In his TED talk discussing the balancing act of texting, speech and writing, linguist John McWhorter explores linguistic shortcuts we take when with text and other messaging technology. Focusing specifically on terms like LOL and slash (a term used to quickly change the topic of conversation), he explains that these terms and others (“haha,” “yo,” “like,” and “umm”) function as “pragmatic particles” we’ve begun to use them to demonstrate empathy towards one another, not actual laughter out loud.
Texting is “a miraculous thing,” but to understand it we need to first take a look at the heart of language. At its very core, language is all about speech says McWhorter, and, on average, we speak in word “packets” of 7-10 words. For much of human existence, we’ve communicated with one another through language via speech, not by writing. If humanity had only existed for 24 hours, he points out, written language would not appear until 11:07 PM.
Once upon a time, it was popular to speak the way we wrote. However, at some point this reversed and we began writing the way we speak. Until the advent of modern technology— specifically, the technologies that enable the rapid sending and receiving of messages— this sort of communicative exchange just wasn’t possible. Texting and other short message communications are a balancing act between spoken and written language, but it acts more as an “expansion of [our]” linguistic repertoire than anything else.
Because of this, texting is something that McWhorter calls “fingered speech,” a mode of communication where no one really thinks about the rules of capitalization and punctuation because they just don’t apply. The world as we know it isn’t coming to an end because we’ve adopted the word “bae” or “boo” to refer to a significant other instead of a flowery term like “my most precious darling.” Rather, the ubiquitous LOLs and hahas of short message speak are markers of linguistic duality, or the sort of fluency we gain when we frequently switch between different modes of communication. In terms of neuroscience, linguistic dualism has many of the same cognitive benefits of bilingualism, making those who are fluent in communication modes better multi-taskers who are more likely have longer attention spans.
Technological advancements are making it easier for language to evolve into a more fluid and expressive means of communication that mirrors the diction and patterns of spoken language. While the terminology prolific in texting and messaging apps may appear to be meaningless gibberish, to those communicating in that mode of speech, it is anything but.
Texting and short messaging are a “linguistic miracle happening right under our noses,” a whole new way of writing that we’re developing and in addition to our ordinary linguistic skills that may just be making us smarter.