Is Texting Killing the English Language?

People have always spoken differently from how they write, and texting is actually talking with your fingers

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Texting has long been bemoaned as the downfall of the written word, “penmanship for illiterates,” as one critic called it. To which the proper response is LOL. Texting properly isn’t writing at all — it’s actually more akin to spoken language. And it’s a “spoken” language that is getting richer and more complex by the year.

First, some historical perspective. Writing was only invented 5,500 years ago, whereas language probably traces back at least 80,000 years. Thus talking came first; writing is just an artifice that came along later. As such, the first writing was based on the way people talk, with short sentences — think of the Old Testament. However, while talk is largely subconscious and rapid, writing is deliberate and slow. Over time, writers took advantage of this and started crafting tapeworm sentences such as this one, from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The whole engagement lasted above 12 hours, till the gradual retreat of the Persians was changed into a disorderly flight, of which the shameful example was given by the principal leaders and the Surenas himself.”

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No one talks like that casually — or should. But it is natural to desire to do so for special occasions, and that’s what oratory is, like the grand-old kinds of speeches that William Jennings Bryan delivered. In the old days, we didn’t much write like talking because there was no mechanism to reproduce the speed of conversation. But texting and instant messaging do — and a revolution has begun. It involves the brute mechanics of writing, but in its economy, spontaneity and even vulgarity, texting is actually a new kind of talking. There is a virtual cult of concision and little interest in capitalization or punctuation. The argument that texting is “poor writing” is analogous, then, to one that the Rolling Stones is “bad music” because it doesn’t use violas. Texting is developing its own kind of grammar and conventions.

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Texting is developing its own kind of grammar. Take LOL. It doesn’t actually mean “laughing out loud” in a literal sense anymore. LOL has evolved into something much subtler and sophisticated and is used even when nothing is remotely amusing. Jocelyn texts “Where have you been?” and Annabelle texts back “LOL at the library studying for two hours.” LOL signals basic empathy between texters, easing tension and creating a sense of equality. Instead of having a literal meaning, it does something — conveying an attitude — just like the -ed ending conveys past tense rather than “meaning” anything. LOL, of all things, is grammar.

Of course no one thinks about that consciously. But then most of communication operates below the radar. Over time, the meaning of a word or an expression drifts — meat used to mean any kind of food, silly used to mean, believe it or not, blessed.

Civilization, then, is fine — people banging away on their smartphones are fluently using a code separate from the one they use in actual writing, and there is no evidence that texting is ruining composition skills. Worldwide people speak differently from the way they write, and texting — quick, casual and only intended to be read once — is actually a way of talking with your fingers.

All indications are that America’s youth are doing it quite well. Texting, far from being a scourge, is a work in progress.

This essay is adapted from McWhorter’s talk at TED 2013.

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36 comments
SeanThomasTaeschner
SeanThomasTaeschner

Assistant English Professor at Columbia University, John McWhorter, penned a lengthy article in the April 25, 2013 of TIME magazine.  In the article he put forth the idea that texting by cell phones was actually changing the way Americans used English grammar and created new vocabulary in the English language.

I disagree with his premise, because language is used in the following steps for communication: first, it is spoken, then heard, then thought about, then written, and finally, read.

Americans do not speak English, nor do they write it well.  Americans speak American first.  The American language is a bastardization of all that is proper English.  The speaking and writing of proper English requires the strict following of a set of rules and standard to be applied in communication that is effective.  This requires memorization of the rules, use of punctuation, tenses, vocabulary, syntax, and codification.  Anything less than the proper application of these items is a failure. 

What Professor John McWhorter forgot to mention in his article is the drive behind this shortcutting and destruction/deconstruction of the English language.  It is laziness, plain and simple.  The majority of Americans feel that it is far too inconvenient to apply the rules of punctuation and grammar and use of vocabulary and tenses in sentences.   It is a time-consuming effort, such as learning mathematics. 

If one were to ask most Americans what their hated subjects were in school, they would list mathematics as first, then English as second.  Both require discipline and non-laziness. 

The solution in American education should be the zero-tolerance policy of the application of English to anything less than its perfect rules.  To do so is to allow Americans to accept aircraft with engines that are 80% finished before a trans-oceanic flight.  Ask if an American would be willing to allow his/her family on that aircraft along with the possibility of it not coming back, and most will agree that accepting anything less than perfect mechanical work is deadly, as well as unacceptable.  One simple mistake in not being able to correctly read a fuel gauge on an aircraft might lead to its running out of fuel prior to landing.  People might die.  When those simple mistakes are multiplied by ten, then a hundred, then a thousand, people die. 

The transfer of self-disciplined training from simple courses in English and mathematics will keep the planes flying and people coming home.  The improper acceptance of the simplistic mechanics of ‘texting’ will multiply the errors for those who cannot read the new, improper code that Americans have created in laziness.  Hopefully, it will not be the airplane mechanic who cannot read English or is in a rush to get the job completed and go home.

small_axe
small_axe

I would be surprised to find that the same writers who allow textSpeak to enter their formal writing aren't poorly educated in general. Public education has been under assault for decades in this country, and we are beginning to reap the conservative whirlwind.

I text a lot, and use abbreviations all the time like "how r u?" and the like, but wouldn't include it outside of quotes in this context.

The falling composition standards are not the fault of technology, but rather the attempts to strangle public education to death for the last half century by conservative republicans. They have largely been successful in their endeavors, and we are collectively beginning to pay the price.

jeaniechampagne
jeaniechampagne

Mariah spoke in twitter on American Idol, I believe every show - ".... hashtag...pow...".   She may not have even noticed!

ChrisSchumerth
ChrisSchumerth

I think this is true for adults, who are able to sort of shift in and out of audience expectations. Whether or not it has a negative effect on kids, I think we are far away from knowing that answer.  

mashabell
mashabell

In the very old days, i.e. the time of Chaucer, people wrote much more like they talked (erly, lern, frend), but 15th century scribes who had to switch from French to English and 16th century printers who either spoke no English or were fond of making words longer because they were paid by the line made English writing more complex. 

I hope that texting may at least help to get rid of the many SURPLUS letters which continue to survive from that time (arE, eArly, havE, promise, YuO – cf car, ear, chav, car, tennis, I).

U can lern mor about the history of English spelling at

http://englishspellingproblems.co.uk/html/history.html    

piodalcin
piodalcin

no it's killing people on the road everywhere

Melrose927
Melrose927

Unfortunately, you are mistaken.  I am a spelling and grammar Nazi, and proud of it!  It is bewildering and saddening to think that grown adults simply refuse to wrap their heads around the concept of homonyms, something that was, or should have been, mastered by second grade.  I routinely see people using text-speak outside of text messaging.  They are trying to convey their thoughts in a public forum that is not just casual and between friends, but on a larger scale and with the intent of convincing others that their opinion is even worthy of reading.  No.  If you can't take the time to string together real words into sentences, your opinion probably hasn't been given much thought, either, so why should anyone with functioning brain cells care?  Now I understand that there always have been and always will be piss-poor spellers and writers, and I'm sorry their parents failed them by not showing them how to grasp their primary language.  But as a writer, I find it ludicrous that so many other "writers" don't even bother with a simple spell check before posting a news article.  Oftentimes there are such major errors in spelling, grammar, formatting and basic writing skills that leave me wondering how they are even being paid for doing such a poor job.  You don't see this as much in actual newspapers, because they strive to hire intelligent writers and editors.  But in the world of the internet, there is such a laissez-faire attitude of, "it doesn't matter, it's not like I'm in school."  No, you're not, and clearly you didn't pay attention or care when you were in school.  But everyone is always capable of learning, and when we are constantly bombarded by badly-written things, our brain is incorporating that information.  When kids look up articles for school and see that in the "real world" no one cares about being smart or doing a good job, this will plant little bugs in their heads that they don't need to learn things the right way or try hard, because it doesn't really matter.  We should be taking more pride in ourselves and in our words.  People forget that when they put their words out there, they leave themselves open to critique.  If, in this era where all the information in the world is at our fingertips, you refuse to learn how to write like an adult, then don't be surprised if people treat you like an idiot, because self-respecting, intelligent people won't stoop to using text-speak to get a point across. 

Kinggrayiv
Kinggrayiv

Hmmm... I don't believe it's entirely accurate to say that 'meat' used to mean food. The old english word for food was 'mete', and while it's phonetically similar, it's not considered to be a convincing source for the origin of 'meat'.

anon62
anon62

"No one talks like that or should" and you are one to tell people how they should or should not speak because...?

dsdphoto
dsdphoto

It's not just middle school students who use text-speak in their formal writing. It's people who are absolutely old enough to know better. I routinely edit reports from people who seek out jobs that require good technical writing skills and find no punctuation, no capitalization, abbreviations, and otherwise the sort of language I would expect between two pre-teens. It imparts an absolutely clear message - "I am incapable of communicating effectively in formal situations." We're becoming a country of functional illiterates, unfortunately.

StephenGames
StephenGames

John McWhorter says that the first writing was based on the way people talk, with short sentences. I don't think that this is generally agreed. A more general view is that the first writing was poetic and artificial, the speciality of a literary elite (shamans, philosophers and prophets), and that prose and naturalistic writing was a later development.

John
John

Things apparently have changed a little in the last few years.  When I went to public school in the 50s and 60s the English teachers were extremely tough on grammar.  Then I went to a Big 10 college for a technical degree, where we had to write and type reports from our lab experiments.  A number of reports out of each batch were chosen randomly and sent to a board in the English department for review.  If you made more than a few mistakes in either spelling or grammar in a single report, you were immediately dumped into a remedial English class to straighten you out - no appeal.  They felt technical types needed to excel at report writing.  This was before personal computers - you and your dictionary were the spell checking function! 





nteacher
nteacher

My middle school students absolutely use textspeak in their compositions. Most often I see "cuz" instead of "because", but at times I also see "LOL" at the end of a written response. Oy! I teach them that they must be able to switch between the two languages, but textspeak still seeps into their written work. 

sqveesh
sqveesh

Third paragraph - *its.

From a descriptive linguistic standpoint, of course it isn't killing the English language. People know when textspeak is appropriate and when it isn't. Students are still taught basic grammar to the same extent regardless of the evolution of texting. A great way of actually answering this question definitively would be to do a study on people who text "frequently" and analyze their  formal written work (such as school essays, standardized tests, etc.) to see if textspeak influences their writing. Beware that grammar and spelling mistakes cannot be attributed to texting (maybe a very small percentage can). If you look at it this way, I sincerely doubt you would find blatant textspeak like "lol" or "k" in formal writing. However, it would be interesting to see if textspeak sentence structure shows up in talk or formal writing. 


DemimondeMesilaThraam
DemimondeMesilaThraam

There are people who can text without using 'LOL'.  When I want to laugh, I say 'ha ha'. I just wish I could do it as fast as all the kids. But if that were to mean giving up the sixteen years of education I received in my own youth, I trade speed for accuracy: correct grammar and punctuation.

navigator17
navigator17

Marc hit it on the head, who cares about "Text Slang" when a English professor can't craft a 200 word article with out grammar mistakes....

stanleyjenkins
stanleyjenkins

Yet if you look at essay responses of standardized exams given to American elementary and high school students, you will discover than a good many (sorry, I don't have actual numbers) utilize textspeak within their answers. This seems to me to suggest that shorthand texting is affecting the English language.

MarcHandler1
MarcHandler1

"Texting is developing it’s own kind of grammar and conventions." -- Really? You're writing an article about grammar, and you can't get "it's" right? (Hint: lose the apostrophe.)  What's killing the English language is not texting, it's national publications like Time that are full of errors. Writing about long sentences, Mr. McWhorter writes: "But it is natural to desire to do so for special occasions, and that’s what oratory is, such as the grand old kinds of speeches that William Jennings Bryan."   WTF?   That William Jennings Bryan what? McWhorter never gets to the end of the sentence.  Occasional errors like this are not worth noting, but Time is riddled with them. Question for Time Magazine: Is it really that hard to find copy editors who can catch English 101 level errors? Or English experts who don't make them?

Hermione
Hermione

What is more a threat, is people getting behind the wheel of a car and texting.  Don't text and drive, thank you.

MichaelBaeza
MichaelBaeza

As language evolves neologisms emerge.  The fact that a word or derivative is new does not make it less than real.  The word contact, for example, was originally a noun meaning the point where one thing touches another.  Eventually people began using the word as a verb and the English language is not detrimentally impacted because of this (I intentionally used the verb impact for didactic purposes as this was originally also a noun now used as verb).  Also much of English grammar is actually based on Latin grammar and as such many violations of these rules are not illogical, for example the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition and using double negatives.  I ain't never thought someone was actually intending to indicate positive when using a double negative and neither have you. 

BenderRodriguez
BenderRodriguez

By the way, I used to also look at resumes come in via fax at a place I worked at. This was when IM was still semi-new and popular. Those resumes would have been bad 10 years ago or 20 years ago. That many people really are that bad at communicating.


I'm a former technical writer, by the way. I used to think anyone with my former profession would rather die than to send out poorly executed official documents. I guess I was wrong.

BenderRodriguez
BenderRodriguez

@dsdphoto  

I've taken classes on Blackboard and it's shocking to realize you're one of a handful of students who can effectively participate in the class because of text/IM speech.

gcallah
gcallah

@StephenGames Just makin' it up as you go along, hey Stephen? The first writing was accounts at temples and palaces and so forth. Well established.

Melrose927
Melrose927

@sqveesh Sadly, you'd be surprised how often text-speak shows up in inappropriate content.  I've actually seen it on job applications!  Students may be taught spelling and grammar, but they aren't using them.  Thankfully you do not see this in formal writing, such as a paper that is peer reviewed for a journal.  But when teens regularly engage in text-speak without grasping the concept of how to write properly, this sets them up for disaster in college when they are expected to use their brains and don't know how.

Melrose927
Melrose927

@MarcHandler1 you are absolutely right.  However, I do think that text-speak, to some extent, is responsible.  It has become so rampant that even "professionals," and I use the term loosely, have become somewhat brainwashed by errors and don't even notice them these days.  It's such a shame that people don't put more effort in their work.  And far too many rely on spell check instead of proofreading.

DemimondeMesilaThraam
DemimondeMesilaThraam

@MarcHandler1 Absolutely! This sort of thing grinds my nerves. It DOES affect meaning and make textuality harder to understand.  We should all be less forgiving of it.


MarcHandler1
MarcHandler1

@DemimondeMesilaThraam @MarcHandler1  Oh ~ looks like they corrected this. So it's a day later and the errors are gone. The apostrophe has been banished, and we now know that Bryan "delivered" those speeches. Note to copy editor: Good job! I have faith in you! I know that you'll soon  be correcting the errors before the articles are posted.  I'm rooting for you! (How's that for positive reinforcement?)