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Machines and the English language

Updated Friday, 4th July 2014

Dr Sandra Williams, research fellow in natural language, argues that machines have been the biggest influence on the transformation of Britain’s official language.

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From my perspective, as a researcher in computational linguistics, machines are having the biggest impact on English. I come from a handwriting tradition. Less than 50 years ago people wrote by hand: letters, postcards, notes for work.
 
Now, people don’t tend to do that, it’s all machine assisted. The danger of things like automatic spell-checkers and dictionary or thesaurus look-ups is that inappropriate words creep in by mistake, changing the meaning.
 
An even more radical change is the proliferation of English texts that are completely machine generated. I work on data-to-text systems that generate English automatically, turning numbers from medical devices or weather monitors into phrases.
 
The English that’s generated isn’t beautiful prose. It’s rather pithy and sounds like the Shipping Forecast, but these reports are increasingly used by people who need to make critical decisions quickly.
 
Today, many English texts – the kind that might harm us, such as phishing scams – are never read by humans, only by machines. Texting, emails and tweeting allow millions to send their thoughts to the world, and crooks flood our inboxes with fraudulent requests for bank details, but it’s a new genre of English writing that’s never read.
 
 
 

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