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The linguistic miracle of texting: John McWhorter at TED2013

Posted by: Thu-Huong Ha
Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

More than 22 million text messages are sent across the world every day … many in truly terrible English. It’s the end of the world as we know it, many decry. The decline and fall of written language means the end for us all, right? Not so fast. Linguist John McWhorter has a great new theory on what’s really going on in modern texting. Far from being a scourge, texting is a linguistic miracle.

Spoken human language has been around for about 150,000 years, but it wasn’t until much later that written language came about; as he puts it: “If humanity has existed for 24 hours, writing came about at 11:07 pm.” This distinction is crucial what it comes to the so-called degradation of written language — because texting isn’t written language. It much more closely resembles the kind of language we’ve had for so many more years: spoken language.

When you write, you can do things you can’t do in speaking. McWhorter elocutes a passage from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s precise, detailed and crisp — and “no one would ever speak that way. At least not if they were interested in reproducing.” Casual speech is quite different: looser, telegraphic, less reflective. Texting ignores punctuation and capitalization, but does anyone think about these things when speaking?

Formal oration, a kind of speaking that sounds like writing, has always been common. But why not try to write like you speak? Now that we have incredibly fast technology to keep up with the pace of speech — mobile phones, rather than typewriters or handwriting — that’s actually possible. What is texting? McWhorter suggests: “fingered speech.”

Texting, like any language, has its own distinct rules and structures. Take the example of “lol.” “Lol” once meant “laughing out loud.” But anybody who texts today knows that these days it has a subtler meaning. Consider the exchange:

Susan: lol thanks gmail is being slow right now
Julie: lol, i know.
Susan: i just sent you an email.
Julie: lol, i see it.

TED2013_0058410_D41_0563Let’s be honest, there’s nothing funny about this. As McWhorter says, “lol” here acts as a marker of empathy and accomodation, what linguistics call pragmatic particles, and which exist in many languages.

McWhorter cites a passage from 1956 bemoaning the decline of language in young people … and then three more, all the way back to 63 AD: a pedant lamenting everyone’s terrible Latin. (That “terrible Latin” eventually became French.) As he says, “There are always people worried about the decline of language. Yet somehow the world keeps spinning.” There’s no need to worry, he says firmly. People are even benefiting from texting, from this entirely different language. Being fluent in spoken language, written language and writing-like-speaking language is an unconscious balancing act that allows each “speaker” to expand his or her linguistic repertoire.

So no scourge is imminent. McWhorter says, if he could fast-forward to 2033 — besides first checking to see if David Simon had written a sequel to The Wire — he would immediately want to see texts written by 16-year-old girls to see what’s become of this linguistic miracle.

John McWhorter’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com»

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