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Lauren Baker, Jenna Ferrario, Bettina Paderna, Mikey Pagan, Courtney Sadowski Group Project-ECOLE Lab
Department: English
Year: Senior
Class: ENG 000

‘Am Worried’: Technology is not ruining the English language

Computer-mediated communication (“CMC” henceforth) has become commonplace due to the prevalence of email, chatrooms, text messaging apps and more as we find new ways to utilize technology. A common perspective in the literature is that CMC gives rise to a completely “new species of communication” (Crystal, 2001) or even that it ruins the English language. Our research question is whether the features observed in CMC are novel and can be attributed to technology. Our hypothesis is that language modification and simplification observed in CMC is not a new phenomenon borne out of CMC.

To answer this question we have compiled and analyzed a comprehensive corpus of telegrams dating from 1962. We have created this corpus using the University of Mississippi’s digital collection of telegrams sent to and from the Oxford, Mississippi Western Union telegram office during August-October 1962.

We analyzed close to 300 telegrams by hand and with a computer program, and found that the average number of words per sentence in telegrams is 11, which is higher than in chat corpus (4.2), but less than in the Brown corpus (~20), a baseline representing the standard English. Similar to other ‘simplified’ registers, such as chat, telegrams allow for subjectless sentences (‘Am worried’) and drop auxiliary verbs (‘Adsee not on campus’, ‘Phones busy’). They also use abbreviations extensively (NECY = necessary, YMD = yes my dear, SITN = situation).

Our preliminary analysis shows that telegrams are in some way similar to other ‘simplified’ registers, such as search queries and chat, and at the same time they are closer to the Standard English in terms of the ratio of content words and the number of words per sentence.

Our project has both methodological and theoretical contributions. On the methodological side we contribute to the field by building a digital corpus of ‘naturally occurring’ telegrams (cf. Barton 1998), which can be easily searched and analyzed with computer programs. On the theoretical side, our work sheds light on this process of simplification in language and adds to theoretical considerations of language modification. Our results suggest that the modification and simplification observed in CMC is not a new phenomenon, but rather something that arises in a specific context when time or space consideration affect the linguistic form.