Is texting killing the English language?
Texting has long been believed to be the downfall of the written word. However, texting correctly is not strictly writing; it is more similar to spoken language, one that is getting richer and more complex by the year.
Studies show that writing was only invented 5,500 years ago, whereas language probably traces back at least 80,000 years. Talking came first, and writing developed later. Earliest examples show that writing was first based on the way people speak, in short sentences. However, while talk is largely subconscious and rapid, writing is deliberate and slow.
In the old days, we didn’t write in the same way we speak because there was no mechanism to reproduce the speed of conversation. Texting and instant messaging, however, allows for this by combining the instinctual mechanics of writing with speaking. Texting is concise, with little focus placed on capitalization or punctuation.
Texting has developed its own special brand of grammar. Take LOL for example. 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. Anne texts “Where have you been?” and Lee 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 has become a form of grammar.
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.
This article is adapted from McWhorter’s talk at TED 2013.