Article

The competing demands of popularization vs. economy: Written language in the age of mass literacy

Douglas Biber and Bethany Gray

in The Oxford Handbook of the History of English

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199922765
Published online November 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199922765.013.0028

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 The competing demands of popularization vs. economy: Written language in the age of mass literacy

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  • Linguistics
  • Historical and Diachronic Linguistics
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Two apparently contradictory developments have been associated with the history of the English language over the past 200 years: the increasing use of colloquial linguistic forms (associated with 'popularization') and the increasing use of compressed linguistic forms (associated with 'economy'). Both forces have influenced all written registers to some extent. But as this chapter shows, these developments have been mediated by register differences. Based on an analysis of three registers (1800-2000) that differ in their intended audiences and communicative purposes, the chapter describes historical patterns of change for both colloquial and compression features. ‘Popular’ written registers (e.g., fiction) take the lead in the increased use of colloquial features (e.g., pronouns, contractions, semi-modals). In contrast, ‘specialist informational’ registers (e.g., academic research writing) take the lead in the increased use of economy features (e.g., phrasal modifiers of nouns). This results in a major increase in the use of colloquial features in fiction, a major increase in the reliance on phrasal (rather than clausal) discourse styles in academic writing, and increases in both sets of features in 'popular informational' newspaper reportage.

Keywords: English; written registers; orality; informalization; colloquialization; popularization; economy; fiction; newspapers; science; prose

Article.  4441 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Historical and Diachronic Linguistics ; Sociolinguistics

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