LOL is its own language: Q&A with John McWhorter

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John McWhorter at TED@New York

Kids these days are “speaking” a new language, right under our noses and literally right under the table. But is texting making us dumber? No, says John McWhorter, Associate Professor at Columbia University and Contributing Editor at The New Republic. In his talk from TED@New York — one of 293 talks given as part of the TED2013 Talent Search — McWhorter says texting is merely a new form of language. And that being afraid of it is something to lol about.

You argue that texting is a language in which we write like we speak; but what if we stop writing like we write?

That will never happen. There’s no reason to think that we will not be able to do two things at a time. Many people are bilingual, and most people in the world are at least bidialectal. In America we think of the black person who can speak standard English and then in homier situations speaks a very different kind of grammar (and it is a grammar). In the same way you can write in two dialects. You can very easily text in the language I just described, and yet be somebody who writes for The Economist. I know people like that. We don’t have to worry that one thing is going to extinguish the other. Generally there’s always been casual speech and formal speech, and people can keep the two in their heads.

But we had time in school before texting was popular to learn formal writing. What about “kids these days”?

I teach at Columbia where people are rather hyper-prepared, but these kids can write up a storm, a paper about Plato and Aristotle, and under the table when they think I don’t see, they’re texting! People will continue to learn certain ways of writing and reading in school, and then there will be this other thing. It’s just that now we don’t only talk with our mouths, we talk with our fingers.

Do you text fluently?

I’ve never thought about it that way. I don’t text fluently. I’m 46 and the language I’m talking about came about in 2004, so I think I’m a little bit past the generation that would do it fluently. I text, but I would never write “lol” or “haha.” I used to think that was a gender thing, but it’s not. It’s an age thing. … One “k” for “okay” is apparently abrupt. I’m told that if someone writes “k” it’s kind of like “whatever.” I didn’t know that! I just thought it was a quick way of writing “okay.”

So I’m learning this from my “peeps.” They don’t text me, but they write papers about it. That’s how I learned that there’s this thing going on with texting that I would never have known about, because no one would ever write to me this way.

How does one express laughter then? “lol” or “haha” don’t quite cut it.

Apparently the way you do it is with acronyms like, um, lsh … “laughing so hard I’m on the floor” … There are these longer ones that actually mean that you’re physically laughing. R —

Roflmao. Rolling on the floor laughing my ass off?

Yes, that one! So apparently that’s how you indicate that something funny was said.

What do you say when something is funny?

I don’t text in long enough sentences to get in whether I think something is funny. In email, which I’m beginning to think is old-fashioned, I don’t use the bouncing emoticon Smiley because I think that is girly, but I use the little smile signs, with a colon and parentheses :) — a more male emoticon, where you comprise it yourself, because men build things? I don’t know. No but I don’t laugh in texts, and I think that’s partly — and I’m not trying to be dismissive of youth — but I think it’s because I’m not 22.

Watch out for more Q&As from the TED@NY event throughout this week. Head to TalentSearch.TED.com to watch and rate these talks, as well as those from the 13 other stops along the TED2013 Talent Search tour.