Is Texting Killing the English Language?

Texting has long been accused as being the downfall of the written word, “penmanship for illiterates,” as one critic called it. To which the likely response is LOL. Proper testing is not writing at all — it’s actually more like the spoken language. It’s a “spoken” language that is evolving and becoming more complex as time passes.

But let’s go back a while. Writing was invented over 5,00 years ago, and language likely traces back perhaps 80,000 years. So talking came first; writing is just an artifice that came along much later. Due to this, writing was first based on the way people talk, with short sentences — think of the Old Testament. However, while talking is largely subconscious and rapid, writing is slower and more deliberate.

Like language assessment tests, speaking tests are always shorter in duration than written tests. But in getting back to texting – It’s developing its own type of grammar (no pun intended). 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. Jessica texts “Where have you been?” and David 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, of all things, is grammar.

Over time, the meaning of a word or an expression evolves — meat used to mean any kind of foodsilly used to mean, believe it or not, blessed.

Civilization, then, is fine — people typing away on their smartphones are fluently using a code separate from the one they use in actual writing, and there’s no evidence that texting is ruining composition skills. 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.

All indications are that America’s youth are doing it quite well. Texting, far from being a scourge, is a work in progress.

This essay is adapted from McWhorter’s talk at TED 2013.