The French language as technology

One of the most influential things I read in grad school was Raymond S. Nickerson’s Technology and Cognition Amplification, which defined technology broadly as:

the building of artifacts or procedures—tools—to help people accomplish their goals

and, later in the same paragraph, as:

amplifiers of human capabilities

Nickerson’s chapter went on to describe concepts like mathematical notation and even language as “cognitive technologies,” the ancestors of the technologies that I now study (e.g., games and social media). Although I had begun a PhD in educational technology with a great deal of excitement to study digital tools in educational contexts, this chapter was helpful (along with some other readings) for helping me situate “edtech” within a broader context. Indeed, as a former French teacher and continuing French student, the idea of language as the most basic of technologies really resonated with me. As I wrote last June in a reflection for Michigan State’s Digital Humanities program:

As I began to understand “technology” as 1) more than just “digital” and 2) socially- and culturally-mediated, I realized that I could see the French language as a technology in the same way that I had been seeing Twitter as a technology and that my interest in both was largely an interest in the social and cultural contexts that surrounded them and shaped their use.

This weekend, I began Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow’s The Story of French, which, to my delight, had some passages that furthered the connection between these two passion:

When French printers started attacking the problem of [then-unstandardized] spelling, they had very few models to follow; the only defined languages at the time were Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. Some printers represented the sounds in, an, on and un as ī, ā, ō, and ū—not a bad idea [and, if I may interject, one that might help students of French remember to pronounce these letter combinations nasally!]. The word champs (field) was written chā. It could have worked if printers had agreed on standards. But they tended to stick to their own coding systems and used accents in extremely varied ways. One can only assume that each printer’s readers got accustomed to his system and that the printers then feared alienating their customers and losing business if they changed (somewhat like early computer makers, who developed language and operating systems that could be used only by their specific machines, a problem that for some reason took forty years to solve). It took French printers roughly the entire sixteenth century to get rid of variation in spelling and accents, and it wasn’t until French grammar books started appearing that real standards took shape.

Consider also this more cynical parallel:

The lettered class promoted complicated spellings as a way of holding on to power; by making it hard to learn French, they made it harder for anyone outside their class to enter the circles of power.

I conclude by admitting that I’m posting this partly for my own benefit—I frequently bring up “language as technology” with students when I want to help them see technology as more than just “what’s new and digital,” and I’m excited to have these new paragraphs to draw on to do so.