Is Texting Actually Advancing Language?
Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Spoken And Unspoken.
About John McWhorter's TEDTalk
Does texting mean the death of good writing skills? Linguist John McWhorter says that there's much more to texting — linguistically, culturally — than it seems, and it's all good news.
About John McWhorter
Linguist John McWhorter studies language through the lens of social, historical and technological developments. McWhorter teaches at Columbia University and is also a contributing editor at The New Republic and TheRoot.com. He's the author of What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be); Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English; and Winning The Race: Beyond The Crisis In Black America.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. (Reading) What up John? It's Guy. Ready for your interview? LOL.
JOHN MCWHORTER: (Reading) OK.
RAZ: This is John McWhorter.
MCWHORTER: I am writing to Guy. And I'm saying, (reading) Guy, I'm in the booth.
RAZ: He's a linguist...
MCWHORTER: ...(Reading) Slash...
RAZ: And he has a kind of a radical theory on...
MCWHORTER: See, slash is a thing.
MCWHORTER: (Reading) Drinking Jamba Juice.
RAZ: (Reading) LOL. Let's do this interview...
MCWHORTER: (Reading) LOL. Let's do this interview via text. LOL. LOL. ROFL. Laughing my...
RAZ: It would take us, like, forever to do this by text. We could not do - this would take - we would have to book the studio for, like, three hours.
MCWHORTER: You know, even though this is basically speaking with the fingers, nobody ever said that it was as fast.
RAZ: OK, so he snuck it in there, but that is, basically, John McWhorter's big idea idea, that texting is more like speaking than writing. and that makes it almost like a new form of language, which brings us to today's show - language, spoken and unspoken. How it started, how it's changing and how words might not be the most important part of it. But first, what could texting mean for the future of human communication? Here's John McWhorter's TED Talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
MCWHORTER: Basically, if we think about language, language has existed for, perhaps, 150,000, at least 80,000 years. And what it arose as is speech. People talked. That's what we're probably genetically specified for, that's how we use language most. Writing is something that came along much later. If humanity had existed for 24 hours, then writing only came along at about 11:07 p.m., that's how much of a latterly thing writing is. Now of course, as history has gone by, it's been natural for there to be a certain amount of bleed between speech and writing. In a distant era now, it was common when one gave a speech, to basically talk like writing.
So, for example, the Gettysburg Address was not the main meal of that event. For two hours before that, Edward Everett spoke on a topic that, frankly, cannot engage us today and barely did then. The point of it was to listen to him speaking like writing. Ordinary people stood and listened to that for two hours. It was perfectly natural. That's what people did then - speaking like writing. Well, if you can speak like writing, then logically it follows that you might want to also sometimes write like you speak. The problem was just that in the material-mechanical sense, that was harder back in the day. It's almost impossible to do that with your hand, except in shorthand and then communication is limited. On a manual typewriter, it was very difficult.
And even when we had electric typewriters or then computer keyboards, the fact is that even if you can type easily enough to keep up with the pace of speech, more or less, you have to have somebody who can receive your message quickly. Once you have things in your pocket that can receive that message, then you have the conditions that allow that we can write like we speak. And it's a very interesting thing, but nevertheless easy to think that still it represents some sort of decline, that something has gone wrong. But the fact of the matter is that what is going on is a kind of emergent complexity.
RAZ: OK. Texting, is this like a serious thing for academics to be studying? Like, the great linguists of the world, are they saying, yeah, OK, let's sit down and, like, do a symposium on this thing 'cause this is the real deal?
MCWHORTER: I mean, I'm not aware of a particular great symposium where people with three names and muttonchops are sitting down and talking about these things, but definitely it has become a thing - to use a current locution - to do papers on texting. I would say that anybody who teaches linguistics these days is expecting to see papers from students on texting. And it's because language changes, generally, slowly and below the radar. Whereas this, if I, in 1993, saw some of the text messages that we just traded at the beginning of this interview, I wouldn't have know what to make of it at all. I wouldn't have had anywhere to grab onto. And that's something that happened so very quickly. Linguists don't usually get to see language changing right now and this quickly. So yeah, it's a feast.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
MCWHORTER: And so for example, LOL. If you text now or if you are someone who's aware of the substrate of texting the way it's become, you'll notice that LOL does not mean laughing out loud anymore. It's evolved into something that is much subtler. This is an actual text that was done by a non-male person of about 20 years old, not too long ago. I love the font you're using, btw. Julie - LOL...
JULIE: LOL. Thanks Gmail is being slow right now.
MCWHORTER: If you think about it, that's not funny. No one's laughing.
MCWHORTER: And yet, there it is. So you assume there's been some kind of hiccup. Then Susan says, LOL, I know.
SUSAN: LOL, I know.
MCWHORTER: Again, more guffawing then we're used to when you're talking about these inconveniences. So Julie says, I just sent you an e-mail. Susan, LOL.
SUSAN: LOL, I see it.
MCWHORTER: Very funny people if that's what LOL means. Julie says...
JULIE: So, what's up?
MCWHORTER: Susan - LOL, I have to write a 10-page paper. She's not amused. Let's think about it. LOL is being used in a very particular way. It's a marker of empathy. It's a marker of accommodation. We linguists call things like that pragmatic particles. Any spoken language that's used by real people has them. If you happen to speak Japanese, think about that little word "ne" that you use at the end of a lot of sentences. If you listen to the way black youth today speak, think about the use of the word "yo." Whole dissertations could be written about it and probably are being written about it. A pragmatic particle, that's what LOL has gradually become. It's a way of using the language between actual people.
And what's really important about a lot of these conventions is that they're actually quite sophisticated. To figure out what LOL actually means in the way that a linguist can figure out what even means in a sentence like, he didn't even come. Imagine explaining to a foreigner what that even means. To do it in linguist-style is every bit as challenging as figuring out an even or figuring out what like means in - he was, like, tired. As slangy and sweat-sock as that sounds to us, it really is a very really subtle little item. But like took years and years and years and years and years to happen. Whereas these are coming in in an instant.
RAZ: And here's the thing John McWhorter is noticing. The language we use in texting, it's looping back into our daily speech as in O-M-G or slash to change a subject quickly, or when people say, out loud, hashtag.
MCWHORTER: And so there are two possibilities. It could be that we're living in a time where it's considered cute to use things that you get from texting and from Twitter in speech as a gentle way to show how hip you are and to be part of the conversation. Or maybe we're seeing the beginning of a constant kind of interaction between texting conventions and speech that will never end. And so we've got this brand-new layer of language that'll keep feeding in.
RAZ: So it's interesting, right, because we hear a lot about how, like, young people - they're texting and they're not really communicating and they're not going to develop communication skills. Do you think that's, like - there's something to that?
MCWHORTER: You know, having watched a fair number of people go through their teen years texting an awful lot, I can't say that I've seen evidence that texting a lot is going to interfere with people's ability to carry on a conversation, to enter into a relationship, etc. You might worry that it might, but I'm not sure that it does. I think that the social effect of texting that we most have to worry about is the fact that with the distance that's always there, even with the illusion of intimacy, it's easier to be mean. I think we're seeing a lot of this with the bullying episodes that sometimes even lead people to suicide. Texting, as well as equivalent sorts of communications on the screen through Facebook and Gchat, make those sorts of things easier than they used to be when bullying was a matter of walking up to somebody and saying something. That something that's worrisome.
RAZ: OK. How long before texting is a language taught at universities and, you know, fancy private schools?
MCWHORTER: You know something? I would make a prediction - I'm going to make a nervy prediction just for the heck of it.
RAZ: All right. OK.
MCWHORTER: That within 2014 we will hear a report of texting lessons of some kind. Maybe for foreigners or maybe there will be some enterprising, young 20-something or Zuckerberg-y person who will present something like that as something 12-year-olds...
RAZ: Berlitz for texters. Yeah.
MCWHORTER: Yeah. I mean...
RAZ: Yeah. Yes.
MCWHORTER: ..."Texting for Dummies"...
MCWHORTER: ...Certainly, 2014.
RAZ: And there will be outrage.
MCWHORTER: Oh, yeah.
RAZ: There will be media outrage.
MCWHORTER: How dare - it'll be like the Ebonics controversy. How dare you treat this as something...
MCWHORTER: ...Respectable. But that will only make it more interesting to more people. I kind of wish I could write "Texting for Dummies."
RAZ: Maybe, maybe that should...
MCWHORTER: It would be a fun book to write.
RAZ: Maybe you should do it.
MCWHORTER: You know, I'm going to ask those dummies people - whoever they are.
RAZ: OK. Can I get a cut?
MCWHORTER: You will. You get 10 percent of the...
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
MCWHORTER: And so the way I'm thinking of texting these days is that what we're seeing is a whole new way of writing that young people are developing, which they're using alongside their ordinary writing skills. And that means that they're able to do two things. Increasing evidence is that being bilingual is cognitively beneficial. That's also true of being bidialectal. That's certainly true of being bidialectal in terms of your writing. And so texting actually is evidence of a balancing act that young people are using today, not consciously of course, but it's an expansion of their linguistic repertoire. So in closing, if I could go into the future - if I could go into 2033, the first thing I would ask is whether David Simon had done a sequel to "The Wire." I would want to know.
MCWHORTER: And I really would ask that. And then I'd want to know, actually, what was going on on "Downton Abbey." That'd be the second thing. And then the third thing would be, please show me a sheaf of texts written by 16-year-old girls because I would want to know where this language had developed since our times. And ideally, I would then send them back to you and me now so we could examine this linguistic miracle happening right under our noses. Thank you very much.
RAZ: That's linguist John McWhorter. His talk "TXTING is killing language, JK," is at TED.NPR.org. (Reading) LOL. I hope I wasn't too lame.
RAZ: (Reading) LOL. ROFL. FWIW. You got the 411 on this (bleep) man. More spoken and unspoken in a moment. I'm Guy Raz and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.