Thinking Out Loud

January 16, 2017

The Erosion of Language as We Knew It


Yesterday I provided a kind of soft intro to the topic I want to look at today which bears on larger issues than just why bookstores are struggling.

There are some widely circulating statistics suggesting that in North America, western Europe and perhaps Australia/New Zealand as well, for the first time ever we’re seeing a generation with a lower life expectancy than their parents and grandparents faced; in other words, after better nutrition and medical knowledge have allowed us to live longer for years, suddenly it appears the numbers have peaked for both males and females.

On top of that, we’re also seeing a major decline in economic expectancy. Millennials are struggling to find jobs and the prospect of amassing enough wealth to secure their retirement years has somewhat vanished.

I would argue that parallel to all this we’re also seeing a major decline in literacy, or at least literacy as we have previously understood it or measured it.

There are a number of reasons for this, but all related to the personal computer revolution of the past 20 years. This isn’t a technical revolution, because the technology has been around much longer, and it’s not really a computer revolution for the same reason. Rather it’s the effect of personal computers being a part of every home, or even every individual. In the Fall of 2009, Finland became the first country to declare broadband internet access a legal right and by the summer of 2010, every person was to have access to a 1Mb connection.

I’ve written elsewhere about how computers and the internet have accelerated social change and how we’ve basically lived 4 decades worth of shifting paradigms in just 20 years. Today however we want to focus simply on language.

The simple answer to the question, “Why aren’t people reading books like they once did?” is easy.

  • We don’t have the time. We’re spending all our free time with our devices, or more specifically, screens.
    • The small screen in our pocket associated with our mobile phone
    • The medium screen be it a desktop, laptop or tablet
    • The giant screen in the living room be it Plasma, LED or LCD
  • We don’t have the money. We’re using up all our discretionary spending money on the same screens.
    • monthly phone bill and data plan overages
    • apps
    • cable or satellite television
    • home internet connection
    • streaming services
    • software bundles
    • accessories, extended warranties, virus protection, etc.

That is all fairly obvious.

We’re also seeing some other things at play at the same time.

  • Spell-check – You don’t really need to know how to spell a word anymore since the computer corrects it for you. Grammar-check is also slowly improving.
  • Texting – This is the reduction of the English language in the extreme.
  • Emojis – This is the reduction of written communication in the extreme.
  • Acronyms and Initialisms – I hope you’re taking this article seriously and not ROFL or LOL.

But there are also other factors beyond what’s happening online:

  • The end of cursive writing – They don’t teach cursive script in many (if not most) schools now. I would argue there’s something different about what we write when confined to individually printed letters. But this is a moot point when you think about…
  • The end of handwriting, period – If you’re of a certain age and are right-handed, and you look toward the end of your middle finger, there’s probably a callus there from many years of penmanship. Today, most kids spend far more hours keyboarding than handwriting.
  • The increasing emphasis on numeracy over literacy – Your ability to process numeric data is increasingly more vital than your way with words.
  • The diminished need to learn – It’s no longer necessary to know anything as long as you have mastered search and can locate the information needed. Unfortunately however there is a less sense as to the expected answer one is looking for, or a healthy skepticism as to whether or not the source is trustworthy or accurate.

The technology has also inflicted more damage to traditional reading:

  • Shortened attention spans – I don’t understand the psychological ramifications and I’m sure much ink has been given to this in professional journals and forums, but simply put, there’s something about the technology that has made us restless resulting in the often-seen response, “TLDR” (too long, didn’t read).
  • Increased distractions – One person well when they said something along these lines, ‘The problem with the internet is there are too many off-ramps.’
  • Dependency on rich text – I am referring here to our inability to follow a sustained argument through a lengthy paragraph. Rather we have become dependent on the use of italics, bold face, subheadings, bullet points, pull-quotes, and even (horrors!) underlining, color and enlarged fonts. (Yes, guilty as charged here.)

Next, there is the particular challenge of eBooks:

  • When they were first introduced, eBooks were offered at a substantial discount. The problem with this is that when you only spend 99-cents, or get the book for free, you don’t really have any investment in it. Many people would read a chapter or two, figure they got their money’s worth and never finish reading. This concerns me on several levels:
    • It strikes me as cheapening reading, diminishing the value of the author’s worth.
    • For some, it was all about the downloading experience; loading the device with titles for which the person had no intention of reading
    • It grossly inflated eBook sales which signaled a death of print which never happened.
    • The side effects of sore eyes and headaches caused by the devices turned some people away from reading.
    • It made it more difficult, if not impossible to loan a book to a friend.
    • When someone really loves a book, they will tell five friends, of which only one (at most) will be another eBook reader; the other four will try to get the book in print. But to love the book they have value it and finish reading it.
  • The side effect of cheap eBooks and the introduction of the Amazon discounting paradigm created a perfect storm, wherein print books were more widely discounted, which cheapened the value of printed books and also resulted in a climate where people were not finishing reading what they had started.

Finally, as noted above the technology afforded the possibility of online sales which bypass the traditional brick-and-mortar store.

  • The Amazon paradigm — the company itself and various copycats — created a situation whereby books were shipped directly to a customer’s door, thereby creating a situation where people were less likely to interact with physical books in a retail store environment. Choices are made from a store which really has no filters and where obscure publishers can buy placement in ways unknown before the Amazon revolution.
  • Sometimes customers got burned. The book didn’t materialize as what was suggested in online.
  • Other customers took to using the traditional bookstore as a showroom for the online seller. They would check it out in a local store, but purchase it cheaper from the online vendor. This was (and still is) a source of great frustration for bookstore owners, many of whom didn’t need another reason to throw in the towel.

…Well, that about covers it, right? Not quite. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the particular issues which face bookstores more familiar to some readers here, Christian bookstores; the topic we originally set out to answer.

Feel free to engage the comments section to suggest things I may have missed. These notes are from many years of doing this extemporaneously and I may have omitted some things. If the omission is serious, I may update the text.

Borders - The End is Near



  1. Language is evolving, and Earth is over-populated. We should be looking for ways to solve the latter without relying on war, unethical science, bad politics, or fascism. Incredibly, I believe that is possible. But many of us are too busy to think, and media saturation is taking even more of our time away (as you implied.)

    Language is still evolving, and publishing is evolving. Please don’t think I don’t love books– hardcopy, paper treasure chests rich with texture, scents, and a history that was friendlier to self-publishing. Anyone that could use a pen could self-publish, although mass production was not open to most people as it is now. (Still, the valuable curation from big publishers is a double-edged sword.)

    Giant companies don’t pivot too well. They prefer to attack the competition and then emulate it in the most cynical ways. They can afford to, because of the inertia created by large bankrolls. But the main point is this: culture evolves a little bit faster than monopolistic companies. Little companies get eaten– Big companies sometime fall over and are never the same again. Rarely, entire industries disappear. I can probably buy a buggy whip from Etsy, however.

    The reason I bring up our level of population is that I believe it’s the cornerstone of our modern culture. We are trying to keep up, and we keep finding ways to almost pull it off. I think we will ultimately reach a peak, unless we manage to take over another planet’s resources. But our culture is changing on so many levels, I think the fate of paper book stores– not paper books themselves– is really one of the smaller signs we have to look at; and I’ve loved books all my life. Commerce has changed as much as publishing, it’s not at all like books are being singled out. And I think you’ve put commerce together with the (beginning-less, endless) evolution of written communication in a really tenuous way. Forget “proof,” just give us some more evidence (any at all) of a causal link. It would be interesting and it may be a factor, but I think there are more comprehensive explanations.

    Comment by codeinfig — January 16, 2017 @ 7:40 am

  2. It’s not all bad news; take a website like DuoLingo – I used it to learn Portuguese for free. There isn’t a library close by and I sincerely doubt it would have had books on Portuguese, or audio files that showed me how to pronounce them, or access to a community of other language learners who help explain to me tricky grammatical concepts in real time. There are lots of things that books just cannot do. I have a love of learning, through you-tube videos, I can be shown how to do things step-by-step without waiting for somebody to write it down in a book, get it approved by a publisher, and have it made and distributed on a massive scale. I write in cursive all the time (and am left-handed.) I think that to some extent knowledge should be free and easy to access (I don’t mind paying for a good story, but I view knowledge and creative writing as different concepts). I don’t like paying full price for a book at a book store when I can get it for less than a dollar at a Goodwill.

    Comment by Jamie Carter — January 16, 2017 @ 10:08 am

  3. […] Here’s an interesting article for you to read – LINK […]

    Pingback by The End of Language as we know it? Interesting and Provocative article | Spiritual Regurgitations — January 16, 2017 @ 4:30 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Your Response (Value-Added Comments Only)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: