Text-messages, e-mails and the use of the Internet in general have changed the nature of written English dramatically. “Because of the electronic revolution, written English is becoming more like spoken English. In the past people communicated in a much more formal way. My impression is that we may also be losing the richness of our English language and culture,” said Richard Harrison, Course Co-ordinator for Academic English and Head of the Pre-University Programme at the German University of Technology in Oman (GUtech), during a public evening talk held on Tuesday at the university in Al Athaiba.
The current electronic revolution, which includes the Internet and text messaging, has created an immediate, universal and democratic medium of communication. “In the UK alone around 2 million text messages are sent per hour. Though some people say that this is not really writing it is an interesting and remarkable phenomenon. We don’t know yet how e-mails will change our reading and writing,” said Harrison.
Speech is more interpersonal and spontaneous, whereas writing is planned and highly structured. E-mails cover a broad range of language styles. They can be formal but tend towards being very informal — like speech written down. An e-mail can also sound very unfriendly, with a lack of greeting or a signing off. In addition, there are no strict guidelines for use as there are for letter writing.
E-mails can also be used as a protective cover for things that people don’t want to say face to face, for example: ‘You’re fired!’. When people write blogs, create websites or chat, there is a tendency to write as you speak, so called ‘web-speak’. “There has also been a move to a more informal writing style in business letters and other genres of writing. There is the use of simpler and more direct sentence structures, open punctuation, and short, informal vocabulary.”
Richard Harrison mentioned that the change in language is not a new phenomenon. With the introduction of the printing press, the first print revolution occurred during the 15th century. “Before the printing press, only a few people knew how to read and write,” said Richard Harrison, “but then reading and writing was opened up to the masses”. In the past, handwritten texts, such as poems, speeches, legal or religious tracts, were meant to be read aloud. However, during the 17th and 18th centuries mass education and hence mass literacy developed and books and newspapers became widely available. During the 20th century further language changes occurred when telephones, radio, television and video were introduced.
According to a study conducted by the linguist Brock Haussamen, people today are using shorter sentences compared to the past. In the 17th century, for example, 40-70 words was the usual length of a sentence. Since then the sentence has been shrinking to around an average of 20 words nowadays.
According to linguists, sentences will continue to be shorter and more direct in the future, with a lighter punctuation. Fragments (incomplete sentences) and run-ons will be more acceptable and more common in the future. “We do not know yet the long-term effect of the electronic media on our writing. But I think it is an exciting time for the written word. The written language is changing rapidly and things that were unacceptable some years ago are now acceptable,” he said.
Harrison suggested that anybody working with the language and teaching language has to keep up to date with these changes. “Language style guides, the results of research and our own observations can all prove invaluable in keeping up-to-date,” said Harrison.
Richard Harrison is the author of a number of textbooks for students of English Language in the Gulf region. He is an expert in intercultural communication with over 20 years of experience in the Arab world. In addition to Oman, he has taught English in universities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, and the UAE. He has also worked for the British Council in Russia as a language consultant. His qualifications include an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Reading in the UK.