Language & Technology

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Dec 4, 2013 (3 years and 9 months ago)



Language & Technology


This guide is written for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and
A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to
language students on university degree courses, trainee

teachers and anyone with a
general interest in language science.

What do the examiners say about this subject?

Language and technology is one of the subjects stud
ied within the broader area of
Language and Social Contexts, which is set as a module for study within the
specification for the AQA's Advanced Level (GCE AS and A2) Specification B for
English Language. If you are a student taking this course, or a teache
r giving support
to such students, you may find the examiners' guidance helpful. But it may also be
useful to anyone who wishes to understand how language relates to modern
communication technologies.

In giving guidance to people studying the subject, the

examiners advise them to study:
the variety of language forms insofar as they are affected by

the technological medium used for communication (e.g. telephone, radio,
television, computer);

the social functions that such media perform in both interperson
al and mass

historical and contemporary changes, where appropriate.

In particular, the guidance says, candidates should examine

everyday functions and activities in context

discourse features.

In their support materials the examiners add this:

"For the purposes of [their assessment module] Language and Technology means
language and communication technology… The focus is on how information and
munication technology augments, constrains and simulates human

The examiners suggest that candidates should consider:

advantages, sometimes called affordances or potential capabilities, enabled by
such technology;

constraints, as

in entering text on a phone or keyboard;

how technologies such as text chat and answer phone messages show features
of interaction more commonly associated with spoken conversation.

The examiners note that academic research into this area of language us
e is still in its
early stages, and that what is published may not be reliable. But at the same time,

there is very wide use of the technologies of communication. For this reason,
investigations of text messages and instant messenger conversations, carried

out by
students (perhaps for another assessment module) are as likely to be reliable as
published books. There are more resources available for the study of (spoken)
telephone conversations, radio phone
ins and sports commentaries

transcripts of
which h
ave appeared as data in examination papers on the current specification and
the similar syllabus that preceded it.

The examiners advise teachers to use varied typ
es of text in presenting the subject.
These might, for example, include:

transcripts and written records of actuality;

accounts of popular attitudes in print media;

examples of represented text (such as invented e
mail messages in fiction and
g), and

excerpts from any investigations, including those done by students.

The examiners provide some examples of questions, including texts of these types,
with an expert commentary, and a preceding caution: that they are not to be taken as
model quest
ions. On the other hand, the commentary is a good indication of what an
informed response would ideally include. A second caution stresses the need for
balanced answers

general comment needs to be related to specific details in the
texts, while attention

to these specific details needs to be illuminated by reference to
theory and general ideas about language that they exemplify or challenge.

What is technology?

"The medium is the message". Marshall McLuhan

It's not necessary to start here, but in order to understand the connection of language
and technology it may be helpful to arrive at a working description of what
technology is. Here are some dictionary entri
es for

1. Theoretical knowledge of industry and the industrial arts.

2. The application of science to the arts.

Funk and Wagnall's New Practical Standard Dictionary
, New York, 1946

Science of the industrial arts; practical arts collectively.

Pocket Oxford Dictionary
, Oxford, 1969

The methods for using scientific discoveries for practical purposes, esp. in industry

Cambridge Dictionary of American English
, Cambridge, 2002

Knowledge, equipment, and methods that are used in science and industr

Cambridge Learner's Dictionary
, Cambridge, 2002

New machines, equipment and ways of doing things that are based on modern
knowledge of about science and computers.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
, Harlow, 2003


1. The application of scientif
ic knowledge for practical purposes.

2. The branch of knowledge concerned with applied sciences.

Compact Oxford Dictionary Online
, Oxford, 2004

These entries cover just over fifty years, and reveal a gradual change in meaning. The
idea of arts drops out,

while science is amplified to include science and computers.
The Longman entry reflects the influence, perhaps, of the more specialized
information technology. In this way, since the noun describes technology in practical
use, its meaning now covers new o
r emerging kinds of technology. As a noun,
therefore, technology does not denote a single, unchanging and specific thing. It
denotes, rather, a very general category of things

which includes a very wide range
of other things, some of which change over ti

What remains constant is the idea that technology
applies knowledge to achieve
practical purposes
. As regards language, while

technology has a connection
language use, this connection is arguably more explicit or obvious in the case of
information technology. Here are two recent example dictionary entries for
information technology:

The study or use of electronic processes for gathering and storing info
rmation and
making it available using computers.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
, Harlow, 2003

The use of computers and other electronic equipment to store and send information

Cambridge Learner's Dictionary
, Cambridge, 2002

What does it have to do with language?


technology influences language, in ways that are not always obvious. The
development of transport systems, for example, leads people to m
ove around so that
language forms used in regional varieties may move into other regions. We use a
metaphor such as "all guns blazing" to suggest the idea of an action performed with
energy or aggression

so the technology of weapons extends the usage of
speech or writing.

Since technology is a means to extend man's reach, then it is necessarily connected to
language, in the sense that both natural languages and technologies will be important
in enabling us to do all sorts of things in almost any

area of human activity. For
example, we use aeroplanes to fly people and goods around the world. And we try to
make this safer and more efficient by developing an air
traffic control system. That's
language and technology working together for the common g
ood. (And English is the
language used in that system globally.)

This uses
one kind of technology

(radio communication) to support use of

s in an adapted form of international English, that pass on information
derived from
other technologies

(radar, weather
forecasting systems), to the users of
yet another set of technologies

(the pilots of aircraft).


This may help us to distinguish between

technology in itself
, and
the things we do
with it
, from a linguistic perspective. In terms of modelling our ideas about
technology and language, we may think

first of the different technologies (printing, telephony, radio and TV, e
and so on)

and only then about what we do with them.

Alternatively, we may think first of the kind of language interactions we make, and
then of the technologies that enable this. In this kind of model, we might usefully
think of

levels of openness and privacy


the language used in a public or restricted

ownership of the communications

does an interaction or any of its results
belong to anyone and if so, in what way?


are these one
one, one
many, many
one, many
s, or something else?

We may then find that particular technologies are designed for, and well suited to,
some of these kinds of language use. And we may be less likely to make dismissive
claims such as that the Internet is CB (citizen band) radio for the

1990s (as many
cynical people once said).

We will certainly find that the designers of the technology do not always anticipate
the new kinds of language activity

that will come from the ways that people use and
adapt it. Think, for instance, of
gramophone recording

(a late 19th century
technology) and
from and to
mobile telephones

(a late 20th century
invention). Both of these developed in ways that

their inventors did not foresee, but
which we can now explain readily after having seen it happen.

The first gramophone or phonograph recordings were made to capture the
spoken voice. Yet in time, this technology would emerge as especially well
suited to

recording musical performances for later playback. (We might add
that Edison's idea for recording sound gained massively when it was used in
conjunction with Marconi's idea of radio broadcasting: the sound recordings
made music affordable to a wide audien
ce, but the playing of recordings on
radio gave the music a reach that is almost ubiquitous.)

Text messaging is an adaptation of the idea of mobile phone designers to use a
simple text display to give the user information about the functions of the
t. Since this information was being displayed on a phone, it soon
became apparent that one could use it for entering free text, that the user could
transmit, by using the same underlying technology as the voice calls

and that
these packets of information

would be far smaller, and less costly to transmit.
What the service providers


(but almost certainly
without foreseeing the scale of its later popularity) was that users would like to
be able to do this. (The assumption was more
that we would use the
technology for broadcast messages, such as weather or traffic information,
than for personal interactions.)


Does technology make a differenc
e to language use?

Storing and transmitting information

Electronic text an
d digitized information

Instant communication across geographical space

Linking to other electronic texts
and processes
Automatic recording of computer activity
Echoing previous genres
and technologies

Challenging notions of fixity and authority

How technology
influences new patterns of spelling and punctuation, and use of symbols

In studying language and technology, you will look at how the technology influences
the language use, but you should

assume that the
use of technology to mediate the
language necessarily changes

All kinds of circumstances can affect the way we use language. Using technology
may do this

as we may note from the way that some speakers react to a journalist's
microphone, or a
n invitation to leave a message on a telephone answering machine.
But we should not suppose that, in the absence of such obvious technology, people
speak in a neutral and "natural" way. Whereas in the past, some kinds of formal or
rhetorical speaking were
regarded as meritorious, and social conversation less well
regarded, so now we can make the opposite mistake, and assume that spontaneous
speaking of an unstructured kind, using many non
standard terms and constructions,
is somehow more natural or authenti
c (and worthy of study) than more controlled or
conscious utterance, using standard forms.

Technology can allow us to eavesdrop on conversations legitimately, as when we
listen to a radio or TV broadcast. It also allows us to read texts from a greate
r range of

where traditional publishing is more selective and exclusive. And it allows us
to read writing that has not been regulated and corrected by editors to conform to
standard orthography or house style.

As with traditional publishing, whe
re we do not know how many people have revised
or edited the text that we eventually read, so also we cannot always know the process
that has produced a text that we read or hear through a technological medium. We
listen to a studio discussion on a radio b
roadcast, and picture the guests together

do not realize that two of them are with the presenter in London, while a third is in a
studio somewhere else. We listen to a conversation in a fly
wall documentary,
and do not know how the effects of

of selection and omission

have changed

Tim Shortis (Shortis, T., 2000,
The Language of ICT
, London, Routledge, ISBN 0
3) suggests that t
he distinctive features of electronic text are that it:

Enables storage and transmission of diverse information.

Includes electronic typed text and/or digitised information.

Allows instant communication across geographical space.

Can be linked to other

electronic texts and processes.

Keeps a record of its "history" automatically.

Echoes previous genres and technologies.

Challenges notions of fixity and authority.

Is conducive to new patterns of spelling and punctuation, and use of symbols.

Let's el
aborate each of these suggestions.


Storing and transmitting information

It is easy to show objectively how technology has made it easier to store and transmit

simply observing the number of documents generally, or of a specific
type (say Web logs) on the World Wide Web demonstrates this. Likewise, it is an
objective fact that a technology such as e
mail allows the instantaneous transmission
of a larg
e text document, with other kinds of data file attached to it, between any
computers in the world that are connected to the Internet. And it is also an objective
fact that the number of computers connected to the Internet (either occasionally or
y) is also increasing.

You can easily demonstrate this by conducting searches of the World Wide Web. In a
split second, you will turn up thousands, maybe millions, of documents in which the
search item occurs. I asked Google (
) to search for "cat"

0.07 seconds it found 155 million documents in which this text string occurs.
"Coffee" yields 52 million documents in 0.17 seconds. But one could never look at
more than a tiny proportio
n of them all.

Thus, the sheer volume of activity also challenges the user. In the Renaissance, it was
possible for an educated person to know the titles and authors of most printed books
in a given language, and perhaps to have read a sizeable proportion

of them. The
Bodleian Library in Oxford could aspire, through an agreement of 1610, to own a
copy of every book published by the Stationers' Company

and for a while the
librarians could still have an understanding of the complete contents of their shelv
But now, as a copyright library in the 21st century, the Bodleian receives some 1,500
volumes a week (75,000 a year). No individual can have more than an outline
understanding of all of the extant printed texts. For every book that we know (a large
ber, perhaps) there are many thousands or more of lost, forgotten, hidden and
unknown volumes.

What is true of the production of print texts is equally true of di
gital texts

in trying to
form a sense of the totality of such data, we can only make the most rudimentary and
heavily qualified statements.

Nor does the technology that keeps it extant temporarily, provide it with a permanent
home: like the private lett
ers and documents of individuals in past times, it is
distributed among millions of digital storage devices. The very thing that enables us to
store so much, and share it so swiftly, also makes these texts vulnerable to loss. An
old book may survive for ce
nturies but electronic storage is not so enduring. Indeed,
digital publishing may have more in common with book production by manuscript in
the ancient world

here texts were kept alive by a continual process of copying and
distribution, replacing the old

as they wore out, which for us may resemble the
process of adapting information from one format or storage medium to a successor.

Electronic text and digitized i

Tim Shortis lists these together, but the first is of course only one of many examples
of the second. In every case "digitized" information is really a series of 1s and 0s in
the binary machine code that enables a computer or other device to re
present the

information in some other format, so that humans can experience it

such as an image
(still or moving), a high
fidelity audio track or a text document that we can read, write
or edit within the interface of a word processor, text editor or ins
tant messenger.

The technologist has found many ways to do more things because digital information
can be used across a wider range of devices that are inexpensive to manufacture. (At
an even more highly technical level, this is because these devices use
principles of
state physics, so there are no moving parts.) Some of the most popular
applications of digitized information are very closely modelled on analogue

such as voice telephony, and TV and radio broadcasting (indeed the
sting bit of the process is not changed; the difference lies in the nature of what
is broadcast

so now the same ultra
high frequency and very
high frequency radio
waves carry signals that are decoded as digital information by the receiving device).
ding to CD, DVD, mp3 players and hard drives also mimics recording to audio
and videotape.

While Tim Shortis may be right to single out text as a most important language form
that digital information can represent, I suggest that speech is not far behind.

Information technology can convert any audio source into digital information (and
reverse the process), so we can use this for

recording speech (or music, or birdsong),

interacting with it (for example by mixing tracks, or altering the audio


relaying it instantly (as in Internet telephony, or, more crudely, an audio
facility in an Instant Messenger program).

Increasingly the technology
allows th
e end user to decide

which of many possible
interactions he or she will use. Over time, this enables the designer (without any need
for expensive market research) to attend to improving the features people find most
useful, and not to bother with those tha
t people do not use so much. An example
would be an Instant Messenger client program (a program that is installed on a
computer or local device or storage area, from where it exchanges information with
remote servers over a network

usually the public Int
ernet). Such a program may
have a facility for instant text chat, display of emoticons in the text, shared Web
browsing (typing a recognized URL creates a live hyperlink), display of an
environment, games and other tools (such as an area for shared drawing

of pictures), a
whiteboard (for shared presentations), application sharing, and sharing of live moving
images over Web cams and of speech via microphones and speakers connected to an
audio system in each user's computer. It is possible that someone might
use all of
these, but in reality most users limit themselves to the first and one or two others at
most. On the other hand, this greater flexibility allows the technology to mimic more
closely what happens in face
face meetings. I used to talk to you (i
n the same
room), and show you some pictures in an album; now I chat to you (we are in
different rooms) and send you the pictures (as data files) or point you to the document
on the World Wide Web where they are displayed. Face to face, I might draw a
ram then pass it to you for you to add something (how you want to furnish a room
or landscape your garden, say). The Instant Messenger allows us to do the same thing

This may help refute a common misunderstanding among people who do not use

that the experience is socially impoverished, because so many elements

of face
face meeting are missing. Increasingly, those other kinds of interaction,
which might co
exist with speech, are available. But there are also new features that

the experience. We do not normally record spoken conversation (the presence
of recording technology can inhibit our ability to speak in a way we regard as natural).
But conversation in the form of Instant Messenger text produces a transcript that we
can s
ave (if we wish) or copy into other applications.

Instant communication across geographical space

Technologies for instant communication over distances go back t
o the ancient world,
and more recent times where heliography (using mirrors or lamps), semaphore and
naval flags or loud musical instruments have been used for conveying orders and
simple messages in battle. Technology has also served purposes for business

in such
differing areas as finance (where Edison's 1871 stock ticker used telegraphy to bring
information to the New York Stock Exchange) and gambling (where radio and TV
would broadcast horse races in betting shops).

The Internet was originally develope
d as a resilient communications network for
military purposes (resilient because it has so many nodes, and therefore possible
routes from one point to another, that it would still work even if much of the network
should be destroyed).

So what is significa
nt or distinctive about the instant communication provided by
modern technologies?

Its use is not confined to the owners of the systems (such as national
governments) and those wealthy enough to pay them for that use (such as

but is now avai
lable either free at the point of use (as in public
libraries and schools in much of Europe) or as an affordable domestic

The underlying communications protocols are integrated with systems that do
many other things and that are adaptable: it
is relatively expensive to upgrade
a telephone or TV receiver, as we usually need to discard and replace a
manufactured object*; it is relatively inexpensive to upgrade or extend
software products on one's personal computer or on a remote network

pensive that many providers of such products give them away in return for
showing the user advertisements or gathering information about us.

*Increasingly devices like mobile telephones, personal music players (mp3
players and iPods) or personal digital a
ssistants are manufactured with the
potential to be extended by changing the electronic operating system

firmware (software stored in programmable memory). Typically this would
happen by connecting the device to a computer, or directly to a network,
copying the new firmware from the computer or a location on the Internet.
One obvious adverse consequence of this intelligence in the system is its
vulnerability to malicious actions

and, indeed, there are now "viruses" that
can damage mobile phones.

The technology can span any geographical distance; increasingly it can do so
while the user is moving and not connected physically to any network. It is
possible to send and receive e
mail or browse the World Wide Web while
flying in an aeroplane. Despit
e airline regulations to the contrary, it is possible
to send and receive messages using mobile telephones. Perhaps the best
illustration of this would be the experience of the lone round
world sailor,

Ellen MacArthur who kept continuously in touch wit
h the world via an
Internet connection:

old Ellen relied on the Inmarsat Fleet system to
keep in touch with base by voice and e
mail, to send pre
recorded video
messages, and for video conferencing at speeds of up to 128 kbit/s. The
C systems supplied frequent course, heading and speed
information, which was relayed to millions following the attempt via the
web or e
mail. She also used the Inmarsat systems to access navigational
information and for real
time weather updates during h
er round
world adventure. MacArthur's doctor kept a constant eye on her health
via the Inmarsat system, while her technical team used it to monitor the
condition of the vessel throughout the gruelling 71
day voyage."

Quoted from

Linking to other electronic texts and processes

Operating systems

Application software

Data files and formats

Linking across
platforms and technologies


I suggest that the most significant difference for the individual user of digital
information is that he or she can adapt, interact with, and generally control it in ways
that were not readily possible with other kinds of information,
or, indeed, where a
manufacturer could prevent such interaction as a way of enforcing a copyright
restriction. A second difference is that digital technology allows more interoperability

cine film and recording to a 45 rpm disc, for instance, cannot easi
ly mix, but it is
easy to record sounds in one digital format, images in another, and combine them to
make a movie for playing back on a computer or other device.

Let's think about that a bit more thoroughly. Traditional technologies (as in white
goods li
ke refrigerators and washing machines) rarely have any kind of
interoperability. Many of them will be powered by a standard domestic electricity

but the fridge does not (yet) normally communicate with the cooker or the

*Since the turn of

the 21st century, however, an Internet fridge has been available
from several manufacturers. The Whirlpool Internet Fridge, for example, has these
features, according to the manufacturer's Australian Web site:

"The Whirlpool Internet fridge is designed t
o become a key hub for the
operation of other networked appliances within on
line homes of the not
too distant future. Capabilities of the fridge include:

Connectivity with other appliances (for example ovens and microwaves)

Recipe downloads (complete wit
h automatic programming of ovens to pre
heat etc.)

Refrigerator energy management

Refrigerator self
diagnosis for repair purposes

Refrigerator contents inventory (bar coding) for automatic ordering of items


Internet access

Virtual fridge magnets

ly diary Technology for future applications including automated
stock replenishment, family photo album and a link to home security
and information systems are also currently being developed."

Quoted from

Other technologies, especially electronic entertainment systems, have interoperability
designed in. A hi
fi amplifier from 19
74 could amplify an output from a CD player
from 1994 because the latter used a standard kind of signal output and strength, as
well as a standard kind of physical connection. Television receivers, DVD and HVS
players and digiboxes for satellite TV recepti
on all "talk" to each other (though the
user can be challenged in setting up the connections and learning to use them

The personal computer extends the idea of interoperability in an almost infinite
direction. Competing manufacturers work to a
standard design in which various
components are interchangeable. The computer has a range of connection devices and
systems that enable it to exchange information with other physical devices, such as
printers, scanners, cameras, microphones, TV receivers,
and many networking
components (wireless access points, routers and switches), and thus, of course, other

But the interoperability goes way beyond that, to the software inside the computer.
Beyond the basic input
output system (or bios) that te
lls the computer about itself
when it "boots" up (the verb reflects the old metaphor of pulling oneself up by one's
own bootstraps

an apparent impossibility which computer engineers have made a

lie the operating software, the application softw
are and the data files.

Operating systems

The operating system software (or OS) is the low
level software, which handles the
interface to peripheral hardware, sc
hedules tasks, allocates storage, and presents a
default interface to the user when no application program is running. Most modern
operating systems include a
graphical user interface

(GUI) as standard, so
increasingly we include this in our idea of what a
n operating system is. Examples of
operating systems would be Microsoft Windows and Linux (for PCs), Mac OS (for
Apple Macintosh computers) and Solaris for Sun workstations.

The user is often not aware of the operating system (except when confronted by th
"Blue Screen of Death"

the nickname for the "Fatal exception error" message in the
Windows 95 and 98 operating systems). But it is fundamental to the use of the
computer to
run specific applications
, and
for those applications to be able to do
things t
. (My word
processor can exchange live data with my spreadsheet
application and my Web browser, only because they all share a global syntax within
the operating system.)


Application software

The modern personal computer (Apple Mac or Windows or Linux PC, say) began life
as a relatively high
cost device for business productivity, as did many of the add
devices we refer to collectively as peripherals

nters and scanners, for example. In
a very short time the manufacturers' and resellers' competition for business customers
made the price affordable for home users, which in turn influenced the development
of the PC to include features for entertainment, a
nd later for personal/social (not
related) communication.

The first computer applications were specifically intended for business activity. The
spreadsheet (invented in 1979 by Dan Bricklin who never patented it) was largely
responsible for the intro
duction of personal computers in many areas of business.
Over time these applications have been adopted by users in other contexts, and
adapted for such use. (So the spreadsheet becomes both a powerful tool for business
users, with a high price tag, and a
more customized tool for managing domestic
accounts and paying bills, with a smaller price tag to match the customer's wallet or

In the 21st century, the uses of office productivity software (spreadsheets, database
management programs and word
cessing) are widespread, almost universal, in
business, commerce, education and administration. Increasingly for the domestic user
the important applications are those used for leisure, entertainment and
communication. This does not mean what are often loo
sely called "computer games"

which are a more defined and specific kind of application. Typically it may include,


for viewing documents on the World Wide Web and interacting
with them.

Image editing and album programs.


mail, instant messaging and message boards.

Media players

for playing audio and video files, and organizing them in
collections and play lists.

sharing applications

for exchanging data files with other users over
networks, especially the I

When we link digital information from one process to another, while using a
computer, then we are almost certainly using one or more applications.

files and formats

If you use a computer, you will probably at some point have selected text or an image
in an open document running in one application (a Web page, say, or a word
processed document), copied it, and pasted it into another document (in anot
application or the same one). You may not think how odd it is that you can do this,
but from time to time you will be frustrated by not being able to do it. For example,
you see some text in a document, try to copy it and find that you cannot. Among
rious possible reasons are these:

What appears to you as text (you can read the words) is actually an image
embedded in the document.


The text is a graphic object in, say, a Flash movie file.

The text is displayed in a portable document file (PDF), and
the creator of the
file has set the file properties to prevent copying.

Really (for the very technically
minded) this is the same explanation in every case.
The Flash movie does not use text but converts a text input into graphic information.
The PDF file
, likewise, seems to be text but is really a description of what a document
(text or graphics or both) looks like so that a printer or monitor can display it to the

Oh, yes, you say

so how come we can sometimes copy text from a portable
document f
ile, and then paste it into another application? The answer to that is that if
a word
processed document is converted into the PDF format, then any text in the
original is identified as such. This means that a reader program such as Adobe Reader
is able to

reverse the process by character recognition (more or less what happens in
OCR software) and show the original text. If the original for the PDF is simply a
facsimile copy (as when you scan a printed document, copy it and drop the result into
a word
ssor file as an image that fills the page) then the reader software will not
be able to copy text, because strictly speaking there isn't any. It now really is a picture
of the page. And you would not, either, be able to copy text from a word
ment that really showed a picture of scanned text.

If you can't follow this, don't worry. The point of this rather technical digression is to
show how these are e
xceptions to a very widely honoured rule

that many designers
of software use
standard data formats

(admittedly for their own convenience, because
they can use character sets and screen fonts that are already designed). As a result,
user can often tak
e information from one application and drop it into another, so that
the applications become complementary
. Where the process may require some
adaptation there are often filters for importing or exporting the data where the user
can customize the way the e
xchange will work. To take a very simple example, if we
copy text from a document open in a Web browser, then as well as the text, we have a
lot of information about its formatting (line breaks, font styles and sizes, and so on).
In a word processor such a
s MS Word, if we paste the text, then much of this
formatting information will be retained (with pleasing or annoying consequences, and
certainly increasing the size of the resulting file). Alternatively we can choose a
"paste special" option, and paste th
e text, and display it in ways that we can choose.
For example, if we choose "unformatted text", then the result will be to show the
copied text in whatever was the style of the passage into which we pasted it.

Linking across platforms and technologies

Digital information is always intelligible,
if one has the key
. I could use a computer
with a CD drive and a CD writer drive to make an exact copy of an audio CD, w
the need for the copying computer to be able to play such CDs. (Usually it will be
able to do this, but that's not the point; the point is that a suitable application could
record an exact description of the digital information on the original, then

burn it to
the copy without going through the quite different process of translating the
information into an audio output to be played in real time on the PC. If that seems
either to be hard to follow, or blindingly obvious, then reflect on how long it ta
kes to
play a CD

it takes as long as the various tracks together, which may be more than an

hour. But, depending, on the speed of your equipment, you may be able to make a
copy in a few minutes.)

It is possible to use technologies to translate audible s
peech into text and vice versa.
These might seem to be tasks of comparable difficulty, but are in fact massively
different. Text
speech is a robust, inexpensive and very accurate technology

reader software typically

recognizes some whole words,

many more morphemes (such as affixes), and

uses a kind of guesswork based on characters for anything else.

For any given text string there is a programmed audio
output. The software does not
have any way of determining emphasis, so produces exactly the same speech sounds
(for each text string) in a monotone. Although a human listener would hear a
representation of the text that he or she could understand (so that
the text really
resembles speech) from the point of view of the software (if I may be so
anthropomorphic) the output is still produced by an interaction with a text file.

Speech recognition software is more complex because it has to cope with massive
vidual variety in the speech sounds it sets out to interpret. For this reason, the user
has to "train" it to recognize which text strings correspond to a given spoken output,
and also has to learn some consistency in the spoken style of dictation. This mea
ns it
is expensive, uses lots of system resources (many computers cannot cope with it) and
still is haphazard unless the user spends a lot of time in training it.


The idea or promise of multitasking goes back to the early 1990s, when few personal
computers had the system resources (mainly random access memory) needed to make
it a possibility, without slowing down the activity of the various applicatio
ns charged
with the multiple tasks. Improvements in the performance and system resources of
computers mean that it is now possible to run many applications and tasks at the same
time. This greatly increases the possibility for what Tim Shortis calls "linki
ng to other
texts and processes". We can illustrate this by use of alternative scenarios, a decade
apart, for achieving the same goal of preparing a piece of written coursework for
assessment in an exam course.

1995 scenario

A student sits in a lesson, a
s her teacher talks, and makes what she calls notes,
by hand on a pad or in an exercise book.

At home, later, she reads the handwritten notes and opens a new document in a
word processor.

Having transcribed some of the notes, the student makes a telephon
e call to a
friend to discuss what they remember, collectively, of the lesson (not very
much, it turns out).

After drafting a section of a language investigation, the student prints out a

She takes it to school the next day and hands it to a teache
r who is supervising
the work.


The teacher takes it home, reads it, and annotates the printed text by hand.

A week later the teacher discusses the draft with the student.

Later she takes it home again, opens the saved document, and adds new
material, wh
ile revising the existing text, in response to the teacher's notes and
spoken comments.

2005 scenario

During a lesson, a student makes text notes on a laptop or
handheld personal
digital assistant (PDA), or records some spoken comments on the same device
or an iPod.

After the lesson she uses a computer in a study centre to make further notes,
and sends these to herself in an e
mail message, or simply saves them i
n a
storage area on a Web server.

At home the student transfers any data on the PDA or iPod to a computer,
while picking up the notes sent from school.

Any text notes she pastes into the draft coursework document, or a separate
document that serves as a

The student signs into an instant messenger like MSN or Yahoo. Seeing a
friend also logged in, she displays a status message: "Working on
investigation". The friend displays a new status message: "Shall we discuss

The student starts a co
nversation with the friend, while keeping the document
open. To explain parts of it, the student simply copies passages of text, and
drops these into the messenger conversation. Or, if need be, she can send the
whole document file to the other person.

y decide to ask for the opinion of another friend, who does not have
regular Internet access, and is not able to use the instant messenger. The
second student makes a mobile telephone call to the third, and relays his ideas
(spoken over the phone) to the f
irst student, through the instant messenger

It becomes clear to the first student that she has done part of the task very
well, but now needs to con
sult the supervising teacher. So she saves her work
and sends an e
mail message to the teacher, attaching the draft document, or
posts the document on a message
board or virtual learning environment that
they both use.

That's enough work for the evening,
and the three friends arrange (by IM and
phone) to go to the pub or, if they are too young for this, to meet in the house
of one of them.

The teacher, who has just dropped off his own teenage daughter at a friend's
house, returns home to find an e
mail me
ssage has arrived from the student.

He opens the attached document, reads it, and at once sees what she needs to
move on with the investigation. He appends notes to the document (using a
different colour of text), saves it with a new version name and numb
er, and
sends it back.

The student comes back from the pub and goes to bed. Next morning she has
directed study time; by agreement she works from home, where she checks her
mail, and finds the annotated coursework.


The teacher's message sends her to se
veral Web sites, makes clear something
in the student's notes that seemed confusing the previous evening, and also
includes the e
mail address of an expert in her chosen area of study, with a
suggestion that she contact this person to seek some further gui

This second scenario takes far longer to describe, but occupies less time, more
efficiently, in reality. And the technology ensures that each process links

to the others
(mostly), while there are far fewer points (such as recalling lessons and making notes
after the event) at which understanding can be lost in translation or transmission…

However, the description shows that this approach is complex to under
stand (rather in
the same way that the combination of things involved in driving a car is complex). For
many people it is not intuitive, and they may prefer to use the old methods. While the
potential saving of time is great, many learners and teachers may

be reluctant to take
the time they need to learn these new approaches. Or the student does not think of
doing so, because he or she sees that the teacher will not be able to support this way
of learning. As a result, the learning activities in many instit
utions become less
homogeneous as some teachers use the new technologies coherently, while others use
them selectively, or perhaps resist their use.

Automatic rec
ording of computer activity

Electronic text, says Mr. Shortis, keeps a record of its history automatically. The user
can choose to discard or delete it (though even then, many computer systems will
keep a copy of the data from which that record can be res
tored, before a more
permanent act of deletion).

How does this work?

In the case of
electronic mail

we can choose to keep copies of everything that we send
and receive. For things that we receive we often have the further choice of keeping a
copy on a lo
cal computer and leaving the message on the mail server (a computer
connected to the Internet from which a client mail program brings the messages, as
they arrive, to the user's computer or other device, such as a PDA).

With text chat, in an
instant messe
, the full conversation is stored temporarily in
the messenger client window (the interface of the program that is showing the session
to the user). When we finish the conversation we can choose to save it (usually as a
text file) or discard it (though

in this case, we may have set our user preferences for
the software so that a copy is kept automatically in an archive for a specified period).
This is not something that we can do with a spoken conversation.

Interestingly, too, the user normally knows t
hat the script of the conversation is
retained in this way, but that seems not to inhibit the text messaging, as sound
recording devices may do with spoken conversation.

Not only that, because of the ability to link this with other processes one can use t
automatic recording in various productive or creative ways. If one uses instant
messaging to discuss some area of learning with an expert, then there is no need
subsequently to make notes, beyond perhaps tidying up and formatting the text of the

sion. The same can also be true of e
mail exchanges. We can store the text as it
is, or paste it into another document.

Echoing previous genres and technologies

How ICT texts retain or preserve features of older texts

How ICT texts diff
er from
older texts

How ICT texts retain or preserve features of older texts

Tim Shortis suggests that language use through information technology echoes
previous genres and technologies. This is not really surprising, but to be expected.
Human beings,
faced with a new technology, may use it

in ways that resemble the uses to which they have put earlier technologies, or
more simply still,

to achieve the purposes they have achieved with other kinds of spoken and
written text hitherto.

At its most basic,

this may be something as straightforward as publishing, on the
World Wide Web, texts such as news reports, film reviews and recipes more or less
equivalent to those found in print media, such as newspapers and magazines. These
do not, in daily use, replac
e the print versions, but complement them

so, for
example, I read today's report in a newspaper that I recycle; but if I want a report from
last month, I can search an archive with a Web browser.

Here are some less obvious examples.

In genteel society, as depicted, for example, in Jane Austen's novels, there has
for some time been a practice of one's being ready to receive visitors, should
they call, by being "a
t home" to them. The sending of invitations that indicate
a time when the sender will be "at home" to the recipient, who is expected to
reply, complements this. Interestingly, while the invitation is written in
English, the acronym requesting a response de
rives from French (

répondez s'il vous plaît
). Users of instant messenger programs (such
MSN/Windows Messenger

Yahoo Instant Messenger
) use a
similar etiquette. In the Yahoo client program, for example, one can be simply
"Available", have "Stepped out" (no indication of when one will return), be
"Out to lunch" (the intention her
e is literal, not metaphorical), say one will "Be
right back" or display any other status message of the user's own devising. The
point here is that, just like Jane Austen's gentlefolk, the user is advertising to
all his or her chosen acquaintances, a read
iness to receive a digital visit.

The similarities to the older etiquette continue in other ways. Sometimes a
person would be literally in his or her home, but not "at home" to visitors

willing, that is, to allow them to visit. The user of the Inst
ant Messenger can
display a message such as "busy", accompanied by an image resembling a "no
entry" sign as used on some road systems. Or he or she can use the messenger
to see other users who are "available", while appearing to be offline, by
choosing the

"invisible" status. Just as an 18th century gentleman could visit
too frequently, and start to find his intended hosts to be not "at home" to him,

so the Instant Messenger could allow the user to "visit" other people

but in use, it has a sel
adjusting tendency (the user learns when
other people wish to talk or not). Unlike the older etiquette, however, the
Instant Messenger does not have the facility to show the user as being "at
home" to some people but not to others.

It even has the equi
valent of the old calling card

left by the visitor who found
someone out or not "at home". This is the "offline message", sent in the
understanding that the recipient is not online and able to read it now, but that
he or she will see it on next signing i
n to the messenger service.

Another example would be the
news ticker
. This was originally an application
of telegraphy, which allowed the transmission of informati
on about stock
prices. The ticker displayed information about stocks on a moveable tape, and
later on a large scrolling electronic display. This technology was soon adapted
by news organizations to collect information for newspapers and broadcast
news, whe
re the stories on the ticker tape would come from agencies such as
Reuters. Now television and digital radio both use a news ticker display. On
TV this commonly appears as scrolling text at the bottom of the screen

superimposed on a studio background, fo
r example. On digital radio, most
receivers have a liquid crystal display area, which can display information
about the device in a menu format, but which is set by default to display
scrolling captions that give news or information about the channel or cu

In the 20th century, many groups of friends would use the
round robin

correspondence magazine
. This contained a series of letters or other
contributions from a set number of writers, who were also the readers. On
receiving the magazine
, each contributor would read the new contents, remove
his or her previous entry, and insert a new one

possibly written before the
arrival of the magazine. The contributor might also be expected to make a new
cover for the contents. Then he or she would
send the magazine to the next
person on the mailing list, who would repeat the process. The ICT equivalent
of this is the message board, which allows serial contributions. In both cases,
occasional face
face ("real
world") meetings complement the readin
g and

How ICT texts differ from older texts

However, behind this continuity lies an arguably more profound characteristic of new

The inve
ntor and developer intend them to make some existing or established
action more effective and powerful, but

the end users find different actions that they perform even more effectively.

An example would be the mobile phone. This was developed to provide
the benefits
of voice telephony without the restrictions of physical location from which landline
telephones suffer. In developing the physical device, the inventors used liquid crystal
display technology to give the user assistance, for example in storing

numbers and
selecting people to call.


Since the display was already attached to a telephone, the possibility of using the
display to compose and send text messages would be self
evident. Tim Shortis
suggests it was: "an afterthought; another gimmick to h
elp beat the competition", but
this is not substantiated, and does not make sense: while texting was an "afterthought"
in the way that all refinements of systems are, the "competition" (all the service
providers) adopted the use of the messaging universall
y, and it was not a gimmick but
a serendipitous and obvious combined use of two technologies the mobile phone
companies had already developed

sending data digitally and displaying text on the
phone's LCD screen.

With hindsight, it is easy to explain the popularity of the system

it is discreet
(compared to spoken conversation) and inexpensive for the service provider (the
sending of a message requires the user t
o be connected for only a split second, so the
cost to the user can be set at a very low rate, and yet earn the service provider more
income than voice calls, which require the user to be continuously connected).
Hindsight can also explain some of the conv
entional abbreviations, acronyms and
emoticons that enable the sender to keep messages within a limit of a set number of
characters: currently (2005) for most services this is 160 Latin or 80 non
characters. It is likely that developments in the SMS
technology will allow longer
messages in the future, although many users already work around this by sending
multiple messages as part of a monologue or (more commonly, as the recipient
replies) a dialogue.

"Texting is free on my service, and even those w
ho pay will usually pay less than for
speaking mobile to mobile. Texting is also useful if you are in the London
Underground and can't get any reception or are in a club and can't hear your phone.
and if you want to send the same message to several people,

texting is quicker than
talking," explains Rachel Fletcher, 21. (Source:
Nottingham Evening Post
, cited on
) .

Text messaging has some of the characteristics of spoken conversation (in its
pragmatics and lexicon) and some of the characteristics of personal letters (in its
pragmatics, again, in its register, and in its relative informality as regards grammar
and orthography). But as a mode of communication it is not wholly like anything else.

In looking at examples of text messaging in use, you may wish to separate

your discoveries of

people do when they send and respond to text
messages, from

various explanations of

they exhibit this linguistic behaviour.

Challenging notions of fixity and authority

The relative affordability of information and communication technology means that it
brings power to the people. In earlier times various techn
ologies were so expensive
and conspicuous that the state could regulate their availability (whether for its own
purposes, or for sale to wealthy businesses and individuals). That still happens in
some ways, as national governments sell licences to provider
s of services and portion
out the available wavelengths for radio and television broadcasts.


The scenario predicted by George Orwell in his dystopian novel
Nineteen Eighty Four

turns out to be profoundly mistaken. Orwell imagines a world in which a handfu
l of
totalitarian states keep their populations in poverty, engage in constant wars with no
intention of defeating the enemy and, above all, seek to control not only people's
actions, but also their very thoughts, by controlling all the print and broadcast

and technologies. Orwell supposes that the tendency of individuals to invent and
adapt their uses of language can be suppressed, while a single state
sponsored set of
language conventions ("Newspeak") establishes itself in everyone's usage.

is wrong in his attitude to this kind of linguistic dissidence. Because it is not
voluntary, it is not subject to control. Even under some dire threat, some human
speakers will think and say unorthodox things, and many more will use language in
d ways, because they have a different understanding of grammar or of the
lexicon from what is prescribed.

He is even more wrong in his assumption that political states will continue to control
the technologies of communication. While governments have been

able to regulate
print media and broadcasting to a point, they have not been able to prevent radio and
TV signals crossing frontiers. Arguably, the Berlin Wall fell because East Germans
compared their own government's accounts of the west with the evidenc
e of western
radio and TV broadcasting, which showed a more materially comfortable lifestyle and
the opportunity for a diversity of opinions on political, moral and social questions.

Internet technologies allow great scope to the individual to write or speak, publish or
broadcast, read or listen. In many cases other people and organizations may try to
restrict that scope. The restriction may come from

a national g
overnment (as in China's regulation of Internet cafés, and blocking
of some Web sites),

an employer (as in blocking of some technologies and Web sites, or
enforcement of appropriate use policies at work), or

a parent (as in controls on children's use of
Internet technologies).

In spite of all of such restrictions, these technologies do generally promote change and
allow individual expression in ways, and to an extent, that were not possible

Broadcasters and publishers are agents of change to an extent, as they allow new
forms and new uses onto the airwaves and into print. But they also are agents of
stability (or conservatism, depending on your attitu
de), in continuing to use forms that
are regarded as standard in relatively formal contexts. We can exemplify this by
noting that popular and informal speech may be heard on talk radio and phone
ins or
on some youth programming on television, but that main
stream radio and TV news
bulletins or documentary programmes use varieties of English that change more

For many ICT texts, there is no explicit requirement to use any given conventions.
Ideas of what is appropriate may be determined by an emerging

popular consensus,
but are no longer regulated at the outset by commercial publishers, editors and
readers, as they have been in the past for most print texts.


If I wish to publish a book, then I may be required to accept the policy of the
publishing hou
se in using, say, UK or US English. If I wish to publish a Web log or
Web site, I can make my own choice as regards the language variety. Many new
technologies allow individual and immediate production of texts (without the
hindrance or luxury of a proof
eader or editor). Since the technology is still relatively
new, it perhaps remains to be seen whether this will lead to a general relaxation of
uses of standard forms.

How technology influences new patterns of spelling and punctuation, and use of symbols

Some people (as any teacher knows) use non
standard ("incorrect" or "bad")
spellings. There is nothing new in this

there is plenty of evidence to show that ever

since Dr. Johnson and Noah Webster helped us to determine some standards, many
real writers have neither known nor conformed to the standard spellings.

What is perhaps different today is that texts containing non
standard spellings may be
seen by far wid
er audiences. It may also be true that these audiences do not notice, or
do notice but are not much bothered by, the non
standard forms

because they are
more interested in the



the text.

The language student and scie
ntist should guard against a popular (but illogical)
tendency to find fault with the writing or speech of an individual, and then make this
the basis of a claim that "English" is changing for the worse.
That is objectively
meaningless or nonsensical
. It ma
y be that a greater or less proportion of a given
population (all the people in Britain, all 18
21 year olds in some university, all the
fans of a popular singer or football club) do or do not use the standard spelling of
"adviser" or know the conventional

use of the dash. But that does not prevent any
other person from writing with control and flair.

Different technologies influence spelling in different ways. Spell
checking tools in
application software enable the user to eliminate non
standard forms, th
ough they do
not show where a writer uses a standard form of a lexeme other than the one he or she
intends. So, for instance, one finds increasingly commonly that "lead" (the present
tense and infinitive form of the verb "to lead") is written in contexts r
equiring the past
participle "led" (possibly by confusion with its homophone noun "lead", as in the
heavy metal). It may be that reliance on these tools, too, leads some people to learn
less for themselves about standard forms, in the same way that relianc
e on the
calculator has apparently led some people to care less about mental arithmetic or
learning multiplication tables.

Modern word
processing tools allow a wr
iter to use a specific variety of a language

so I can choose English with the standard spelling and grammar of Belize, Canada,
Ireland, the UK or USA, for example, or exchange my preferred British orthography
for one more suited to an international audie

Mobile phone texting, by contrast, promotes new forms.

These typically abbreviate the standard form of a word or phrase

by such simple
substitutions as numerals for syllables (
be4, 2day, gr8


They also rely on the user's awareness of the convent
ions, which are often explained
in user guides supplied with phones

an Orange mobile phone guide gives a table of
abbreviations, including

("be seeing you"),

("Free to talk"),

call me") and


These short forms may be


they may use fewer characters than the
standard equivalent, but sometimes the "saving" is of a single letter, so that the case
for using the new form balances its possible unfamiliarity against the small economy
achieved, as with

wonderful") or
("What's up?")

this latter
example reflects its association with a TV and cinema commercial (for Budweiser
beer) where characters telephoned each other to ask this question, massively
elongating the speech sounds.

In many cases (
echoing older forms) the text message uses abbreviations used in
sending personal letters (
="sealed with a loving kiss"; this form dates back at
least to the 1950s) or in printed personal messages ("personals"), such as

("good salary own home" or
, confusingly, "good sense of humour").

In studying language and technology, you should perhaps beware of a tendency in
popular reporting and social commentary to

exaggerate the importance of new
technologies in influencing patterns of spelling. The new forms may be recorded in
guides and glossaries, but you should look for any evidence that lexicographers are
accepting them as standard.

However, in 2004 some UK t
eachers of English language reported on an Internet
mailing list discussion forum that they had observed text message forms appearing in
their students' exam work. This is so far anecdotal evidence, and even if accurate does
not yet reflect anything lastin
g or permanent.

Many ICT tools make use of symbols (emoticons or "smileys") to suggest feelings
and attitudes quickly. The smiling face image pre
dates the emergence of the personal
computer, having been widely used as a badge or transfer for clothing in
the 1960s
and later. (It was adopted by evangelical Christians, with the slogan: "Smile, Jesus
loves you", and more than a decade later associated with MDMA, the "recreational"
drug popularly known as Ecstasy.)

The importance of emoticons can be exaggerat
ed. David Crystal claims that:

"Very few of them are ever used. Surveys of email and chatgroups suggest that only
about 10 per cent of messages actually use them, and then usually just the two basic

:) and :( . Yet they still exercise a fascinatio
n: as an art form, or for
entertainment." Crystal, D (2004),
A Glossary of Netspeak and Textspeak
, p. 119,
Edinburgh, ISBN 0

I would qualify this. Inst
ant messenger clients and some message boards allow the
user to insert emoticons by a simple mouse click. These display as images (sometimes
animated) in the client program or Web browser. Using these technologies with a
wide range of contacts (both sexes
and all ages from young children upwards)
suggests that most users insert some emoticons, and in some interactions they
frequently punctuate or conclude a sequence of text. They are appropriate where, in

face conversation one would use a gesture or

a touch. They are perhaps more
commonly used in mixed and in all
female interactions, than in all
male social
interactions. Janet Baker states that:

"These graphical accents can add expressiveness, emotion and aesthetics to written
discourse. Do these sm
iley faces at the end of messages provide the reader with an
insight into the author or are they just annoying little punctuation marks that you have
to strain your neck to see. Do people that use emoticons also use emotional language
in their messages? An
d, do men and women use emoticons in the same way, and with
the same frequency?

The empirical research in this area is inconclusive. Witmer and Katzman (1997)
hypothesized that women use more graphical accents than men in their computer
mediated discours
e. The authors coded over 3,000 messages and found that their
hypothesis was partially supported by the data. Neither gender extensively used
emoticons, with only 13% of the total sample [doing so]. However, the computer
users who did primarily use emotico
ns were women."
Online Emotional Discourse

It may be interesting to reflect that early forms of writing (pre
alphabetic) used
pictorial symbols


(where a picture of an arrow represents an
arrow) or

(where a picture of an arrow represents war).

Although we now use alphabetic writ
ing, this has often been combined
with symbols in specific parts of a text, such as colophons on book
jackets and cover pages or the portcullis symbol, to indicate the crown's
ownership, on documents from Her Majesty's Stationery Office
(HMSO), and imitate
d by the music publisher Ministry of Sound.

That may help you to remember that, while use of novel spellings,
acronyms, abbreviations and symbols are all relev
ant to ICT texts, they
did not start life there, nor are they confined to new technologies. All of
them have a long and complex history in writing generally.

the same time, users of the new technologies may be more conservative than is
commonly supposed or reported. The following extract is summarised from an article
by Kristen Philipkoski, entitled
The Web Not the Death of Language
. This was
published on Febru
ary 22nd 2005 at

Traditional linguists fear the internet damages our ability to articulate
properly, infusing language with LOLs, dorky emoticons and the gauche
aring of personal information on blogs. But some researchers believe
we have entered a new era of expression. "

Resources for the expression of informality in writing have hugely

something not seen in English since the Middle Ages," said

Crystal at the American Academy for the Advancement of
Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The internet is getting
more people to write, he said, and that's a great thing.


"The prophets of doom emerge every time a new technology influences
ge, of course

they gathered when printing was introduced in the
15th century," Crystal said. But linguists should be "exulting," the
ability the Internet gives us to "explore the power of the written
language in a creative way."

In the spring of 2
003, Naomi Baron collected 23 instant message
conversations from college students: nine between males, nine between
females and five between males and females. She studied 2,185 total

The results did not fit typical stereotypes, she found. They used few
abbreviations, acronyms and emoticons, the spelling was reasonably
good and contractions were not ubiquitous. Overall, the study suggested
that conve
rsing through instant messenger resembled speaking more
than writing.

The college students gave a staid impression of IM communication. The
average length per transmission was 5.4 words; 22 percent were a single
word. Many were parts of sentences

112 in
cluded a conjunction, like
this: "she's a phd student (break) and my TA," and 48 used a
preposition, like this: "what are you bringing (break) on Saturday."

The college students used only 31 abbreviations specific to Internet
communication, 16 of which w
ere "k" for OK. They used just 90
acronyms total, 76 of which were "lol," and they used just 49 emoticons,
mostly smiley faces. Just 171 words were misspelled, and the students
often corrected the spelling in a follow
up. When they could have used
ions they did so only 65.3 percent of the time.

Men were much more likely to use contractions, Baron found. She also
noted that women took significantly longer to close IM conversations
than males, and males were significantly more likely than females to

break utterances into multiple IM transmissions.

Language and technology over time

The history of technologies for writing

Typesetting and printing

Technologies for
communicating remotely

The history of language and technology is not as old as the history of language, but is
exactly as old as the history of recorded language, which means at first the recording
of language by the use of symbols


pictograms and ideograms.

The history of technologies for writing

In the modern world we take for granted the availability of writing materials and
implements. But just as writing has a history, so has the

used to transmit it.
Some of the mos
t ancient writing in the world that has survived today appears on

large blocks of stone. This may be a suitable material for important documents that
are meant to be permanent. But fairly early in the history of writing people looked for
a way to make text
s more portable.

Around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers smooth river clay abounds. Between 4000
B.C. and 3500 B.C. the Sumerian people who lived in this region found a way to use
this clay as a writing material. To start with, they used picture language,
not unlike the
writing of Egypt. Over time, in an evolution we can trace in surviving evidence, the
Sumerians simplified their pictures into basic patterns of a few lines.

The development of this basic writing was also determined by the

used to

make marks in the clay. This was a tool rather like a pencil but without a lead, and not
sharpened. The writer would press a corner of the end into the clay, making a wedge
shaped line. The writers soon found that by combining five or six such lines or
rokes, in a range of vertical and horizontal positions, they could produce a range of
symbols to cover all objects and ideas about which they might want to write.

For many purposes, however, clay and stone are not practical materials. Suppose one
wants to be able to write down a long story, and keep it in a portable form

how can
one do this using stone as a writing material? The solution to this problem came from

another part of the ancient world, Egypt. The writing of Egypt, like that of the
Sumerians, started as a picture language. Here, too, the pictures became stylized over
time, but less so, because the Egyptians had a more flexible means of writing. Their
iting material was
, a kind of reed, which grows in marsh areas. The soft
pith from inside the tough stems was cut into long strips. These were laid side by side
to form a first layer, after which a second layer was laid on top, at right angles to t
first. Both layers were pressed together, releasing a natural gum, which bonded the
strips together to form paper sheets. These were glued together to form much longer
sheets, which were rolled up for carrying.

The writing implement used by the Egyptia
ns was a reed, frayed at the end, to form a
brush. Later, the Greeks would replace this with a split reed, forming a nib. The nib
enables the writer to control a flow of ink to a finer point. The ink was a mixture of
gum and a colouring agent

soot or lam
pblack. The scroll was to have a long history
and spread far beyond Egypt. For the producer, which had a virtual monopoly of the
commercial supply it was a valuable product for foreign trade.

The Egyptians used the well
known hieroglyphics for writing on
stone. They soon
found that writing on paper could be swifter if they simplified the writing to a script.
Carving on stone is easier using straight lines, but with a brush and paper, rounded
strokes are possible. Apart from having to dip the pen in ink eve
ry so often the scribe
could write continuously (rather as we do with modern pens). The writing on papyrus
developed into a more rounded script in a style known as

(which means
"running" in Latin). This form of writing also took its name from the

or priest
and is called

script. It marks a kind of transition in the development of
writing, between hieroglyphic and alphabetic script. The Phoenicians are the people
traditionally credited with the move to a system of characters to represe
nt sounds,
rather than whole words

in effect, an
. This development meant that a fairly
small number of symbols could be used, in combinations, to represent all the words in
a spoken language. This was a step of genius, which some languages have
taken. From this point, it is possible to trace the evolution of different writing systems
that use alphabets (again the name, "alphabet", comes from Greek).


Papyrus was the most common material but from the earliest times when they wrote
the books of the Law, the Hebrew scribes would also use leather. From about 200
B.C. onwards another material appeared

which was parchment. The skins of goats
and calves w
ere shaved, split, bleached, hammered and polished to form a smooth
writing surface. This was a more expensive writing material than papyrus, but longer

The first books were scrolls, up to thirty metres in length, formed by pasting together
us sheets. For reading, these were unrolled from one end, and rolled up from the
other, to present a manageable portion of text to the reader. The Romans developed a
different kind of book type. This was made of wooden tablets, coated with wax, in
which th
e writer cut letters with a stylus. These tablets were bound with leather
thongs that passed through holes in the wood. It is easy to see how this gave us our
modern book form. The only big difference was that for many years these books were
written entire
ly by hand

which is why they are called

Typesetting and printing

While writing has a long history, stretching over many hundreds of years, printin
g is a
relatively recent invention. Printing with movable clay type appeared in China in the
9th century AD, but the western tradition, from which modern typesetting derives,
begins in 1436 in Germany with the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg. This use
replaceable wooden, and later metal, letters. At first these were limited in number, so
that Gutenberg had to set up a page, print multiple copies, and then take it down, in
order to set up the next page. In 1452 Gutenberg produced a printed version of t
Latin Bible.

Printing was at first an expensive way to produce books, and for many years after its
invention more books were produced in manuscript (hand
copied) than printed form.
Over several centuries the process became faster and more accurate. The

availability of type eventually made it possible to leave pages set up. In the 19th
century, Charles Dickens and others were able to publish novels serially in relatively
cheap instalments

perhaps for the first time bringing substantial printed
texts to a
mass readership.

Printing may be seen as having two important effects on language in the west.

First, it is an agent of mass literacy

by providing appropriate and affordable
texts in large numbers it encouraged and supported ordinary people
in learning
to read.

Second, it is an agent of standardization. Following the publication of Dr.
Johnson's dictionary in 1755, and also prescriptive books on grammar, such as
Robert Lowth's (1762), publishers came to use house styles, which more or
less e
stablished certain written forms as a standard.

There is, however, no single universal standard for spelling, as the Oxford and
Cambridge University presses allow
ed some small differences (such as rules for


), while Noah Webster uses some variant forms that have become standard
in modern US English.

In contrast to modern computer
mediated publishing methods, the technology used to
print books is e
xpensive, and thus restricted to a few publishing houses. These
publishers tended to be very careful in checking texts before they were produced in
volume (reading what are called proofs), so that English printed books observe

indirectly reinforce

use of standard forms, and also special varieties that differ from
the language of everyday speech. Smaller and less expensive presses were in use for
shorter texts, such as playbills or pamphlets, and here there may be more likelihood of
standard form

Until near the end of the 20th century, English publishing made a strong distinction
between the publisher and the printer. The publisher determines the language forms,
reading the printer's proofs and showing where they are to be altered, if incorrect
. The
publisher is also responsible for the content (and liable if it is treasonable or
libellous). The typesetter and printer

seen as skilled artisans

are responsible for
setting up the movable type, printing the pages, and, if need be, collating thes
e and
binding them together. In the 21st century, the publisher's role may seem little
changed, but modern computer technologies have largely replaced the skilled work of
the artisans, as the mass production of all printed texts is performed by machinery
riven by information technologies.

Technologies for communicating remotely

Modern communication technologies have their antecedents in more limited systems
were developed for broadly similar aims

to overcome boundaries of distance or
time. In some contexts, time is not critical

one can send a message, and allow for a
delay. But there are some contexts where this is not possible.

In the case of fighting a

battle on land one can communicate information by showing
a flag or standard, by use of devices that reflect natural light or that show artificial
light (heliography). For more complex methods one can use pairs of flags displayed in
different positions (s
emaphore). Until very recent times (well into the 20th century),
for some kinds of communication the most reliable method was to send written notes
carried by messengers on horseback, motorcycle or even on foot (usually young men
who were fast runners).

or battles at sea a complex system of signalling by use of flags was used until these
were superseded by heliograph and radio.

From the late 19th century onwards a related set of technologies developed, with the
object of using physical devices to record
or transmit natural speech. Recording
technologies began with the phonograph, which evolved into the gramophone disc or
record. Later came the use of magnetic tape, in the reel
reel and compact cassette
recorders (as well as the short
lived four track a
nd eight track cartridge formats). At