Registering changes in language and technology

The December issue of Business Information Review should be available to download in a couple of weeks, and hard copies will be posted shortly after. One of the highlights of the journal is Martin White’s Perspectives column, which in the December issue explores the theme of Language, communities and virtual working. This raises a question about how technology changes language, and how that affects business processes and our working lives.
One of the most prolific commentators on technological changes to language is David Crystal. Over a long and distinguished career as a linguist, Crystal has written number of accessibly books about the changes to language that technology brings about. These include Language and the Internet (2001) and Txting: The gr8 Deb8 (2008).  Through these works, Crystal attempt to counter widespread anxieties about the damage to language done by the internet, video games, and mobile phones  typified by Robert Winson’s book Bad Ideas? (2010).  You can get a sense of Crystal’s arguments from this video:
Technology may not be destroying language, but it does change language, and this does have profound consequences for the ways in which we communicate in a business context. Over the past twenty years for example we have seen a massive diversification of contexts within which writing is used – emails, SMS, Twitters, virtual worlds, online gaming, blogs, wikis, and so on – the list is almost endless. Each of these brings with it a series of social conventions about the appropriate form language to use – the appropriate linguistic register. We have also seen writing used in many contexts that would previously have been reserved for the spoken word. How many of the emails we receive every day would have been sorted with a phone call twenty years ago? How much ambiguity arises out of the fact that writing now dominates business and professional communication, and writing lacks the linguistic clues carries by gesture, expression, and tone of voice of the written word?
One of the key skills that employers often state new career entrants lack is writing and communications skills. However, my experience as an educator has been that it is not skills in using language effectively that many young people lack, but skills in understanding and adopting the appropriate linguistic register.  And this is understandable perhaps not only because the conventions of communications have shifted to a more informal register over time, but also because those conventions are more fluid as a consequence of the diversification of communications channels. Everyone knows how to open and sign-off a business letter, but practices in opening and signing-off business emails vary wildly. There is little doubt that business communication has become more informal over time, but that dividing line between the appropriate use of more formal and more informal registers has in many contexts become quite difficult to discern. As channels of communication continue to grow more diverse the conventions will almost certainly become less fixed, and the difficulties of adopting the appropriate register will undoubtedly grow.

Luke Tredinnick