Impact of Technology & Culture on the English Language

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Can a language evolve so dramatically that it becomes almost unrecognizable? This lesson discusses how technological and cultural shifts have shaped the English language over time.

English through the Centuries

If you were to read English from the 9th century, you'd have a hard time recognizing just about anything. Many letters wouldn't look familiar, and it would seem like gibberish to you. Even if you were able to read the letters, the order and meaning of the words would make not make sense.

Old English looks indecipherable to English speakers today.
An example of Old English text

What about literature from a few centuries later, when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote lines such as ''Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote…'' Here you can start to make out some words, but many are still mysterious. To us, it would appear that Chaucer didn't have a spell-checker handy. And the famous William Shakespeare, writing in the 16th and 17th centuries can be understood a bit clearer still. However, parts may still sound formal and strange: ''That thou hast her it is not all my grief; And yet it may be said I loved her dearly…''

All of these examples have a relationship to the English language; from the Old English, we see as gobbledygook, to the Middle English of Chaucer, and on to Shakespeare's Early Modern English. They have developed into today's variations used in speaking, writing and electronic communication.

The Impact of Culture

It can sometimes be tempting to think of a language as a fixed set of rules and words, that started out pretty much like it is today. Yet languages are impacted to such a great extent that they can become almost unrecognizable, as happened with English over the course of centuries.

In many countries, laws are created to protect the survival of a language from the threat of rapid change. Consider how in Quebec, a French-speaking province of Canada, debates arise as to what extent English should be allowed into business and even everyday life. The phrase of 'Bonjour/Hi' - a combination of both French and English greetings - can incite complex emotions and opinions. In the United States, debates also arise over making information more accessible to non-natives, and those who worry that this undermines the integrity of the English language.

What causes languages to change as they do? Cultural influences such as invasions, migration and global trade affect this evolution. The world's languages have transformed one another throughout history. For instance, 1500 years ago, the beginnings of the English language can be traced to Germanic tribes entering Britain. French and Latin had an impact in the centuries that followed. At times, different social classes spoke different languages or versions of languages.

Fast forward roughly a thousand years, and the cultural movement known as the Renaissance was making cross-cultural learning more common. The Renaissance had a role in the development of a radical change known as the Great Vowel Shift. This dramatic change to the pronunciation of vowels also coincided with the contact that the British had with other regions of the world during colonial expansion. Over a transitional period of about 200 years, the Great Vowel Shift transformed the way English words sounded. For example, before the change, the word 'child' would have sounded more like 'chilled', and 'good' more like 'load' with a g.

Over time, certain words have been borrowed from other languages, and are known as loanwords. Have you ever known anyone who takes ballet lessons, for instance? You can thank the French language for the addition of words like ballet to our language. Which one of our words do you think emerged from tronada, the Spanish word for thunderstorm? This is the origin of the word tornado in English. African, Arabic, American Indian, and Yiddish languages are just a few among many from which the English language has borrowed and adopted new words over time. Other examples of loanwords are gazelle, yam, banjo, chocolate, woodchuck, caravan, pecan, bagel, tomato, and chess.

The Power of Technology

Long before modern electronic communications, other technologies impacted the English language. Imagine how the invention of the printing press around the 15th century allowed massive amounts of text to be shared among more people than ever. This new technology helped fuel much of the learning during and following the Renaissance.

Printing presses used standardized letters to spread language far and wide.
Wooden letters from a printing press

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