Looking Glass Language

a word bird reflects on life & language

fingered speech: txtng as bilingualism

Screen shot 2013-08-19 at 21.14.39When Mencap, a charity for learning disabilities, sponsored a poll of 500 UK parents and teachers, two-in-three teachers reported that they regularly find text-speak in pupils’ homework, and over three-quarters of parents said they needed help de-coding the text-speak in their children’s texts and emails. 89% of those surveyed found that the growing prevalence of text-speak was creating a language barrier between adults and children.

Last year I worked on a Guide for Parents for EE aimed at helping parents get to grip with the digital world their kids inhabit, which opened by saying: ‘For your child, their mobile isn’t just a phone, it’s a portal to their world.’ The guide gave lots of detailed advice and useful information, along with a very basic list of acronyms used in texting and instant messaging:

ASL        Age, sex, location

BRB        Be right back

KPC        Keep parents clueless

LMIR      Let’s meet in real life

LOL        Laugh out loud

Noob     New user (newbie)

OMG     Oh my god

POS       Parent over shoulder

Rents    Parents

ROF       Roll on the floor laughing

T+         Think positive

WTF      What the f%*@!

This week I learned that, in America at least, this is already out of date, as LOL no longer stands for Laugh Out Loud. Instead it is being used as a ‘pragmatic particle’: a marker of empathy and of accommodation, used in much the same way as one might use ‘uh huh’ in conversation in order to demonstrate empathy and listening and help move the conversation on. I learned this from a TED talk called Txtng is killing language. JK!!!, given by John McWhorter. McWhorter, an American linguist and political commentator, makes the case for text-speak being positive, describing it as a form of bilingualism, with the positive implications that this implies. Noting that in casual speech we tend to speak in word packets of 7-10 words, rather than the longer sentence length of formal writing, he describes texting as a sort of ‘fingered casual speech’, which is rightly much looser and more telegraphic than formal writing.

In fact, says McWhorter, evolving text etiquette is increasingly sophisticated. This emergent complexity has features such as the use of ‘slash’ as a new information marker – a polite way of moving the conversation on.

With so much concern about text-speak lowering the standard of written English and creeping into children’s formal writing, it’s good to hear McWhorter’s more positive take on it, in a short but far-ranging speech that uses examples from 63AD to the present day to illuminate text-speech and pose questions about its implications.

(You can find a much more comprehensive list of text-speak on netlingo, if you need help translating what your kids are saying.)

Watch the whole talk here.

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