Language in the Digital Maelstrom

For a time, I taught an English Lit survey class. I often made it a point to observe, in cursory fashion, how the language we call English evolved from Beowulf to Chaucer to Shakespeare and finally to Austen, say, or Elliot. The point was to highlight how language evolves over time, but also to observe the rate at which the language evolved.


Please bear in mind that these are the observations of someone who is not a linguist. However, to the casual observer like myself it seems as if the language evolved dramatically from the time of the one surviving medieval manuscript of Beowulf, likely composed c. 1000 AD, to the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s. And again there is a marked difference between Chaucer’s English and Shakespeare’s, who wrote in the late 1500s (and beyond). But then, while there is change to be sure, Shakespeare’s English seems closer to Austen and ours than his is to Chaucer’s or the Beowulf poet.

The stabilizing force would seem to be the consequences of printing, which played out over time, although, as with most things, the story is complicated. In any case, this brings us, of course, to the consequences of digital media for the evolution of language. Nothing can be said with certainty on this score, and, again, the relationship will turn out to be extremely complex. As I’ve noted elsewhere, following the media ecologists, the transitions from oral to written to printed to electric to digital forms of communication are immensely consequential. But none of the previous transitions can serve as a precise model for the transition to digital. Digital, after all, involves writing and sound and image. It is a complex medium. It retrieves features of oral culture, for example, but also preserves features of print culture. The word I’ve found myself using for its effects is scrambles

I would hazard an observation or two, though. If print was, in some respects, a stabilizing force over time, digital media will be destabilizing to some degree and in ways that are difficult to pin down. This is not necessarily a value judgment, especially if we consider the stabilizing effects of print to be a historically contingent development. Perhaps a better way of putting the matter is to say that digital media churns or stirs up our linguistic waters.

For example, digital tools of communication are still used to convey the written word, of course—you’re reading this right now—and in certain digital contexts, such writing still adheres to more conventional standards based in print culture. In other contexts, however, it does not. The case of spelling comes to mind. Spelling was notoriously irregular until late in the print era. In fact, something like a spelling bee would have been unthinkable until sometime in the 19th century (linguists, please correct if me if I’m wrong about this). But now, the practice of spelling, to the consternation of some, has once again become somewhat irregular in certain rhetorical situations. (It’s interesting to consider how the rise of autofill technologies will play out in this regard. They may very well be a conserving, stabilizing force.)

But this kind of apparent de-stabilization is not the most interesting thing going on. What has caught my attention is the destabilization of meaning. Perhaps we could distinguish between conventional flux (the flux of conventions or standards, that is) and semantic flux. Language has always exhibited both, but at varying rates. What I’m wondering is if we are experience a heightened rate of semantic flux under digital conditions. If so, then I think it would have more to do with how digital media enables disparate communities to enter into dialog with one another—although dialog seems hardly the right word for it—and in something like disembodied real time, the condition of virtual presence. A very large scale case of context collapse, if you will. In this regard, digital media radically accelerates the kind of evolution we might have seen over much longer periods of time.

Words, phrases, concepts—they are generated, disseminated, and rendered meaningless within days. The remarkably short semantic half-life of language, we might say. But these words, phrases, concepts, etc. don’t simply go away, they linger on in a kind of zombie mode:  still used but signifying nothing. The example of this phenomenon that most readily comes to mind is the notorious phrase “fake news.” I’m sure you can supply others. Indeed, virtually every key term or concept that is drawn into or arises out of contested rhetorical contexts is doomed to suffer a similar erosion of meaning.

The underlying assumptions here are simply that language is the foundation of human association and political life and that communication media amount to the infrastructure sustaining our use of language. The nature of the infrastructure inevitably informs the use of language, for better and for worse. Bad actors aside, it’s worth considering whether the scale and speed of communication enabled by digital media are ultimately unable to support what we might think of as sustainable rates of conventional and semantic change.

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3 thoughts on “Language in the Digital Maelstrom

  1. Wonderful! It seems that speed itself is an addictive quality of life. The faster we go, the less tolerant we are of slowness. So, language, and particularly meaning, among many others things, suffer from our shrinking attention span. Our emotions, which surely need more time to digest than the intellect, suffer in unseen ways from an addiction to speed, and are short-changed, I think. It’s no wonder that new psychological pathologies creep into our lives and accepted by the culture as a whole, as we lose the ability to sit quietly and reflect.

    The mingling of cultures and languages that we experience now as the ease of communication allows us not only the speed of communication, but also an extension through geographic and cultural distances, finds diverse meanings competing at an exhausting rate. As ideas and meaning compete with each other, perhaps the more likely we are to abandon the sense that communication is even valuable, especially at the personal level. When we don’t understand others (here is where emotion comes in, but often undetected), we abandon the notion that what is being said is even comprehensible.

    I’m happy to find your blog and look forward to reading more of your essays.

  2. So, the changes in English weren’t due to technology, but who was speaking. The transition from Old English to Middle English was mostly due to the influx of Norman French in the wake of the Conquest. The printing press doesn’t show up in England until the mid-15th century. Print, especially of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, plus the importance of reading/writing to the growing middle class created the more standardized version of English in the early-,modern period. However, as Wrightson and Levine found in their study of Terling in Essex, we have to be careful about putting too much emphasis on the printing press. In their study, they found that less than half males of the village could sign their name to documents in the period 1590-1609, and only 71% could do so by 1700. 29% of women could do so by 1700.

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