons could apply to other parts of language too, but this seems most obvious.

However this is only in written language; the majority of verbal communication will still be very local and this is unlikely to change much. In spite of that, technology in a sense not considered much on this question, that is, not information technology I suspect has changed speech quite significantly: temporary and permanent travel around is so much easier, internationally and nationally, and so people are much more exposed to other dialects, nuances, idioms, phrases, and meanings and connotations from others. For example, here in the UK accents of different regions and cities are very intermingled, compared to those of previous generations, when people and families tended to stay and live where they'd been born. Still though, I reckon speech is less yielding to changes resulting from technolofy than writing.

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We use language correctly when other people understand what we say and write. So "fail" can, and perhaps will, become a noun when people understand what it means as a noun. What happened to the words "action," "recognition," and so on? Most new words are either technical. Although some are simply misused words. When we understand how they are used, they will no longer be misused. Our needs determine our language. So it is unlikely that technology has slowed or stopped the development of the core English language. What do we mean when we use the word "development?""Google" is now a verb that either means to use the search engine Google to search on the internet (trans.) or to simply search on the internet (intrans). Think about what "to facebook" someone means. Will these terms takeover words and phrases such as "search" and "make friends?" --Probably not.

I read an article a few years ago in Harper's Magazine that went something like this: they are destroying the minds of the youth, as the children spend all day sitting on couches and not doing anything productive. The article was written in the 1850s and was referring to the influence novels. The article was much better than my poor paraphrasing of it. However, the point should be clear.

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All of your points are vocabulary only, which I explicitly excluded from consideration in my question. –  Billy ONeal Mar 1 '11 at 15:24
    
Yeah sorry, my point was tangential, and really responding to jjackson –  Jon Mar 2 '11 at 2:06

New things in structure and representation still happen. Sometimes exactly because of the introduction of new technology. Two examples:

  • Emoticons. As far as I know they were mostly unheard of before the rise of email / online communication.

  • SMS messages often bear only remote resemblance to standard English grammar and spelling.

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Neither of these are anywhere close to remotely being considered "standard english" though. –  Billy ONeal Mar 1 '11 at 4:07
    
Exactly my point. I'd almost say it is a necessary precondition for a new development to not be part of the current standard. These are new ways of using the English language and they may become part of the standard if they survive long enough. Like many new developments before. –  user3448 Mar 2 '11 at 1:05

As a coda to this discussion, let me add that the modern editor has a played a role in standardizing the language. Newspaper, magazine, journal, and book editors work professionally to ensure that written expression conforms to the best examples of usage and (usually) adheres to the American standard dialect.

That is, if a writer from New York submits copy that contains the phrase, "standing on line," unless the publican is highly provincial, most editors will silently emend that to "standing in line." It isn't widespread printing that has leveled out usage as much as systematic editing and the use of style sheets.

A secondary consideration is the role of language as a class marker. This exerts continuous pressure that devalues dialects and promotes conformity to standard English.* Of course, much about language is highly political and postmodern theory is sharply critical of notions regarding authority.

All this said, the Internet does strongly encourage language play, as seen with l33tspeak, lolcatspeak, "fail," "ur doin it wrong," and other linguistic memes. Many users frequently employ specialized jargon and syntax (e.g., Anonymous/4chan) to solidify group identity and mark insiders versus outsiders.

(*"Standard English" in the context above should be interpreted as the dialect favored by national news readers. Some consider this to be a Midwestern accent, free of regionalisms. Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, et al., are representative speakers.)

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But standing "on/in" line is a vocabulary change; something I explicitly am not talking about. I'm more talking about the glyphs of the language itself and the few words which denote sentence structure. +1 for the 1337 thing though. –  Billy ONeal Mar 1 '11 at 0:39
    
Actually, it's not a "change," but rather an example of regional dialect. The point being extended to you is that it doesn't promulgate because we have gatekeepers of the language who ensure that it doesn't. This is pertinent to your question. –  The Raven Mar 1 '11 at 1:25

To answer the original question: No, technology has not slowed or stopped the development of the English language. This is partly because language is always developing, but also because it is difficult to define what you might mean by "slowed or stopped development".

However, technology has proven effects on how English has developed.

It is a historical fact that the advent of widespread printing encouraged fixed and consistent spelling. Unfortunately, it happened just as English was undergoing a wave of spelling changes, so many words are stuck. This was not helped by numerous scholars "correcting" the spelling of words, often based on perceived etymology.

Likewise, it is also true that the loss of the letters thorn (þ) and eth (ð) were finalised with the popularity of movable type, because movable type was popularised in Germany and German doesn't have those letters.

A more modern example is the advent of trans-Atlantic communication. Scholars have argued that North American English was on the road to diverging from British English, until this was slowed by the advent of radio communication. It could be argued that even today, this still helps keep the major dialects of English mutually intelligible, whilst at the same time encouraging faster development by borrowing from more places than ever.

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Not sure how much (if anything) it might add to your point, but my mom never gets sick of pointing out how much weaker accents have gotten since she was my age. She went to the University of Georgia for a few years, and when she went back to Virginia, it took hours before she and her mother could understand each other again. She remembers one girl from New York who had to communicate with her professors almost entirely in writing. –  kitukwfyer Mar 1 '11 at 3:15

I think that it's a bit of both. Many, if not every language has a large portion of its words borrowed from other languages, nearly all of English is Nordic, French, German, Latin or Arabic. Native speakers of many different languages talking together (even if in one language) will bring more words in, maybe just as a note of "how we say it" or "this is what we call it, I can't fully translate it to English".

The other side of it, people shortening words doesn't do much harm, it's always temporary, and not all many use it. A lot of companies come up with silly new words for their products.

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Don't forget Greek (lots of direct contributions, besides those via Latin and French). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_words_of_Greek_origin –  Andy Feb 28 '11 at 21:44

It does make some sense that computers and the Internet stifle change in English. However, in the opposite direction, there are some changes that are due to modern technology. While I can't think of any in English, one in Romanian is the now-common use of cedillas under the letters s and t where commas used to be used: computer systems for a long time only supported cedillas, so those became common. (Unicode now supports both, so perhaps the pendulum will swing back.)

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+1 -- this is a good point. I don't think it applies to English that much because (as I said in the original question) English just happens to be a language which is easy for computers to process (no connected letters, no stacked accent marks, fits within the 128 codepoint boundary, etc). I seem to recall a similar event in Spanish recently where they decided to make the letter "rr" sort lexicographically as it would if they were two separate letters, because computers have such a difficult time treating "rr" as a single letter when it looks like two everywhere else. –  Billy ONeal Feb 23 '11 at 19:04
    
(However I can't checkmark this because it really doesn't apply to English) –  Billy ONeal Feb 23 '11 at 19:04

It does make sense. Fixation and normalization of the written word are the result of printing becoming widespread and cheap. I don’t think it’s a matter of standardization becoming important as much as it is a matter of drift becoming more expensive and just less likely. The variation of spelling in English history you note is probably the most obvious and measurable judge. How many ways was the Bard’s name spelt at one point? I’ll bet some great statistics could be cooked up. I think Google even has an API/lab for searching historical documents now… though the URL/name eludes me.

In spoken language the United States was on its way to pretty divergent dialects a hundred years ago. I’d argue that radio and then television halted this and even began to reverse it. The kids born in Brunswick today will have no trouble conversing with those born in Beaumont when they land in SoCal; they are all raised on audible media mostly comprising a narrow band of neutral Canadian/Central-US accents.

This and the print issue are the same; distribution and access versus geography and lack of example. In evolutionary terms, mutations are tremendously reduced. The speed of evolution is slowed.

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I think Google NGrams is the tool you're thinking of. –  Peter Taylor Jan 27 '11 at 9:57

I don't think that technology has reduced the rate at which language develops - but it has homogenized it somewhat (although, there are still regional variations - British-English and US-English being the obvious). In fact, the homogenization started some time ago with the introduction of the printing press and standardised dictionaries.

We are still gaining new words, losing old ones, replacing the meanings of words, and so on - and I'm pretty sure even grammar is evolving.

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You didn't read the whole question. I'm saying the typical vocabulary is still free to change, but that the actual glyphs used and general structure (i.e. and is a conjunction which combines two clauses) are not. (That's why I said "core" english language instead of just english language) –  Billy ONeal Jan 26 '11 at 22:15
    
ah, sorry... I'll add a bit more to my answer –  HorusKol Jan 27 '11 at 1:13

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