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Review of  Technolingualism


Reviewer: Andrew Jocuns
Book Title: Technolingualism
Book Author: James Pfrehm
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 29.4811

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Review:
SUMMARY

James Pfrehm’s “Technolingualism: The Mind and the Machine” coins the term “technolingualism” to refer to the dialectic relationship between language and technology where language influences technology and technology influences language. The book then is divided up into six chapters, two interludes and a conclusion. Each chapter opens with a narrative vignette which prefaces some of the issues that the author discusses in the preceding chapter.

Chapter 1 focuses upon one of the first forms of language technology, writing systems. The writing revolution discusses the technological emergence of different types of writing systems the world over. Noting differences in alphabet and non-alphabet literacies, the author discusses how writing systems have evolved from pictographic to ideographic systems and later to alphabets. Later the author goes on to discuss how the properties of language itself have influenced textualization through language’s inherent discreteness, i.e. the make-up of individual languages sound (phonology), form (syntax), and meaning (semantics/pragmatics), discussing how logograms represent the features that make up a work and how a syllable is a distinct feature that can influence writing systems. The Korean writing system is discussed as one of the best forms of textualization because of its relationship to the articulatory features of the language. Because Chinese is an isolating language and Korean an agglutinative language, the Korean language was not a good fit for the Chinese logogram system. The role of King Sejong and how he devised the Korean writing system where the hangul alphabet is nearly a perfect match for Korean phonology is investigated at length. Pfrehm notes how writing has influenced language mostly through language ideologies, i.e., what linguists refer to as prescriptivism. Writing also influences language through creating a larger lexicon, complex syntax, pronunciation based on etymology, hypercorrective pronunciation, internationalization, and through preservation.

The first interlude provides a discussion of how writing does not have a negative affect language, and at the same time it does not make language better. The notion that prescriptive ideology (i.e. bad or improper language) precedes writing is problematized. The author discusses how writing does not affect grammar noting differences between shallow (minor spelling differences and word pronunciations) versus deep variation (where there are larger structural changes in a language). That is to say the effects of having a writing system on language are minor compared to larger structural processes of language change and variation.

Chapter 2 draws our attention to technological advances in literacy, which the author refers to as mechanization. The discussion focuses upon the printing press and the typewriter. Staring with the printing press, and how language influenced the emergence of print technologies, the author draws our attention to the mechanization of language. The fact that in the Chinese logographic system one character equals one word inherently influences the print technology, or as Pfrehm notes, the mechanization of the language. Hence it was more intuitive for Chinese inventors to develop writing technologies from a word not sound centered perspective. One of the early Chinese writing technologies was a cumbersome system made from carved wood blocks. The focus then shifts to the manuscript age which emerged after the development of the Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century. The effect that the printing press had on language had to do with standardization which initially emerged through orthographic and typographic conventions. Standardization through writing systems eventually led to language ideologies that were more prescriptive in nature. Pfrehm argues that through engaging the written word speakers develop more metalinguistic awareness. Speaker’s engaged others through writing and developed personal relationships through literacy. Moreover this new technology led quickly to issues of ownership;where previously texts were copied word for word, now the notion of the ownership of a text became important. This led to the first copyright laws not long after the printing press emerged. Considering how long the written word had existed before the printing press, the shift from the printing press to the notion of copyright was quite quick by comparison. The second part of the chapter discusses the evolution of the typewriter as a form of mechanization. There were numerous attempts at making a typing machine but it was not until someone thought of examining the most commonly used clusters of letters that the technology was able to take off. One of the ways that the typewriter impacted language was known as the typewriter effect, where some authors were influenced by the sound of the machine and as a result they made longer sentences. The chapter on mechanization concludes with a discussion on some ideological manifestations of the typewriter. For example it led to the use of dictation as well as notions of who should use the typewriter. It was a sign of prestige that the owner of the typewriter would not necessarily be the one who used it.

Chapter 3 abstraction is the analytical focus of Chapter 3 and refers to how it is that two technologies, the telegraph and the telephone both led to distancing between speakers and their respective languages. Such abstraction occurred in time, location and physicality. The technological innovations that led to the telegraph led to unique changes (or abstractions) in language specifically with regards to the phenomenon known as Morse speak and Morse jargon. These ways of speaking emerged in part because the telegraph companies charged by word. News agencies which sent telegraph messages several times a day would thus be able to save money from utilizing a reduced form of Morse code. A prolonged discussion on the development and design of the telephone follows but the heart of the chapter is how language was affected by the telephone, for example how does one open a telephone conversation? Pfrehm notes that the opener shifted from “Ahoy!” to “what is wanted?” to the now ubiquitous “hello”, which to that point had been a part of colloquial speech before entering the lexicon as a preferred greeting. With the telephone there were a number of language ideologies that emerged most notably with the emergence of guidelines and books on how to properly use the telephone. The discussion of the telephone ends with an analysis of three such books and the language ideologies that they entail.

In Chapter 4 digitization, we learn how the computer affected language and vice versa. To begin we learn how language affected computer code, moving language from text to 1s and 0s with the emergence of ASCII. A good portion of the chapter focuses upon the constraints placed upon language by ASCII in much the same way that choices made in written codes constrained language as well as their mechanical manifestations. This is followed by a discussion of the role of the Chomskyan paradigm in the developing field of software engineering in the 1950s and 1960s. The second half of the chapter shifts our attention to computer mediated communication (CMC) and its effects on language, beginning with how email communication ultimately became a different paradigm because of the issue of time. In addition there appears to be some belief that email communication is ephemeral, in part because of its rapid pace of communication. Pfrehm notes how the technological innovation of email led to new linguistic practices, for example intercalation — where one inserts a series of replies and responses in between one another. This is followed by a brief discussion of CMC effects on other languages, prescriptivist guides to CMC communication and the language ideologies embedded within them. The chapter closes by focusing upon the emergence of corpora for CMC alongside a brief case study on wordnik, a digital technology that seeks to compile forgotten, missing, or overlooked English words.

The second interlude compares and contrasts linguists’ and non-linguists’ stances toward the effects of CMC on language, noting that there does not seem to be a uniform stance towards CMC from linguistics. This in part may be due to the fact that computer mediated communication is constantly changing. The non-linguists’ take is largely prescriptivist in nature.

Chapter 5 is on mobilization with a discussion of cellphones and text messaging. The author first discusses the role that the spectrogram played in the development of cell phone technology. Noting that speech-recognition technology was largely influenced by research originally conducted in 1947 with the publication of Visible Speech, we learn how acoustic modeling eventually led to the wave form. One of the problems in speech modelling had to do with the fact of speech variation. How could so much variation be identified by the new technology? The answer derived from Bell Labs’ development of speech clustering algorithms. The latter part of the chapter discusses how the cellphone affected language through the development of textspeak. Here we learn that rebus (where a linguistic item is represented with a non-linguistic one or icon) which was mentioned in Chapter 1 on the development of written codes like cuneiform, is present within textspeak. This is followed by a discussion of some of the features of textspeak, as well as the fact that as the technology changed from dumb to smart phones, textspeak has changed in part because of the auto-correct feature and its many frustrations. The chapter concludes with Pfrehm analyzing some of the prescriptivist ideologies that have emerged along with textspeak.

Chapter 6 introduces regeneration and elaborates on the technological advances that have led to the cochlear implant. The cochlear implant and its ability to enable the deaf to hear is the main focus. Here we learn how the discovery of the mechanics and anatomical function of the cochlea in the inner ear led to the acoustic spectrum analyzer. We then learn of the cochlear implant and its effects on the deaf community as well as its effects upon a linguistic code, American Sign Language, not to mention its effects upon language identity and language ideologies within the deaf community. Pfrehm then draws our attention to sign languages as real linguistic codes and the ideologies and identities of the deaf community. A big takeaway from this chapter was the fact that a technology can transform a person’s biology such that they move from a social category of deaf person to hearing person, and that this technology can have a negative impact in terms of identity..

The conclusion offers us five takeaways from the discussion of how language affects technology and how technology affects language. These takeaways include: linguistic knowledge has the ability to positively affect technologies;prescriptivist assumptions and folk linguistics tend to follow language technologies; alphabets can influence language and technology; language ideologies are constantly emerging with new ideologies; and lastly language and technology affect one another, which as the author mentions throughout the book is the definition of the term “technolingualism”.

EVALUATION

While the book does a good job at identifying trends in relationships between language and technology historically there are a few things that the book could have done to make a stronger analytical argument. There have been some notable analyses of how technology has changed human behavior as well as some work that has examined how language has changed due to that. To that end it seems a stronger analytical point could have been made by examining the affordances and constraints that emerge from technological advances. Some good examples are from James Wertsch’s (1998) “Mind as Action” where he lays out the history of technological advances in the javelin toss and the affordances and constraints of advancing from wood javelin to synthetic materials. A more language and discourse analytic approach to language and technology can be gleaned from Jones & Hafner's, (2012) “Understanding Digital Literacies” where as an example of how to analyze affordances and constraints, the authors lay out the technological and historical changes that led to development of the wristwatch. The changes are linguistically real; moreover, having the wristwatch has changed how we think about time linguistically. In short. some discussion of the affordances and constraints that have come along with technology and its relationship to language would have made a stronger analytical argument. Some of these things were mentioned in the book but not explained in detail. For example the author’s discussion of the effects of the printing press on language and language ideology. The affordance being that the printing press revolutionized how quickly texts could be disseminated but a notable constraint was in authorship. The issue of authorship eventually led to emergence of copyright law which certainly affects the quality of the written word to this very day; this can also be related to the author’s discussion of digitization if we consider fan fiction and how many authors are threatened by their work being re-tooled by fans.

The book is written in a very conversational and accessible style and fits within the scope of much of the literature on the history of literacy. A good audience for this book would be undergraduates or non-linguists who are unfamiliar with technology and its relationship to language. I could see using a few of the chapters in a course I teach on language and communication and I believe its contents would be suitable for an introductory course in literacy, a course in digital literacy, and also courses in science, technology and society.

REFERENCES

Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies: A Practical Introduction. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge.

Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind As Action. New York: Oxford University Press.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Andrew Jocuns is a sociolinguist who has conducted research on discourse and learning in the United States and Southeast Asia with a particular focus on Indonesia. He is presently conducting research on linguistic landscapes, narrative, intercultural communication and Thai English. His research has appeared in such journals as Semiotica, Mind Culture Activity, Journal of Engineering Education, and Journal of Multicultural Discourses.

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