Text Messaging Language: An Evolution, Not a Regression

Does using the phrase LOL really make us dumber? What about ROFL or BRB? Should you feel like a dimwit if you occasionally type TBH along with an emoji to a friend?

Since text messaging became ubiquitous there’s been a steady debate over what the new technology is doing to our ability to convey language through the written and spoken word. Many have decried text and instant messaging as the abomination of the English language. It’s the deliberate maiming of a linguistic institution, detractors say. But, is it unfair to make such sweeping statements?

Yes, it is.

The fact that LAWL and TMI have thrusted themselves into the common lexicon doesn’t indicate a devolution; rather, it’s a development in the age old institution that is language, an ever-changing formation that has been bent and twisted since its origins.

All over the world, language and meaning have morphed into different forms with time.  What was common slang 100 years ago is unrecognizable to today’s speaker. Likewise, a teenager from the mid- century would have no idea how to interpret a conversation spoken or texted between two millennials.

Has the way we express ourselves changed over the last 20 years? Yes. Can one definitely say that change is for the worse? Not exactly. To get a better understanding of the meaning and implications of digital messaging’s effect on language, one needs to realize that change and regression are two different things.

Bad Communicators Are Bad Communicators

The big argument for those who believe instant message speak is ruining dialogue is that it presents an opportunity to put forward expressions and ideas in an environment that offers instant gratification. There’s no need for placing the comma, instituting proper punctuation or abiding by any other grammatical rules.

In other words, this linguistic free-for-all blunts our formal language skills, turning texters into those incapable of piecing together long, well-articulated thoughts and thus creating a world of dummies.

Here’s the thing: Yes, texting can allow a person to evade the grammar police and write in ways that would make any English teacher cringe; but, not everyone decides to do that.

You’ll find that those who turned in error-free essays in high school and college most likely text in a similar manner. For instance, you must know someone who makes an effort to correctly place every semicolon and hyphen in their text message correspondence. Has the new form of communication ruined their articulative and grammatical skills? It doesn’t seem like it. In fact, it appears texting has only given them another platform to sharpen their writing, if anything.

On the other side of that coin, you have people who are not good written communicators to begin with. When you receive a text from this person, it’s not a surprise it will be emoji-laden and poorly written. Bad communicators are bad communicators. Text messaging isn’t making these people worse at writing, it’s only exposing their inability to articulate well.

An Evolution

So often the advent of texting worries those who believe it’s corrupting students’ ability to form a long-form thought or written expression. According to a recent study that’s not the case. A 2008 article published by Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford found that, in fact, first-year college students are writing longer essays than students were in 1917. The findings show that today’s papers contain an average of 1,038 words compared to only 162 in 1917.

Quite frankly, some could say texting actually helps develop communication skills. Speaking is an easier form of communication than writing because it allows us to use tone or gestures to get a point across. With text messaging, one has to be able to craft a thought, no matter how jumbled it may be, that someone else can interpret.

So, in essence, the more you type or write in order to express an emotion or feeling, the better you’ll get at it. Now, granted, we’re not talking about five-page term papers, but there is still a need to express yourself in an understandable manner to another person. Texting forces you to do this.

A Bidialectal Ability

Text messaging is an evolution of language, with John McWhorter actually calling it a “fingered speech” during a TED talk. Using different acronyms and digital-age phrases to communicate shows a bidialectal ability of those in the messaging camp.

Segments of text speech have turned into “pragmatic particles,” or words that change the direction of a conversation or fill gaps in dialogue. LOL, for example, rarely means that someone actually laughed out load – rather, it’s been developed into a form of empathy, as McWhorter explains. The term now displays a sense of understanding between two people when text messaging.

The same could be said about emojis, as they are only a development of language. Sending a smiley face or other emojis are a way to connect with people and express different emotions. Even though it’s not text, it’s still a mode of communicating. And, with the way things are going, we can expect to continue to see the emoji for some time to come.

Messaging Won’t Kill Language

So, if you’re ever contemplating where this world is going and what it all means, know that one thing is still intact: language. And text messaging is not the bane of our collective ability to convey our feelings or ideas. Digital messaging is not a crutch or deformity; it’s an evolution of the linguistic form.

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