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Technologies: 19th-20th Centuries

June 6, 2016

Technologies have always shaped language — in its broadest sense, technologies would include the knife and stick used to keep tallies of goods in ancient civilisations (innovating the idea of recorded language), the carving of symbols into stone, the creation of parchment and the scroll/the codex book for recording and storing increasing numbers of linguistic marks, the quill and ink, the pencil, and so on. More recognisable as modern technologies which have had increasingly dominant influence on language change are those  mechanical and electronic communications devices which have sped up the dissemination of texts and speech in an increasingly globalised world. Printing is perhaps the earliest such means of mass production and dissemination of identical texts; but later innovations such as the rotary press and the steam-driven press assisted in the foundation of print journalism and mass media.

There are categories of technology which change the world itself and enable people to come into contact, thereby spreading and transforming language. These date back to boat travel and roads, underpinning trade and exchanges of goods — which need names, often borrowings, but also lead to contact in general, and Caxton’s complaint that people return from overseas not only dressed in foreign apparel, but also using foreign words, not just the nouns for the clothing and materials but turns of phrase from the people they had hung out with. (We speak like who we speak with.) Later, the innovation of railways and other rapid transport systems — especially commercial and tourist air travel in the later 20th century — meant the need for global lingua francas, and access to foreign foods and goods with foreign names even for those who stay at home. English has become an international language of business, so a Japanese and German business meeting in Paris might well be conducted in English.

Technologies themselves generate words that name the things, their components, those who use them and what we do with them.  This leads to eponyms such as Hoovering or Googling, lots of Latin and Greek derived terms for scientific innovations and technologies (tele-phones, inter-net, tele-graph, video-phone, photo-graph) and those many other word formation techniques we met in the AS year which commonly identify new things today (blendings such as cinematography or vlogging; plenty of initialisms such as TV or GPS, acronyms such as SCUBA gear or RADAR, LASER which lose their capitals as people may forget their sources) and the people who use them — bloggers, hackers, disk jockeys (DJs), cyber-bullies, videogamers (note the movement from compound as two separate words, as hyphenated pairs, and then as a single word).

Also, technologies lead to cultural situations and material which is disseminated via those technologies and can only exist because of them. Twitter leads to hashtags, tweets, twitterstorms, trending, digital detoxes. All rapid CMC (computer-mediated communication) leads to smilies/emoticons, use of rebuses (2 good 4 U), elliptical communication to save characters (and this dates back to telegraphy which charged by the word), abbreviations of various sorts including clippings (txt, mob, jel), intialisms (FYI, BRB, WTF) acronyms (YOLO, LOL) and more, and a tendency for less formal modes of communication as exchanges of text become rapid and more like speech. We might need to coin new words for usages of these technologies — typos emerge from the typewriter, sexting rests on texting (a blending following a conversion N-V), cybercrime, televangelists, even junk mail, answerphone tennis, jet setters, the mile high club, a moonshot, telecommuting via telepresence, getting sidetracked — and entire industries rest on technology: LPs, pop music, Hollywood & Bollywood, gaming, and so on.

These will all be more or less familiar to you. The terminology we largely met in the first year. When you get a late modern text, which will not be wildly different from any text you read or write, don’t feel there’s ‘nothing to write’. Consider all the ways in which this AO3 context of technological change underpins the language used — naming stuff, enabling/promoting certain genres/registers of language, and associated language which clusters around the usage of the technology, including later extensions as metaphor. (Going postal, phoning in a performance, the telegraphic stage of child language, tuning out for a while, and so on.) The A2 exam 6EN03 is ‘synoptic’ — you can draw on any and all of your studies over the two years to discuss the language used.

Continue to build the timeline of tech that’s interesting to you, especially over the last 150 years or so, when technology has been accelerating and has utterly transformed the world, leading to an increasingly globalised communications network and an interlinked world-wide society.


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