Finicky grammarians are quick to bemoan the unsavory act of texting. Messaging online -- without punctuation or proper spelling -- is the death of good writing, some say. The #youths, with their penchant for errant capitalization, are killing language, others lament.
According to linguist John McWhorter, however, this narrow view of texting misses the point entirely. “Texting is not writing at all,” McWhorter claims. Instead, texting -- which he dubs “fingered speech” -- is a form of communication that exists between verbal speech and writing. Far from killing language, he believes texting allows us to do something new: write like we speak.
Free of consideration for capital letters or commas, the kinds of messaging that happen on apps like Snapchat or What's App let people creatively attribute meaning to constantly shifting strings of letters, words, not to mention emoji and GIFs. It’s what McWhorter refers to as “emergent complexity.” Like slang speech, “texting is loose in its structure,” he explained in his widely-viewed TED Talk. Because of this, new terms can be introduced as quickly as old terms take on new meaning.
Take for example, the Internet-savvy term LOL. What once served as an acronym for the oft-used phrase “laugh out loud” -- What did I think of that dancing baby GIF? I LOL-ed, of course -- has been superseded by a newer and ever-expanding class of digital colloquialisms: dyyying, *dead*, can’t even. Today, we “die” as we watch a video of dogs walking in shoes for the first time. We’re, like, LITERALLY dead. In fact, we cannot even.
LOL, on the other hand, has morphed into a show of empathy, or what linguists like McWhorter refer to as a pragmatic particle. The sort of knee jerk reaction is used less as an affirmation of hilarity and more as a soft, accommodating gesture. “I’m so done with Monday,” your bestie texts. “LOL, I hear ya,” you respond. She catches the drift.
In SMS, on GChat, in Slack -- we’re regularly introduced to these novel phrases, acronyms and onomatopoeia, whose definitions are one thing today and another the next. (And yes, teens are often behind these creative twists and turns.) Many English speakers now intuitively understand that "asdfjkl;asdfjkl;" isn't a typo but an expression of unbridled excitement, that "THIS" is not just the beginning of an unfolding phrase. The desire to pack information into 140-character tweets or similarly bite-sized messages leads to fragments and rogue letters and hyperbole that we just... get.
"When texting and other forms of online communication started becoming popular 15 or 20 years ago, conditions were ripe for creating a profusion of acronyms," Naomi Susan Baron, professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, explained to The Huffington Post, noting that acronyms can be traced back to Roman times. "As a kind of insider slang, acronyms (like emoticons) enabled users to show they were members of a cognoscenti that excluded outsiders, who didn't know the symbols' meanings."
And this cognoscenti stretches across languages. Whether we’re texting in Greek or Korean, Tunisian Arabic or Canadian English, users are navigating the various ways people express amusement and compassion one acronym at a time. You’d be hard-pressed to find a language that doesn’t have a version of LOL, or an abbreviation that rings vaguely true. French speakers even use the acronym "mdr" which translates to "mort de rire." It means, of course, death from laughter.
To further explore the international world of texting -- and the complex ways people attribute meaning to slang -- we reached out to HuffPost editors around the world and asked them to send us examples of the new kinds of words, phrases and abbreviations they use in text messages or online chats. From “fico” to “osef” to “lacrou,” these are the terms that -- though many aren’t used in verbal speech -- make texting and online conversations intriguing across the globe.
Special thanks to editors at HuffPost Arabi, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Korea , Maghreb, Spain, and UK for their contributions.
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