Texting is an expansion of our linguistic repertoire

Last month I wrote about the dramatic, grammatic evolution of LOL,  referring to two talks on texting by linguist John McWhorter in which he describes LOL’s shift from straightforward initialism (“laughing out loud”) to pragmatic particle marking empathy and shared experience.*

One of McWhorter’s talks was not online at the time, but it appeared yesterday and is well worth watching if you’re interested in texting as a form of communication:

What texting is, despite the fact that it involves the brute mechanics of something that we call writing, is fingered speech. That’s what texting is. Now we can write the way we talk.

McWhorter discusses the differences between speech and writing and how they bleed into one another, and he demonstrates some of texting’s emerging structures and innovations, for instance slash as a “new information marker”.

He also tackles the myth that texting implies a decline in our linguistic abilities (an argument developed in more detail in David Crystal’s book Txtng: The gr8 db8). Says McWhorter:

What we’re seeing is a whole new way of writing that young people are developing, which they’re using alongside their ordinary writing skills – and that means that they’re able to do two things. Increasing evidence is that being bilingual is cognitively beneficial. That’s also true of being bidialectal, and it’s certainly true of being bidialectal in terms of your writing. And so texting actually is evidence of a balancing act that young people are using today – not consciously, of course, but it’s an expansion of their linguistic repertoire.

Here is “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”:


* My post was since translated into Chinese,  if anyone would like to read it that way.

18 Responses to Texting is an expansion of our linguistic repertoire

  1. Fascinating, and great to get to know McWhorter and his work as well. I’ve been procrastinative about listening to this or that talk, but am slowly getting over that. And he is a great speaker! And it’s always nice to hear that this Big Thing Going On is not a new disaster-inherently damaging-Bad Thing, but actually a relatively ok or even good thing. Thanks

  2. Interesting double copula there (is is), separated by the ‘despite’ clause. Almost standard now in AmE, BrE soon?

  3. Stan says:

    Claire: Yes, it’s interesting to see how positively linguists interpret what doomsayers and grammaticasters would dismiss as tripe or illiteracy. And McWhorter is a genial and fun guide to the discussion.

    Edward: I believe that’s a pseudo-cleft. Neither is could be omitted.

  4. limr says:

    I was in the middle of writing a comment and realized that it was getting way out of hand. I think I might turn it into my own post on the matter. I read your post just after I read a memo from our VP of Academic Affairs about new state legislation that may essentially get rid of remedial classes and turn them into entry-level credit classes instead rather than separate preparatory classes. Mind you, generally 65-70% of community colleges need remedial work. To address this problem, our response is to simply lower standards? Horrifying.

    This is why I’ve put off watching the video. I was already all worked up over this memo and so I’m not in the state of mind to hear someone claiming that writing skills are not in decline. Not when I just read this just 2 hours ago: “My passionate mother, Rosie, is judged ethnicize wise. When I was about 12 years old, Rosie had a interview as a caisher. The manager who seemed to be interviewing her, turned her down on the spot. Due to the fact Rosie was Puerto Rican, she didn’t get the job. Many Americans suffer because by our ethnicize.” (No, she’s not an ESL student.)

    I can’t tell if there is even a hint of causality between declining writing skills and modern communication technology, so I am not at all ready to demonize texting and its accompanying linguistic patterns. However, I’m certainly not ready to canonize it either, and am very wary of those who extoll all of its positive benefits for the very few who actually can both write well and text well, because I’m seeing the population who can’t do either. Maybe we’re both seeing our respective ends of the bell curve and we both have skewed perspectives on what’s really going on. I just think that the technology itself is too young and so it’s too soon to either mourn or rejoice its effects.

    Gosh, and that’s the ‘short’ version of the comment I had aborted!

    • Stan says:

      Leonore: I wouldn’t canonise or demonise texting either, any more than I would do the same for using email or talking on the telephone. McWhorter’s repeated characterisation of texting as a “miracle” overdoes things, I think; it’s no more miraculous an activity than speaking or eating – less so, in many ways.

      He does however offer useful ideas to better understand what texting is, and to appreciate its new grammatical forms. Of course many people struggle with basic writing skills, and their difficulties are apparent in both texting and more traditional writing modes. But that’s a whole other matter.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Hmm… was it within our Creator’s grand scheme of things to endow us slightly flawed, but ‘promising’ humans w/ a pair of dexterous opposable thumbs, plus an evolving, highly functional brain, so that we might some day embrace this newfangled language called “texting”– what well-regarded linguist McWhorter extols as no-less-than a ‘miraculous’ eventuality in the evolution of human language?

    I would be more inclined to accept McWhorter’s largely positive take on the recent rise of texting as a natural, and useful compliment to casual face-to-face communication, or more ‘formalized’ speech, if indeed, the lion’s share of our young folk today—the Millenials/ Y Generation— showed a higher proficiency in basic writing and communication skills, in general. But sadly, from this slightly jaded observer’s perspective, those important skills appear to be lacking to a disturbing degree. (Just my opinion.)

    P.S. –Beats me how individuals can fork up thousands of dollars to sit in on those 15-minute-long TED lectures, when you can catch most of them, gratis, online. Basking in the fleeting glory of celebrity, perhaps?

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    I’m firmly in the McWhorter camp, having a granddaughter who was weaned on texting and I’ve observed first hand the enormous changes made by her generation (she’s 18) in establishing community, activism and restructuring of society. And she is highly literate, intelligent and social. I recommend that everyone gets to know this generation really well. I am in awe of their insights and grasp of the complexity of the world we’re leaving them.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:


      In reading your glowing appraisal of your teenage granddaughter’s largely benefiting from her early texting experience, it got me reassessing my earlier, rather harsh, low-marks blanket assessment of today’s texting younger generation.

      Perhaps I was guilty of drinking a little too much of the negative, hyperbolic ‘those-kids-today-are-destroying-the-language’ Kool Aid, and my painting an entire generation with the same negative brush, in retrospect, was probably markedly off the mark.

      Thanks for your personal testimonial. Sounds like our “world we’re leaving them”, (as you put it), WILL be in more than good stead with young adults seemingly as bright and engaged as your granddaughter leading the way. You should be duly proud.

  7. Stan says:

    Alex: David Crystal, in Txtng, says research is “slowly beginning to show that texting actually benefits literacy skills”. He reports on several such studies and says children “could not be good at texting if they had not already developed considerable literacy awareness.” As Leonore points out, literacy is still a problem for many, but I think this is essentially independent of texting, easy though it is to scapegoat.

    WWW: Good for her. Whatever about the linguistic benefits of texting, its social advantages are obvious.

  8. […] Texting is an expansion of our linguistic repertoire, from Sentence first […]

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I look at those vehicle “vanity” license plates for which many Americans are willing to pay a steeper premium, over-and-above the regular base annual fee, as a kind of precursor to the more recent texting phenomenon.

    Not unlike texting, we are dealing here with combinations of often cleverly coded, signifier, or symbolic letters and numbers. But in this case, I would contend, for a modicum of ego gratification (hence the label “vanity”), plus showing how imaginative, or perhaps cryptic we can be.

    I must confess, I’ve had a “vanity” plate for over 25 years now. In my case, admittedly self-puffery out weighs any cryptic intent. (Hint… the ‘message’ relates to being an fine-artist.)

    • John Cowan says:

      Note that not all of us have annual license plates. In NY and NJ, at least, license plates are good for the life of the car, though an annual fee must be paid to keep the car’s registration current. Vanity plates cost more, but it’s one-time.

  10. Interesting things keep happening as time keeps going. This is some sort of language evolution! :)

  11. Usoro says:

    Am quite excited reading this piece. I am a post graduate student and am presently researching on texting via social media, its consequences and effect on the English language most especially in my country Nigeria. I would love to read more articles in this dimension.

  12. […] Texting is an expansion of our linguistic repertoire, from Sentence first […]

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