Internet Age Casualties: Printed Dictionary Next on the List?

As more go online, Oxford English Dictionary may go digital-only.

August 30, 2010, 5:20 PM

Aug. 31, 2010— -- Is the printed dictionary on its way to being the latest casualty of the Internet age?

Rightly or wrongly, the Internet is already faulted with killing off privacy, grammar and the attention span. This week, linguaphiles learned that the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary might be next on digital technology's hit list.

Nigel Portwood, the chief executive of the Oxford University press, told the U.K.'s The Sunday Times that he didn't think the newest edition will be printed when it comes out in 2020.

"The print dictionary market is just disappearing. It is falling away by tens of percent a year," he said.

Later, the publishing company clarified his position and said that a decision on the printed edition hasn't yet been made. There is still demand for the print version, but interest in the online reference is growing, it said.

"People certainly are migrating to the Internet for what normally would have been a print reference book," said Christian Purdy, director of publicity for the Oxford University Press USA.

According to the Associated Press, the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) receives 2 million hits a month from subscribers who pay $295 a year. The current printed edition, which exists in 20 volumes and was published in 1989, has sold about 30,000 sets in total, it reported.

As lexicographers add new words every few months, Purdy said the dictionary stands to grow even bigger.

"How many volumes will it be in 10 years, when we hopefully meet our deadline to update the entire O.E.D.? Who knows and at what cost? And will there be a market for the print edition in ten years?" he asked. "At present, we're not saying anything definite. … It's something we continually revisit to see how cost-effective it might be."

But if the Internet age succeeds in knocking off the printed dictionary, some might say it wouldn't be the first linguistic loss triggered by the rise of information technology.

When cellphone-toting teens first learned to text, some educators wondered if they would forget how to spell. As the language of e-mail and short messages filtered in to the classroom and work place, some grammarians wondered if they were doomed to a future stripped of syntax.

Thai Officials: Excessive Use of Facebook, Twitter Distort Language

Earlier this summer, Thai officials said Facebook and Twitter were the culprits behind deteriorating language skills among Thai students.

A national survey conducted by the country's Culture Ministry found that about a third of Thai youths were not concerned about grammatical mistakes, misspellings and abbreviations in text messages and social media chats, the Associated Press reported. Four out of ten youths think "proper Thai" is only necessary on formal occasions, it said.

"Excessive use of Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone messages distorts the language," said Nipit Intarasombut, the country's culture minister. "But we can't stop people from communicating."

To help preserve the national language, he said the ministry would launch essay writing competitions and encourage television stations to use proper Thai on-air.

And Thai youth aren't alone in learning to reconcile new technologies with age-old linguistic traditions.

According to the Agence-France Press, as Chinese students trade ink, brushes and paper for computers, keyboards and cell phones, they are starting to forget how to write the thousands of Chinese characters they've memorized since childhood.

The more they type the Romanized characters (called pinyin), the harder it is for them to recall the brush strokes for the often complex characters, the AFP said. When their memories fail them, they turn to technology again, looking up characters on their cell phones.

Some students say the so-called "character amnesia" is like forgetting their culture and some Chinese linguists say the problem could even hinder reading ability.

But despite occasional angst that information technology is taking its toll on language, prominent language experts say that the fears are unfounded. As language continues to evolve, people are using technology and blending it with speech and writing in ways that they have always done.

"The Chinese students are an interesting phenomenon because we've [for hundreds of years] resorted to other resources to make sure that our language is better," said Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and co-host of National Public Radio's "A Way With Words" show.

People Have Always Worried About New Technologies

"We've looked to manuals on style and writing or dictionaries or even turned to the person next to us to say, 'How many "r's in "sheriff"?'… The Chinese students looking up their characters is a perfectly natural act. It means that we've recognized these weaknesses in ourselves and we've made tools to solve that weakness."

He also emphasized that technology isn't just marching along on its own, leaving linguistic changes in its wake.

"[Technology] is a bunch of solutions that we've put together to solve what we perceive to be our weaknesses," he said. "It's not as if technology is a self-motivator. It is human-driven. We have created these things to do things for us."

David Crystal, a British linguist and author of the upcoming "Internet linguistics," said that it's too premature to draw any conclusions about how the Internet and information technology are affecting language.

For most people, the Internet is only about 20 years old, and new media forces like Twitter have only emerged in the past few years.

"We're talking about very, very recent trends. So there's a novelty effect here," he said. "Ten years, 20 years is an eye blink in the study of language. … Whatever people are doing at the moment isn't necessarily going to be long-term."

While educators and parents might fuss over what technology is doing to students' language skills, those debates are nothing new, he said. The printing press, the telephone and broadcasting all courted some controversy when they first emerged and all of those debates ultimately subsided.

"People have always been worried about new technologies. Every time there's a new technology, there's a panic," he said.

And he said that while online language may be more informal and loose when it comes to punctuation and spelling, overall, there's not much of a difference between the English that we see on the Internet and the English that we use offline.

"When you actually step back a bit and look at the Internet as a whole, what you find is there is more continuity with previous slang than discontinuity," he said.

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