Text messaging is a dialect of the English language. Sure, text messages are physically typed out on a touchscreen QWERTY keyboard, and with autocorrect turned on, text messages can look like somewhat valid pieces of writing. However, the way text messages are used to communicate and the rules that govern them more closely resemble speaking than writing. Text messages don’t exactly follow the conventions of a speech either. The physical process of writing something down and losing the tonality and immediacy of speech has made it necessary for texting “rules” to form. I sure haven’t laughed out loud with every “lol” I’ve typed, but I don’t feel like a liar. Certain phrases that we use in text messaging can convey the tone of speech without actually speaking. In the same way that Southerners speak differently from New Englanders and the British speak differently from all of us, texting is a dialect of the English language that developed to accommodate this new written way of talking.
Texting isn’t actually “writing”
This is sort of a weird assertion. Texting must be writing because it involves the physical act of typing words onto a screen. In order to text you need nimble thumbs that are accustomed to pushing small buttons on a touchscreen QWERTY keyboard. That’s about as write-y as writing gets.
As James McWhorter points out in his 2013 TED Talk on how texting isn’t actually killing the English language, writing has a set of rules separate from talking. People don’t talk in a fluid grammatical way. McWhorter references an old practice of speaking written pieces as a performance. People would be entertained by listening to someone recite elegant prose. Essentially, they were speaking something that would usually be communicated through writing. Texting is the opposite of this. It is a typed version of what people would otherwise say aloud to each other. It does not have the formality of any other form of written communication.
This idea isn’t new. In 2001, Dr. Naomi Baron analyzed emails to determine their characteristics and determine whether each characteristic was closer to speech or writing. She determined that the informality, fast response time, small audience, and lack of proofreading were the characteristics of email that most closely resembled speaking. Texting is much more extreme than email in these regards. It’s so informal that vowels are often not required. The audience is rarely more than one person. Friendships can be strained if the response time isn’t fast enough. The amount of mistakes I’ve made in text messages from autocorrect or a lack of proofreading is approaching infinity. Texting breaks tons of rules of writing and yet everyone still communicates with one another without any issues. The rules of text messaging came about because they make sense to the human brain and are linguistically valid.
Our brains understand the weird linguistic rules of text messaging
Like any other language, texting has rules that must be followed. You’ll never see words abbreviated in text messages by taking out the consonants. Our brains would never do that in the first place because of how difficult it would be to decipher. As seen in Head’s experiment published in the American Journal of Psychology1, the brain can read vowel-less words fairly quickly. Actually it only takes a few milliseconds longer to understand words without vowels. The vowel rule isn’t the only rule in specific to texting. McWhorter points out the use of “lol” and “slash.” Both mimic speech in that they are used to pause or break up sentences, but neither would ever be included in a formal piece of writing (or even something as informal as an email). People who text on a regular basis know how to use and follow these rules in the same way someone who is surrounded by speakers of a certain dialect would be able to communicate. Even though texting doesn’t follow the conventions of formally writing in Standard English, it still has linguistic rules and validity. Text messaging is so ingrained in our culture that if it didn’t have these rules, communication would be impossible.
Text messaging and social media are part of daily life
The last text message I sent was two minutes ago. The last I received was very shortly before that. A great deal of the relationships that I have with people form through texting, and I know that I’m not the only one who has experienced this. In fact a study was done in 20052 where researchers monitored seven teenagers’ use of instant messaging and interviewed them about the decisions that they made. One of the main findings of this study is that the participants considered their IM conversations an extension of themselves and their relationships.
Out of all possibly ways to communicate ideas, face-to-face conversation is the most common. This makes sense because humans evolved with brains equipped to learn language, and people are most likely communicating with people who they’re seeing face to face. Texting isn’t quite a close second—nothing will ever trump our innate ability to speak—but it is far more common than any other type of communication (email, snail mail, even phone calls) after speaking. Because of this, it’s easy to be fluent in texting. Mastering communication via text is essential in keeping up with relationships and properly expressing one’s self. Being a bad texter is congruous with having an accent that’s difficult to understand.
Text English is no less correct than ‘standard’ English
Educators and professionals have always had sort of a weird adherence to Standard English. This is the English that is allowed in formal essays. It’s just plain old English. Professor Lindblom3 wrote a paper where he counters the obsession that educators have with Standard English. He argues that it can be degrading and elitist to assert that one way of speaking English is correct when there are so many other dialects of English that have the same types of rules of language and are just as linguistically valid. Texting has rules that mimic that of a dialect. While the rules that govern texting seem to dumb down the English language, they instead transform it into a different, equally valid, form of English. With the new rules that texting brings to language, the English language itself must adapt to these changes.
Language is evolving
The world is constantly changing and English must evolve with it. New words and phrases are frequently coined in order to make communication easier. In a TED talk given to encourage kids to be creative with language, Erin McKean, a lexicographer who works on the dictionary, describes the ways that new words can form. Many words used in social media today are formed using the techniques that she describes. The verbs “to friend” and “to Google” are examples of functional shifts and the words “lol” and “omg” are formed from acronyms.
Language has always been changing and evolving to meet the communication needs of society. There has always been criticism as a language changes. Just as trendy words like “selfie” and “hashtag”4 are criticized today, many words that we consider common now were once thought of as a disgrace to the English Language—Ben Franklin once made a statement about how ridiculous it was that the word “colonize” was gaining popularity.
New words and rules are developing for texters to meet the need of its medium. Texting is isolated from speech, and this distinction has made it possible for texting to stray a bit from Standard English. Dialects form when groups of people who speak a language are isolated from one another. The rules of texting that have formed reflect those of a developing dialect.
1. Head, James. “Novel Word Processing.” The American Journal of Psychology
2. Lewis, Cynthia “Instant Messaging, Literacies, and Social Identities”
3. Lindblom, Kenneth. “Teaching English in the World: Unintelligent Design: Where Does the Obsession with Correct Grammar Come From?” The English Journal
4. Steinmetz, Katy. “# Selfie, Steampunk, Catfish: See This Year’s New Dictionary Words.” Time.