Is texting a curse?

Maria Isabel Garcia
Does texting erode language?

One lazy day, my dog ate my dictionary. He really did. When I got to him, he had gone up to chewing up to “P”. But I had no choice after that but to throw away that humongous word library. One, because it (the dictionary, not my dog!) just had to be euthanized and second, well, there was an online, updatable, therefore more useful version. But come to think of it, why do we need dictionaries?

We need dictionaries to know what existing words mean. But there is something that they cannot do – they cannot keep up with the birth of words. It is like seeing stars. What you can see is necessarily only the past because it takes time for the light to reach us. The ones who write dictionaries can only capture words as they have been used. But they cannot capture the birth of words in real time. For those who need liberation from their life-long ties with dictionaries, I recommend you watch a  lively Ted Talk by language historian Anne Curzan to hasten the process.

I got to thinking about this because there have been so many words that have been born and are still being born by texting. By the time these words get in the dictionary, they have become passé.  But many, including myself, have wondered whether these words born from texting (including chatting online) are on a warpath to erode language or perhaps even our abilities to think. But so far, the answer is NO. A study last year, showed that texting among school children did not significantly affect their grammar or even their cognitive abilities.

But why do we even ask that question when we know that languages have come and gone before? Linguist John McWhorter says it is because digital technologies now allow us to speak with our fingers and this confuses us to think that texting is writing. He says that texting is not writing but really “fingered speech.”

He pointed out that if you record casual conversations, you will notice that we tend to speak in packets of 7-10 words – not in treatise form. If someone takes on an oratorical tone in a conversation, others will most likely tune out or wonder about your enormous desire to attract negative attention. This is because speaking is a social activity – an exchange in real time, with very little time for reflection. “Writing” is necessarily a more conscious activity, in that you can expound on your thought at length and methodically. Writing enables the writer to go back and forth what she has written to see if the invisible thread is still there connecting all the words she is writing. Speaking is more like a laser sword fight– you just have to hold your own and swing it in and out in real time. We humans are far more adept with speaking than writing since we have been speaking far longer in our existence than we have been writing.

But speech is language. And that makes texting a vital and dynamic language. It has all the hallmarks of speech, including what McWhorter calls “pragmatic particles” – those little words that bookmark our utterances as the “lahs” of Singaporeans, the “nes” of Japanese and “gyuds” of Visayan “bas” or Tagalogs.  For texting, it is words like “LOLs” which have become more than literally funny reactions but like laughing itself – which has been proven to be what we humans do mostly as a signal that we “get it” and not because we find things funny.

And just like a living language, texting will morph as we humans morph in the way we speak. As long as we are engaged in this unique form of “fingered speech”, we are evolving with a language whose future seems to be exciting.

But there are languages that are really disappearing with the rate being one in every 14 days. With currently 7,000 languages in existence, most are not being spoken anymore. By the next century, experts predict that only half of that will be in existence. With those languages, we also say farewell to the knowledge that is expressed in those languages. That is what a new language like texting cannot do. It cannot unearth knowledge, at least not to the extent that it was revealed by another older language. This is further tied to the fact that disappearing languages is associated with disappearing varieties of life.

I met an anthropologist in a conference late last year who made me close my eyes and imagine all the kinds of exchanges happening with the migration of people around the world. I think about that now and think of all the words that are uttered, married and bred in those exchanges. They will form new languages that any linguist could never catch up with. But they could record those that are being lost so that we have a trove to get back to when we hit dead ends with the languages we have birthed. And that is what they are doing.

Words are so human.  You speak it and it will be one day be written. This means you are one of the writers of dictionaries. LOL. –