Texting and the English Language

What makes up a language?  According to Dictionary.com, a language is a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community, nation, geographical area, or the same cultural tradition (Dictionary.com language).  Languages evolve and diversify over time.  The English language itself has transformed itself many times over throughout the centuries.  There are many reasons behind the transformation of the English language.  Historical events such as invasions of the Anglos, Saxons, and the Jutes to the British Island shaped the origins of the Old English language. The invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066 ushered in the dawn of the Middle English language.  Tools and technology shaped the standardization of the English language with the advent of the printing press in the 16th century.  Of course colonization spread the language worldwide from the 17th-19th centuries.  The Modern English language today continues to evolve from its origins.  Through generations, geography, tools and technology, the language continues to evolve.  In today’s modern world, social media and, particularly texting, is a technology that has begun to shape the next generation of the language.  But what impact does the texting and social media have on our language?  Does the use of acronyms and abbreviations in everyday texting have an impact on English writing or speech?  Some have argued that “texting is a scourge,” damaging the literacy of the young (LOL, texting, and txt-speak: Linguistic miracles).  This paper states the opposite: texting does not negatively impact the English language, but instead, the texting language continues to evolve the English language, not just as a written communication, but as a form of speech as well.  The technology upon us today with social media technologies, and the ease of communicating with each other worldwide, has only enhanced our ability to further evolve the language.  Technology is a force that helps mold many aspects of our lives, and re-shaping the language is one of them.  Social media and the texting language have had a tremendous impact on today’s culture, particularly our language.  Texting today continues the evolution of the English language toward tomorrow.

Evolution of the English language is an ongoing event.  From the languages evolution from Old English to Middle English to Modern English, the evolution of the English language over the centuries has been shaped by many different world events, such as major historical events, the advent of technology, and the Renaissance.  With the invention of the printing press in the Middle Ages, many believed at the time it was an invention by the devil because it would create all sorts of false opinions into people’s minds.  (Crystal. p.7).  Texting has put a similar fear into many minds in that the texting language will be the great fall of the English language today.  In the early stages of the texting phenomenon, many concerns arose around the impact texting would have on the language, particularly on the younger minds.  Several of the concerns were:

  • Texting uses new and nonstandard orthography.  (Crystal. p. 151)
  • Texting will inevitably erode children’s ability to spell, punctuate, and capitalize correctly – an ability already thought to be poor. (Crystal. p. 151)
  • Young adults and children will inevitably transfer these new habits into the rest of their schoolwork. (Crystal. p. 151)
  • Texting will inevitably give them poorer marks in the examinations. (Crystal. p. 151)
  • A new generation of adults will inevitably grow up unable to write proper English. (Crystal. p. 151)
  • Eventually the language as a whole will inevitably decline.  (Crystal. p. 151)

While the concerns themselves may have been valid at the beginning of the millennium and the advent of the texting revolution, the doomsday reports of how texting will inevitably decline our language were grossly overstated.  In fact, surveys as early as 2006 showed teenagers were not the main culprits of texting; on average adults were placing more text messages per week than placing actual phone calls.  (Crystal. p. 89)  But what can be argued is the texting language of the twenty-first century is not threatening our written text so much, but providing an alternative and more effective stream to our communication abilities.     

So what really is texting?  Should texting be considered a form of writing, speech, or both?  According to Columbia Linguist John McWhorter, texting is not really writing at all, but is actually a new form of speech.  (LOL, texting, and txt-speak: Linguistic Miracles).  According to McWhorter, texting is writing like you speak: texting is fingered speech.  We do not capitalize words; we do not obey grammar; nor do we obey spelling rules as we would in formal writings. (LOL, texting, and txt-speak: Linguistic Miracles).  With texting speech, McWhorter argues, there is an emerging complexity at work with our speech.  With the complexities for text-speak and its new structure, we now write like we talk; this is not a decline in our writing, but instead it is an enhancement to our already many means of communication. 

Some of the misnomers about texting is texting is simply a shortcut in writing.  The use of acronyms and shortening of words, such as lol, lmk, 2nite, b4, has helped fuel the debate that texting is hurting the language.  But as McWhorter discusses, text-speak is more a form of speech than writing.  So can it be further stated that texting is a further form of morphology?  A morpheme is a combination of sounds that have meaning; it is the smallest grammatical unit in a language.  In many ways, morphemes shape the basis of how our language acquisition is developed and formed at a very young age.  Babies and young toddlers are able to utter sounds such as ba for bottle, or ma for Mommy.  (Effects of Morphological Instruction on Vocabulary Acquisition).  As babies and young toddlers, the development of vocabulary is acquired through unconscious use of morphemes that serve as a need for the child, i.e., ba might be the child’s way of asking for a bottle.  Much the same as morphological acquisition helps develop a language in a child, it serves reason to believe texting is doing the same in how the language is “spoken” through text.  Breaking down a word to its smallest possible unit as a form of communication, is in itself a form of morphology.  Most texts that are shared between friends and acquaintances are casual conversations which allow a less-formal rhythm in communication.  For example, a face-to-face conversation between two male friends who are meeting casually at a local establishment may go something like this:

Friend 1: “What’s up?”

Friend 2: “Nothing.  What about you?

Friend 1: “I’m just watching the game.”

Friend 2: “Me too.”

As rudimentary as that conversation may seem, the reality is, opening conversations such as this one occur.  Now for example, if the two male friends are at different locations and had the same casual conversation over text, the conversation would be very similar:

            Friend 1: “Wassup”

            Friend 2: “Nothin u”

            Friend 1: “Wtchn gme’

            Friend 2: “Me 2”

The text conversation mimics the actual conversation.  The text conversation also supports the argument of texting being a form of morphology.  As noted, a morpheme is a combination of sounds that have meaning; it is the smallest grammatical unit in a language.  The combination of sounds that have meaning is the key to this argument in that texting is a combination of sounds that have meaning.  In the casual text conversation example above between the two male friends, the conversation between the two is, in essence, just a combination of sounds that have meaning.  The conversation is casual, and very similar to the actual conversation the two male friends would have if they were in an establishment together.  The main ingredient of this example is to understand this text conversation is casual in nature.  It is not a formal or professional conversation, thus the texting conversation, or texting communication between the two, is also very casual. 

            Columbia University Linguist John McWhorter argues the fact that formal writing is not a typical reflection of speech.  McWhorter suggests that we speak in packets of seven to ten words and that, in general, speech is much looser than writing.  (LOL, texting, and txt-speak: linguistic miracles).  Texting, in reality, is the ability to write as we speak.  As McWhorter puts it, when you speak you don’t think about capitalizing names or using punctuation, or ensuring you are grammatically correct.  Instead, you produce sounds, not written language; texting leaves out many of these conventions too.  (LOL, texting, and txt-speak: linguistic miracles).  What we are experiencing is a whole new way of communicating that is a hybrid between the written word and spoken word. 

The so-called downfall of the English language due to texting is the misinterpretation of a casual text conversation, like the one referenced above between the two male friends, versus a professional text conversation one might have with a colleague, employer, or employee at work, or of school-aged children handing in school papers in text-speak or text-language.   We didn’t start talking or formally writing like the telegraph more than 150 years ago, and we’re not going to start speaking or writing entirely in acronyms and other abbreviations now.  (The Chronicle of Higher Education).  A professional text between colleagues or between an employer and employee would take on the same characteristics of the language and dialogue itself between the parties.  It would remain as professional over text as it would in a face-to-face scenario; it would not take on the casual text characteristics as the two male friends’ example above.  The same is the case for school-aged children and school papers.  To the contrary of concerns that texting would erode children’s ability to spell, punctuate, and capitalize, or would inevitably transfer texting habits into their schoolwork, studies have proven the opposite.   Several studies have supported that texting actually benefits literacy skills, and the theme that is beginning to emerge is that texting does not harm writing ability, but may in fact even help it. 

In a series of studies conducted at Coventry University in 2006-07, there were strong links between the use of text language and the skills in standard English in a group of pre-teenage children.   In the study, the children who texted and used abbreviations in texting also scored high grades in spelling and writing examinations.  (Crystal. p.161).  Texting habits or use of acronyms and abbreviations, of children or in adults has not led to the decline of the language.  This lends itself again to Columbia Linguist John McWhorter’s claim that texting is writing like you speak: texting is fingered-speech.  Texting itself should not be mistaken as so much writing, but for speaking itself.

In a study conducted at the City University in London, a group of 11-12 year old texters vs. a group of non-texters.  The study proved that neither group had noticeably worse spelling or grammar than the other, and both groups made errors.  The study also noted that text abbreviation did not appear in any written work of the texters.  (Crystal. p.161).  This study showed that texting did not abnormally affect the children’s ability, but in fact they made the same errors as the non-texters. 

Additionally it can be argued that similarly to morphology, texting can also be comparative to phonemes as well.  A phoneme is the smallest or basic unit of sound.  In texting, many substitute actual words for the sounds they make.  For example, the word tonight can be written as 2nite in a text; the word before can be written as b4 in a text, 2mrrw for tomorrow.  In texting in such short-form, the author of the text is in essence practicing a behavior of texting the smallest or most basic unit of sound. 

When studying the use of texting and its impact on the language, it is also important to understand the immediate surge on how the texting language and structure is disseminated today, versus how the language evolved and traveled in previous time periods.  Several factors were at place during the transformation of the English language from Middle English to Modern English.  Technological advancements of the 15th and 16th centuries of the printing press enabled more lower class people in England to read and write, as books were now more readily available, as well as more affordable.  This led to the Renaissance of learning; more and more people were reading and writing.  The first English dictionary was published in 1604 (The History of English Language); technological advancements helped accelerate the standardization of the English language.  England’s growth in world exploration and world colonization stemmed the largest growth of the English language.  England grew into a world power in the 16th-18th centuries.  The British Empire spread across the globe and brought words and phrases across the world back into the English language.  Coupled with world exploration and England’s ability to stabilize their language through the means of print, the English language moved from its Middle English phase to its Modern English phase we know today.   The transformation and spread of the texting language has a much more immediate impact today due to the advancements in technology and social media.  Information can be disseminated much more quickly than in previous generations.  It is not the doomsday for the English language, but instead is an evolution of the language in front of us.  Forget the “death of writing” talk.  Text-speak is a new, rapidly evolving form of speech.  (LOL, texting, and txt-speak: linguistic miracles). With this immediate dissemination, the ability to incorporate new lingo, phrases, and words, spreads much more quickly than at any point in which we are accustomed.  The language has the ability to spread and take on new characteristics, just as it did during the colonization period.  As noted, casual texts between family, friends, and acquaintances are casual in nature; they are in essence a casual conversation being conducted in a modern communication stream.  Texts are typically single sentences and the average length of a text is six words.  (Crystal. p. 105).  For the most part, they ignore every bit of lessons we have learned on spelling, grammar, and punctuation.  Texts routinely concentrate on the who, what, where, and when, as opposed to the more profound and thought-provoking queries on how and why.  A letter or an email between the parties may in fact provide the matters of the how and why, but the text will be simple.  Some casual texts are centered on personal good news or special events and do not require such formal addressing when sent to family, friends, and acquaintances.  Text messages such as Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Congratulations do not require a formal addressing of the individual or formal care around grammar.  As referenced in the example of the male friends, messages such as these are typically casual conversations, just as they would be casual conversations if the friends were face-to-face.  Texting is just another variety of the language or communication which has come of age as a result of our modern technological advancements.  In this day of the internet, the texting-language is another form of language and speech evolution that takes its place in this electronic communications movement we live in today.  (Crystal. p. 164). Texting is the most innovative phenomenon of modern times. 

A concern many have on texting is texting uses new and nonstandard orthography.  Orthography is the standardized system for using a particular writing system to a particular language which includes spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.  (Wikipedia, Orthography).  Most significant languages today are written down and have been developed on a standard variety of the language.  The concern that texting uses nonstandard orthography is a misnomer, in fact, the opposite may hold true.  The texting language is still a relatively new phenomenon, and the rules and standardizations are being developed as this evolution is taking place.  This does not mean however there is not a discipline or standardization being documented.  Netlingo: The Internet Dictionary serves the purpose to provide its readers with updated acronyms, standards in texting, and overall updates to the texting-language world of communication.  The texting-language is not as chaotic as one’s view from a distance may believe.  University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan requests her students to compile lists of electronically mediated communications (EMC) and has argued that the EMC rules provided by her students are well organized, including rules on etiquette. (The Chronicle of Higher Education).  She has argued that anyone believing the rules are chaotic isn’t pay close enough attention to the system rules the users have developed to move texting-language into written form.  Anne Curzan has also provided research on the use of punctuation in texting.  While it is used differently in texting than in formal writing, there is still a discipline followed and a discipline developed of highly functional conventions.  Examples of these are:

  • Double Colons :: banging head against the wall  (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
  • Two Asterisks  ** sigh  (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
  • Ellipses  … someone is taking too long in their response  (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
  • Single Question Mark ? is a question  (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

In addition to the above, there are even examples where the word ok in text can have several meanings:

  • ok is an acknowledgment (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
  • ok!  is an agreement (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
  • ok…  is a potential agreement (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

The points of the above are to reinforce that the texting-language is not a chaotic misuse of the English language, but is evolving as the communication of the technology continues to evolve. 

            Over the course of this paper, several critical items have been discussed.  The initial concerns, as well as ongoing concerns, that texting will create the downfall of the English language.  Concerns among many included texting use of nonstandard orthography; texting will erode children’s ability to spell, punctuate, and capitalize correctly; children will transfer these new habits into the rest of their schoolwork and will give them poorer marks in the examinations; a new generation of adults will grow up unable to write proper English.  What this paper has addressed is texting is evolving the language in ways we speak and communicate to each other.  Studies have supported the notion that school-aged children who text are not falling behind in their school work, and not submitting papers with acronyms or in text-language.  Studies have supported the opposite in fact; children who text received the same grades, or some cases better grades than children who did not text.  The orthography of the texting-language is not as chaotic as perceived.  There is standardization ongoing of the texting-language.  While the standards do not meet the standards of formal, written documents, there is none-the-less a standardization movement ongoing in the texting-language.  This supports not a chaotic, undisciplined approach to writing, but instead a discipline that may help shape how this form of communication continues to mold itself in the years and decades to come.

Another critical item this paper addresses is how texting occurs between friends and acquaintances, verses professional texts between employer, employee, or colleague.  Texting has been described as a form of speech, as opposed to a form of writing; we text as we speak.  The text conversations that are casual in nature, just as a face-to-face conversation between friends and family would be casual in nature, are not providing the downfall of the language.  The casual text conversations are just that, conversations – we text as we speak.  The casual nature in a face-to-face conversation translates to a casual text conversation.  The text conversations in a casual dialogue can also be looked at as forms of morphemes and phonemes.  Often times, the nature of a text conversation can be broken into the smallest grammatical unit and smallest grammatical sound.  Morphemes of course are the smallest grammatical unit and phonemes are the smallest grammatical sound.  Examples in this paper have provided support that the texting-language, while not formal in a casual tone, can be broken into these smallest elements.

Today’s texting-language is spreading across the world, in all languages, at a very quick rate.  Information disseminates very quickly with the modern technology we have available.  The texting language is being shaped however, and new phrases and uses of words are spreading in much the same the English language spread during England’s colonization periods from the 16th-20th centuries.  The language, the phrases, the words spread much slower then, but the same phenomenon is occurring.  This instantaneous movement provides instant updates to the language, which in effect, may also spread fear that there is chaos in this language, but in fact it is just accelerating the evolution of the language.   

This paper surmises that what is upon us now with this phenomenon is history.  The language is undertaking a major change.  What was relevant to us in how we communicated to each other twenty – thirty years ago may not be applicable today.  As technology has evolved, the world has evolved.  Looking back at major technological inventions throughout history, there were always naysayers.  The invention of the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, all brought the naysayers and dooms-dayers.  Each of these technological innovations had major impact on our culture and way of living.  They also brought upon us new and innovative ways for us to communicate to one another.  The telegraph provided us the ability to provide communication long-distances in a relatively shorter period of time (relative to the day).  The telephone provided instant communication between parties.  The radio and television gave us the ability to communicate news, current events, and pivotal real-time communication that was not previously available other than by word of mouth or print. 

The technological advancements of today should be looked upon in the same manner.  We are able to provide instantaneous communication to one another – whether it is casual or professional communication.  The texting-language that is used within the message, while it may be different from what we are accustomed in formal writing, should not be spurned because it is not what we are familiar with.  The language, any language, is a living, breathing organism.  It grows and changes just like any living organism does.  We should embrace the opportunities that are in front of us, not turn our backs to it.  The English language we are familiar with today is slightly different than English language the generation before us was familiar with, and the generation before that, and the generation before that.  The language always develops.  It is my belief that what frightens most people in regards to texting and the language it is creating, is the acceleration at which this form of communication is occurring.  Unlike previous generations, there was standardized documentation of our words, grammar, and usage, no such standard documentation existed ten – fifteen years ago regarding the texting-language, and as the standardization tries to catch-up with the language, it is almost immediately irrelevant.  But as Columbia University Linguistic John McWhorter stated, texting communication is not a form of writing, but a form of speaking – we text as we speak, and rarely do we speak as we would formally write.  A question for all of us to ask is how will this language look in a year from today? Five years? Ten years?  Another more advanced medium may be upon us that may give a revisionist history that the language needs to be stabilized back to the year 2010 when the texting-language was a more stable and suitable ground for our communication and language. 

In conclusion, this paper intended to state the use of acronyms, abbreviations, short-hand, does not have a negative impact on the English language.  This misuse or non-use of punctuation or capitalization does not harm our children’s ability to properly read and write; if anything, I would think the use of texting supports the notion that our children know how to read and write; how else would they be able to text in the first place?  There is a movement underfoot whereby text-language is understood, and whereby the use of punctuation and grammar are universally understood and implied.  While the standardization and documentation may not be in place yet, it is not a chaotic, haphazard use of the language. 

Another main topic this paper addressed is the purpose of a text.  Texts used in causal settings and casual tone are more in line with communications that occur face-to-face.  They are casual in nature and are treated as such. 

There is certainly a language evolution in place.  A colleague referenced to me a statement that an undergraduate linguistic teacher told them: all language is correct if the communication gets across to the reader.  As noted, language is a living organism and it changes throughout history based on world events and circumstances of the day.   We are living in a world of rapid change and we see the change in our language every day.  The texting-language is not a negative to our language; it is simply a bi-product of our day.  It is the natural evolution a language undertakes.  The texting-language is also something we have never experienced before: write as we speak.  Maybe we are actually at the dawn of a new time in history where the texting-language takes on a completely different shape and educational metamorphosis.  Perhaps in twenty years there are classroom teachings to children on text-languages, and college professors in texting linguistics.  A transformation such as the one we are seeing now is a wonderful, amazing thing to our language.  Change is inevitable; change is healthy; change is good.  If the language did not evolve, would we not all be speaking Proto-Indo-European – the language of the year 4500 B.C.?  Which by the way isn’t B.C. an acronym?  LOL.


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