long-run trend in writing style

Communicative style varies with circumstances and purposes.  Over millions of years, primate vocal communication co-evolved with sociality among family and friends.  Writing, in contrast, developed about 5500 years ago.  Prior to the last three centuries, use of writing has been almost wholly limited to a small, elite group, and writing has been used primarily for recording information and memorializing events significant to many persons.

Since the eighteenth century, written texts have become in linguistic style more like social communication.   This change can be measured in three dimensions: (A) informational vs. personal, real-time involvement, (B) elaborated reference vs. situation-dependent reference, and (C) abstracted-agent vs. agent-oriented.  The first pole of each of these dimensions characterizes informational writing with a broad address, while the contrasting pole characterizes social communication among family and friends.  Quantitative linguistic analysis of a corpus of British and U.S. fiction, essays, and personal letters indicates that linguistic style in these written genres has become significantly more like social communication.[*]

Long-run changes in society’s macro-structure contrast with long-run changes in communicative practices.  Since the eighteenth century, greater spatial agglomeration of persons (in crowded cities and factories) has increased possibilities for interacting with strangers.  During this period, reading and writing skills and engagement increased greatly across a rapidly growing population.  The era of mass media tends to be associated with individuals who transcend particular relations and circumstances to form mediated publics.   Yet during this period, given names continually became more personalized (name diversity increased), and written language became more like social communication.

Most persons, in most circumstances, prefer to read and write in the style of social communication.

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[*] See Biber, Douglas, and Edward Finegan (1989), “Drift and the Evolution of English Style: A History of Three Genres,” Language 65(3), pp. 487-517.  While the style of fiction, essays, and personal letters has shifted towards the style of social communication, personal letters remain much more like social communication than do fiction and essays.   A general trend toward more frequent expression of stance, as well as continuing differences across genres, also characterizes this period.

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