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John McWhorter: Txtng is killing language. JK!!!

Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast We always hear that texting is a scourge. The idea is that texting spells the decline and fall of any kind of serious literacy, or at least writing ability, among young people in the United States and now the whole world today. The fact of the matter is that it just isn’t true, and it’s easy to think that it is true, but in order to see it in another way, in order to see that actually texting is a miraculous thing, not just energetic, but a miraculous thing, a kind of emergent complexity that we’re seeing happening right now, we have to pull the camera back for a bit and look at what language really is, in which case, one thing that we see is that texting is not writing at all. What do I mean by that? Basically, if we think about language, language has existed for perhaps 150,000 years, 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, and as we saw in the last talk, there’s a little bit of controversy as to exactly when that happened, but according to traditional estimates, 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. So first there’s speech, and then writing comes along as a kind of artifice. Now don’t get me wrong, writing has certain advantages. When you write, because it’s a conscious process, because you can look backwards, you can do things with language that are much less likely if you’re just talking. For example, imagine a passage from Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:” “The whole engagement lasted above twelve hours, till the graduate retreat of the Persians was changed into a disorderly flight, of which the shameful example was given by the principal leaders and the Surenas himself.” That’s beautiful, but let’s face it, nobody talks that way. Or at least, they shouldn’t if they’re interested in reproducing. That — (Laughter) is not the way any human being speaks casually. Casual speech is something quite different. Linguists have actually shown that when we’re speaking casually in an unmonitored way, we tend to speak in word packets of maybe seven to 10 words. You’ll notice this if you ever have occasion to record yourself or a group of people talking. That’s what speech is like. Speech is much looser. It’s much more telegraphic. It’s much less reflective — very different from writing. So we naturally tend to think, because we see language written so often, that that’s what language is, but actually what language is, is speech. They are two things. 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. So, for example, in a distant era now, it was common when one gave a speech to basically talk like writing. So I mean the kind of speech that you see someone giving in an old movie where they clear their throat, and they go, “Ahem, ladies and gentlemen,” and then they speak in a certain way which has nothing to do with casual speech. It’s formal. It uses long sentences like this Gibbon one. It’s basically talking like you write, and so, for example, we’re thinking so much these days about Lincoln because of the movie. 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 for the simple reason that materials don’t lend themselves to it. 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 that’s where texting comes in. And so, texting is very loose in its structure. No one thinks about capital letters or punctuation when one texts, but then again, do you think about those things when you talk? No, and so therefore why would you when you were texting? What texting is, despite the fact that it involves the brute mechanics of something that we call writing, is fingered speech. That’s what texting is. Now we can write the way we talk. And it’s a very interesting thing, but nevertheless easy to think that still it represents some sort of decline. We see this general bagginess of the structure, the lack of concern with rules and the way that we’re used to learning on the blackboard, and so we think that something has gone wrong. It’s a very natural sense. But the fact of the matter is that what is going on is a kind of emergent complexity. That’s what we’re seeing in this fingered speech. And in order to understand it, what we want to see is the way, in this new kind of language, there is new structure coming up. And so, for example, there is in texting a convention, which is LOL. Now LOL, we generally think of as meaning “laughing out loud.” And of course, theoretically, it does, and if you look at older texts, then people used it to actually indicate laughing out loud. But if you text now, or if you are someone who is 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 thanks gmail is being slow right now” Now if you think about it, that’s not funny. No one’s laughing. (Laughter) And yet, there it is, so you assume there’s been some kind of hiccup. Then Susan says “lol, I know,” again more guffawing than we’re used to when you’re talking about these inconveniences. So Julie says, “I just sent you an email.” Susan: “lol, I see it.” Very funny people, if that’s what LOL means. This Julie says, “So what’s up?” 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. Another example is “slash.” Now, we can use slash in the way that we’re used to, along the lines of, “We’re going to have a party-slash-networking session.” That’s kind of like what we’re at. Slash is used in a very different way in texting among young people today. It’s used to change the scene. So for example, this Sally person says, “So I need to find people to chill with” and Jake says, “Haha” — you could write a dissertation about “Haha” too, but we don’t have time for that — “Haha so you’re going by yourself? Why?” Sally: “For this summer program at NYU.” Jake: “Haha. Slash I’m watching this video with suns players trying to shoot with one eye.” The slash is interesting. I don’t really even know what Jake is talking about after that, but you notice that he’s changing the topic. Now that seems kind of mundane, but think about how in real life, if we’re having a conversation and we want to change the topic, there are ways of doing it gracefully. You don’t just zip right into it. You’ll pat your thighs and look wistfully off into the distance, or you’ll say something like, “Hmm, makes you think –” when it really didn’t, but what you’re really — (Laughter) — what you’re really trying to do is change the topic. You can’t do that while you’re texting, and so ways are developing of doing it within this medium. All spoken languages have what a linguist calls a new information marker — or two, or three. Texting has developed one from this slash. So we have a whole battery of new constructions that are developing, and yet it’s easy to think, well, something is still wrong. There’s a lack of structure of some sort. It’s not as sophisticated as the language of The Wall Street Journal. Well, the fact of the matter is, look at this person in 1956, and this is when texting doesn’t exist, “I Love Lucy” is still on the air. “Many do not know the alphabet or multiplication table, cannot write grammatically — ” We’ve heard that sort of thing before, not just in 1956. 1917, Connecticut schoolteacher. 1917. This is the time when we all assume that everything somehow in terms of writing was perfect because the people on “Downton Abbey” are articulate, or something like that. So, “From every college in the country goes up the cry, ‘Our freshmen can’t spell, can’t punctuate.'” And so on. You can go even further back than this. It’s the President of Harvard. It’s 1871. There’s no electricity. People have three names. “Bad spelling, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing.” And he’s talking about people who are otherwise well prepared for college studies. You can go even further back. 1841, some long-lost superintendent of schools is upset because of what he has for a long time “noted with regret the almost entire neglect of the original” blah blah blah blah blah. Or you can go all the way back to 63 A.D. — (Laughter) — and there’s this poor man who doesn’t like the way people are speaking Latin. As it happens, he was writing about what had become French. And so, there are always — (Laughter) (Applause) — there are always people worrying about these things and the planet somehow seems to keep spinning. 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. It’s very simple. If somebody from 1973 looked at what was on a dormitory message board in 1993, the slang would have changed a little bit since the era of “Love Story,” but they would understand what was on that message board. Take that person from 1993 — not that long ago, this is “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” — those people. Take those people and they read a very typical text written by a 20-year-old today. Often they would have no idea what half of it meant because a whole new language has developed among our young people doing something as mundane as what it looks like to us when they’re batting around on their little devices. 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. 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. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause)

100 Replies to “John McWhorter: Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”

  • Hey everybody! I would greatly appreciate if you could fill out this quick 5-10 minute survey on texting for my language seminar. Thank you so much for your help and your time!

  • We live in the technological era. The development of technology grows at an exponential rate, and we are currently in the wave of constant technological advances that are hugely changing what it means to be a human. We evolved to survive as hunter and gatherers, but now the main thing you have to worry about is how much green paper you can collect by spending most of your existence in some place you don't want to be. This guy was too late to the party, but for the younger people who grew up on the internet, we are different then those who grew up having to looks things up in an encyclopedia…man I could keep going to reach my point but I'm high as a kite on marryhwonna. Give me a thumbs up if you made it this far. Have an excellent day, my friend!

  • Danny P. Ruiz "Poorly spoken/written English doesn't become a language.  That would be like saying 2+2=5 and when you're corrected just saying 'It's my new version of math'"

    I can prove that 2+2 does not equal 5.  Can you even define what constitutes "poorly spoken/written English" and then prove that it doesn't constitute a language?  What we speak right now IS the "poorly spoken/written English" that has accumulated over its entire history. 

  • He's quite right about the fact that our writing evolves inasmuch as our speaking, and that texting is essentially fingered speaking.

  • I don't think most people even use text speak anymore, a lot of people just use emojis and regular conversational English.

  • I really don't understand, if texting is limiting/ruining your writing skills you have the capacity to study and expand your grammar, vocabulary etc. if you don't have the capacity you can get help.
    if texting is limiting your communication, or face to face, skills then you have to put the phone down and start to slowly get the confidence to talk to people. You can do this by watching videos or getting ideas/opinions from friends/teachers. You have the ability and resources to perfect your communications skills, why make up excuses?
    Of course this may not apply to people with anxiety, or other problems, since it may be harder for them.
    Also, of course it is easier said than done.

    Please correct me if I'm wrong and any other thoughts are welcomed. ^^

  • I think about capital letters and punctuation in texting…but I'm the only person I know who texts in "written English".

  • Idk, wtf ?, lmfao, hru ?, that's the extent of my consciouness 7 lingiuitic skills, except for that sentence, well, and that one too, LOL

  • I think this is a brilliant view of how communication and language evolves over time. Looking at texting as "fingered speech" and developing multi-lingual skills is a great observation. As a communication instructor, if I can get over the fact that you're not necessarily thinking about punctuation and capitalization while texting, then so can everyone else.

  • Alright, I'm a little disappointed to be honest. Language is speech and writing? I find your theory to be very limiting to what language really is. I like your observation of the uses of 'LOL', but I highly suggest you check out Mahboob's Model of language variation; he discusses his view of language and grammar and wonderfully describes the different deminsions to variation within the language (i.e. users, uses, mode, and time). This could help you develop a better understanding of why teens text the way they do now and how they develop a shared understanding of the uses of certain language.

  • I listened to him in a language series on Audible… He looks so different than I thought he did. Still a brilliant man… my fav

  • I'm afraid that McWhorter's stance on texting asserts that there's no correct way to use the English character set; and that's an egregious error. With the texting technology we possess and all of its auto-correction, suggestion, and SWYPE glory, there's even less of an excuse to write poorly.

  • I write and text properly out of respect for my reader, and I expect the same respect.

    Things such as LOL, IDK, IKR, OMG, BTW, BRB, TTYL, LMAO, TF, WTF, et cetera indicate laziness or tiredness of thought. They offer very little insight or intellectual value. If you're so rushed or pressed for the time and energy it would take to say something meaningful, perhaps you should get some rest or focus on your pressing task at hand.

  • I'm 21 and the slash is new to me(at least in the texting sense). I just double text, hit enter a couple times or if I really dgaf just start after the punctuation mark

  • evolution is inevitable….
    should humans exist beyond a certain point… speech may very well become obsolete as the brain morphs into communicating by means of neuro transmission.

    however…the bridge between that and now seems to be the present reality called TXT'ING…truncating the written words into simple emojis' and simple characters.

  • I've never heard of slash, that's a situation when you would normally just send the second part as a different text…

  • John do you know this coincidence in Portuguese language? In Brazil we have a word "né" that is the contraction of the expression "não é" which means "isn´t it?". Japanese imigrants and their descendents love it!

  • I love John McWhorter and his lecture and speaking style, but you really could make a drinking game out of the number of times he says, "and so for example" in his lectures and talks.

  • He's not saying it's not possible to text in proper English. What he's saying is that you should judge texting the way you judge speech, not writing. Young people aren't idiots. One doesn't text one's boss with the same casualness one would text a peer or a friend, just as you wouldn't SPEAK to your boss the same way you would speak to a peer or a friend. If you do know someone who is doing that then yes, they need to be corrected, but I would bet the majority have more common sense.

  • John, I wonder if you look back on this and wish you would have been more concerned about the growing informality of language now that Trump is your President.

  • Internet chatrooms have also evolved their own sort of parlance and casual dialogue in written form. When I'm online with people over chat platforms like Discord, we have a mixture of conversational English and chat slang. Some of the people I chat with use more slang then others, and among my group of college aged artist/writer peers online we have a variety of slang that tends to show up more in online chatrooms than in mobile texting conversations like "babbin" or "swol" or "fingerguns" or "chinhands" or even just a good old fashioned "keyboard smash," like so… "amuhvfgdcfrcxzesr."

  • I have always thought people who say texting is killing language need to put their critical thinking caps on.

  • So right. I LOVE text, twitter FB and YouTube speak and find it fascinating. I have always thought people who say texting is killing language need to put their critical thinking caps on.

  • 8:15 "Slash" used this way in texts, I have never come across this before. I'm wondering if this is an age thing. I am 43.
    Please reply with whether or not you have come across this before and include your age.

  • Wow yeah it flicks back and forward like conversation. Like chat. We call it chat. When I want to say I am actually laughing I say "really LOL I am actually laughing" is there a quicker way to say that?

  • Dr. McWhorter is, in my opinion, the best linguistics teacher around. He is really interesting to listen to, and he can teach you a lot. Not only is there linguistic knowledge and expertise in what he says, but there is also wit and knowledge of what is going on in the world in general. I suggest that everyone purchase and read his many books, and also buy the 4 courses he offers as part of the Great Courses series of The Learning Company. You won’t be disappointed. This man has a lot to teach, and he does so with grace, charm and unbridled efficacy.

  • Never ever heard of slash. Made me cringe when I heard this guy label me as using it lol <pragmatic particle – lol <acronym

  • This gave perspective. Often we do judge those by how well you "text" to one another. The use of a word vs the amount of commas he used. Also, I don't use lol as much of a marker but more the mood I am in. For example, if I know my text could possibly be taken negatively, I put lol. I never used slash, tho

  • So texting is adapting to compensate for the lack of intonation and body language to convey meaning and emotion more efficiently, with or w/o EMOJIS…

  • Not really worth the time it took to watch.

    It was cringe inducing when he mispronounced Japanese "ne" as he was signal how knowledgeable he is. He should have gone with the Canadian "eh" which is more relatable to English speakers and doesn't come across as trying to be a show off.

  • Look y'all. It's so simple. All communication is about transferring an internal idea from one person to another. Whether you act it, speak it, write it longhand or type or text or use hieroglyphics, the object is to "get a point aross". Therefore, what is most and only and all important is clarity and accuracy of your meaning to the other and their reception of that in ALL FORMS. So, if you text or speak or type an ambiguous communique which results in a misunderstanding, you have failed. Texting, by nature shortens the means, the modality of communication and therefore it will most probably truncate accurate meaning. But if all you want to say is OK, or LUV YA, then it's fine as a medium. So, best to use each communication form as appropriate for the depth of message required. Text if you can be clear via that medium; talk if you need a discussion; write if you want to document a well reasoned exchange.

  • He keeps on saying "… texting is …". Well yes and no. Texting is what you make of it, how you choose to use it. HIS DEFINITION of texting is the trendy, youthful abbreviated style, not the way I use it. It only takes the form of the user, not some absolutist system.

  • As "fingered speech", the danger is that the progression of texting bleeds into a generation of kids who know no other form of communication other than texting itself, a texting kind of talk, and a texting kind of long form writing which is highly abbreviated, thrifty, and therefore vague and ambiguous and practically meaningless.

  • What I don't like about texting is that it misses the subtleties of speaking that clarifies the misunderstandings that can arise from texting. I still don't understand why texting is better than talking on the phone.

  • The meaning of lol hasn't changed, it is the stupid kids who are barely educated in anything who butcher the English language, and people like you think English is evolving. It is devolving.

  • So that one black man who educated himself and can speak properly is pandering to the ghetto babble/internet lingo/poor immigrant English. Such people will drive the western culture into ruins.

  • I agree with everything here. But I gotta point out: Christopher Hitchens casually spoke in beautiful, eloquent prose paragraphs

  • the pragmatic particle "nuh?" is used in some dialects of German (Schwabish, I think, maybe others) at the end of sentences. It's used the same way that Americans use "right?" Or the same way that "eh?" is stereotypical in Canadian. There are some (gruesome) videos here on youtube about the WWII bombing of Dresden, and one of the witnesses who is interviewed uses "ne?" all over the place during her responses.

  • im a teen (16) and this is super true i use texting slang such as lol all the time and most of the time i don't even realize it or the implications behind it. also there's differences between subtle slang such as "haha" and "ahaha" and the like, or "lolll" and other things that's just come to be so natural for my age demographic that we don't realize it! so interesting, thanks for sharing

  • When I text someone, I take the time to use proper punctuation and grammar. Call me old fashioned, but even in texting.. I text like I'm writing.

  • Yes, he's right. Then, I've run into English professors who are teaching students this sort of nonsense is part of cultural diversity and identity politics, the milieu in which it is used. Nonsense.

    Technology is as much a curse as a blessing.

  • In the spirit of Norma Loquendi (“Consuetudo, jus et norma loquendi…” : The right method of speaking and pronouncing is established by custom… ), one almost has to accept that language usage levels and forms will multiply and ramify with the emergence of new platforms. Those of us who have lived through six or seven decades would be well advised to maintain the closest possible ties with our grandchildren – they may laugh at us, but they can also assist us in our effort to remain au courant.

  • Oh, academic people…. Always intellectually bringing the dumbing down of society into a relativistic prism

  • I wonder if the slash arises from folks using voice to text. they might type a / symbol to change subjects but if they're dictating and say "slash" the v2t might just insert the word there rather than the symbol. then it becomes a thing

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