IN DEFENSE OF TXTING
“You young whippersnappers and your clickety-clacky cellular devices…why, when I was a young boy, I talked with the lads via carrier pigeon and then when they didn’t answer I had to walk barefoot to school in the snow while being chased by wolves.” –Old man reflecting on millennials and texting
Texting has carried a negative stigma since the day “lol” became a term of amusement. Often, our generation, dubbed “Millennials” by older generations, is associated with the growing popularity of instant messaging and thus the stereotypes that go with it. Much like the belligerent fake quote from the old man above, people often associate the quick and easy method of text messaging with laziness and procrastination. However, according to linguist John McWhorter, texting may actually be a language that’s advancing right under our noses. In the link below, there is both a podcast from the NPR’s TED Radio Hour on “The Spoken and Unspoken,” which is a condensed version of McWhorter’s talk, and his actual talk. Both ultimately say the same thing, just one is longer.
McWhorter’s Theory: modern day text messaging is a developing “write how you speak” language. This seems surprising. In depicting text messaging as a language, this also implies that the millions of people that use the lingo of texting are bilingual, and most of those people are our age. According to a study done in 2011 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "Cell owners between the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of 109.5 messages on a normal day -- more than 3,200 texts per month. And the typical or median cell owner in this age group sends or receives 50 messages per day.” And that was 3 years ago. So now that you’ve watched or listened to McWhorter’s talk, let’s back his theory up further by using terms from Rhetoric in Civic Life.
McWhorter touches on denotations and connotations in his talk. One such “word” is “lol,” which was originally meant to signify humor but it is now used as a term of empathy. This is also an example of resignification or an example of inflated language. Words and phrases used in text messaging 5 years ago have either been tossed out or have developed into physical speech such as “omg.” Nonetheless, text messaging created unique terms and phrases that people before text messaging’s popularity would not have understood. Coupled with this, because it is used through a medium other than speech, these words are a separate language, or at least a tangent of the English language.
Texting itself is also used as a euphemism, or used “to denote a thing in a way that avoids connotations of harshness or unpleasantness” (51). Rather than making the bad news better for the receiver however, texting reverses the process and makes it far easier for the bearer to break the news. It’s much, much easier to tell your boyfriend that you want to break up when you aren’t face-to-face, much easier but not better. This is a misuse of language as talked about in the textbook. If texting can be misused, then clearly it is also a language.
The main aspect of language the textbook hits on, however, is how language constructs social reality. After all, if there weren’t a word for the color “purple,” would purple even exist? Surely, purple as a physical concept would exist, but that wouldn’t matter if no one could see it and experience it. Our words shape the way we think. For example, time in the English language is seen as horizontally linear with a past, present and future, but in the Chinese language time is seen as vertical and therefore the grammar does not include different tenses. It is impossible for us to wrap our minds around this because we do not have the language to express this thought. Text messaging contributes to a need to get things done, and to get things done fast. It has become so integrated in our society that new generations can’t remember a time without it.
“The medium is the message.”—Marshall McLuhan
McWhorter would be a devout follower of McLuhan’s quote above and throughout this post, I’ve been giving you reasons why this may be true: the medium through which our speech is being filtered ultimately is the message. However, we talked in class about how McLuhan’s quote should actually be “The medium shapes the message. While the debate over whether text messaging is actually its own language and should be taught as a component to the English language or not may last decades. One thing is for sure though: as the world around us descends, or perhaps transcends, into a five by three inch screen, the way we communicate and thus relate to each other is significantly altered.
The “Spoken and Unspoken” TED Radio Hour includes other key rhetorical concepts we’ve either talked about in class or read in the book. I would highly recommend listening to the podcast if you have the time!