Liz Gannes

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Don’t U Dis Txtspeak; It’s a “Linguistic Miracle,” Says Professor

Calling the choppy language of text messaging a scourge on society would not be controversial.

JohnMcWhorterBut Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter has a different interpretation. He thinks texting, with its abbreviations and odd constructions and novel usage, is “a linguistic miracle happening right under our noses.”

“A whole new language has developed among our young people doing something as mundane as batting around when they’re using their little devices,” he said in a talk at the TED conference in Long Beach, Calif., today.

The trick is realizing that there’s a difference between written language and spoken language, according to McWhorter.

“Texting is fingered speech. Now we can write the way we talk,” he said.

It’s very natural to decry the decline of formal language — in fact, McWhorter found a citation as old as 63 A.D. of someone bemoaning the corruption of written Latin.

But textspeak, in fact, contains structural features of an emerging language.

For instance, the texting convention “LOL” doesn’t necessarily mean “laughing out loud” anymore. “Now it’s evolved into something much subtler,” McWhorter said. It’s become a marker of accommodation, used to fill gaps in a conversation. This is similar to “ne” in Japanese and “yo” among young black people in the U.S., McWhorter said. The technical term for it is “pragmatic particle.”

Another example is “slash,” which used in textspeak indicates changing the topic.

When young people can switch between the language of text and the language of the rest of their society, it’s actually a great thing, McWhorter said, because being bilingual is widely acknowledged to be good for your brain.


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