By Miriam Farkas on March 8, 2016
If you constantly text message your friends, and even if you don’t, you’ve probably heard it from your grandmother (or maybe just your English teacher): text messaging is a blight, a literary disease that will inevitably lead to the downfall of the English language. Those quickly-swiped lols and haha’s, seemingly benign, mark the beginning of mass punctuation chaos, the collapse of the fine art of conversation, and general societal ruin.
But are we too quick to judge the shorthand and abbreviated style of communication created by text messaging? Could it, perhaps, provide a more accurate look inside human thought process and emotion?
Plenty of ink has been spilled concerning teen literacy and text messaging, including a study of middle school students in Pennsylvania in which tweens who use shorthand and slang (“techspeak”) in SMS messages performed poorly on grammar tests. Grammar is only the tip of the iceberg: Baroness Susan Greenfield, a British Neuroscientist, believes that the texting may trigger the development of attention deficit disorders in children. Other experts point to the physical and mental health toll of texting, from social stress to higher risk of coronary heart disease. And if that’s not enough to make you put down your phone, researchers at the University of Winnipeg surveying more than 2,300 first-year psychology students found that using brief social media such as texting and twitter encourage shallow thinking and higher levels of bias towards minorities. Whether this is a matter of causation or simply a correlation, the potential connection between frequent texting and shallow, immoral thinking certainly helps your grandmother’s case.
But this doesn’t mean that texting is the beginning of the decline of the English language, or even a negative form of communication. Sure, the instant gratification of phone messages and the stress of waiting for that one person’s response to your “hey :)” may not be great for your health or spelling, but is texting any different from, say, having email on your phone? Linguists say yes, and not in a bad way. Dr. Caroline Tagg explains that the language of texts is closer to spoken word than writing, as it includes verbal pauses and interjections. It falls somewhere between speech and formal writing. Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University goes even farther, calling texting a form of spoken language. According to McWhorter, writing is an artifice, while text is “fingered speech” — much looser and reflective than formal writing, and in much shorter “packets” of words. Abbreviations that began in SMS messages such as “lol” have become words in their own right, with connotations outside of their original unabbreviated meanings (when was the last time you laughed out loud before typing “lol”?). Texting is not “bad” language, it’s just new language.
If text messaging is informal and speech-like in a way that writing is not, perhaps we can understand why research might show that texting markedly affects certain attitudes and thinking. It may not be that texting causes one to think less, but rather that texting elicits a less filtered, more automatic response than “classic” writing. It’s more like a quick, on-your-toes conversation than a deep snail mail correspondence. So next time you want to find out what people really think, and what they think without “thinking,” send a text or two. It’s basically just talking, after all (and society won’t be ruined).
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