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Nonfiction Matters
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Tell Me About Texting

Every Generation Has Its Slang

I remember when I first heard a classmate use the word "cool" to imply "hot," or when "hassle" as in "don’t hassle me, man" went from being strange to common; for that matter I remembe when I had to ask a friend who works in advertising what to "blog" meant. We have all gotten used to new words, and to the buzz words that define a time, and a generation. And that leads me to wonder about the abbreviations of the texting world. I am so behind I still have to think through common terms like LOL, IHMO. And that leads me to a broader question — do you think texting is a temporary dialect, or the start of something more significant.

Argument for temporary: texting is a product of a given moment in technology — small keypads, writing with your thumbs, the cost structure of various cell plans. We already have "smart" keypads that guess what you want to say — so you input a texting term and the device "translates" that into a regular word. As the intelligence of the machines improve, the need for abbreviations will decline.

Argument against temporary: kids like the idea that they are creating their own terminology, they don’t want their words translated; they will disable that function, or use it in some other way.

Argument for temporary: a subset of kids will, but their younger siblings will tire of this game.

Against against temporary: in fact what those younger kids will do is to further shift langue towards the hieroglphic, writing in a kind of tech-rebus where an image carries the thought, instead of the abbreviation. Just as the Semetic languages have consonants but not vowels, and you have to add in marks to indicate which vowel you mean, we will communicate in images with txt codes indicating which meaning you have in mind.

Argument for temporary: so you say, predictions that images will replace words have been all the rage throughout this decade, and have yet to prove true. In fact kids are using more words all of the time — as well as (not instead of) images, sound, youtube.

So, what do you think, is txting important, transitory, the beginning of something we are only starting to understand? (And, by the way, this whole discussion ties to the Times article I including in my last blog — that was about What Is Reading? In a sense, this is about What Is Writing?)


  1. Phrases like brb and lol have been around for over 15 years. They aren’t texting shortcuts, rather chat shortcuts. Chat technology is not going away, so these will probably end up in the OED… online version, of course.

  2. Kelly Herold says:

    I think that texting will add a few vocabulary words to the mix (Wev[s], OMG, obvi, totes), but will not change the language in any substantive syntactic way.

    In this way, texting is like any cultural movement: jazz, hippie.

    As far as English orthography is concerned, let’s face it: It can’t get any worse. We can spell the sound /aj/in “high,” “my,” eight different ways, for goodness sakes. We’ll probably just end up with MORE spelling problems, alas.

  3. Monica Edinger says:

    Just want to say I have tried several times to post a comment and keep getting a pop-up box saying that SLJ won’t allow words that are expletives, possible spam, etc. (I wanted to not the way suck is now part of the vernacular. Let me see if THIS is allowed.)

  4. Monica Edinger says:

    Interesting. So it allows suck, but not sucked? (Let me see. Still can’t figure out what was causing the problem in my original post.)

  5. Monica Edinger says:

    Just wanted to agree with Kelly and note the way my little students talk about things sucking and where THAT word comes from. (Sorry for all the posts.)

  6. Some elements of TXTing are faddish, certain words, but what would replace it? How else would folks communicate with tiny keyboards over phones and more?

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    Thanks all for you comments (and for correcting my ignorance about chatting versus texting). But Amy’s point is exactly my question — how much longer will we have tiny keyboards? Will txting disappear when we have virtual keyboards that somehow project in space — or whatever comes next?

  8. I’d argue that these are forerunners of swifter language change. TMI became not just an abbreviation, but also a communication tool to let others know what was not socially acceptable sharing. I see less tolerance or more frustration among users of these shortcuts for the “intolerance of others.” Many of the combinations that began 15 years ago and continue to evolve are really quite clever and demand a knowledge of phonetics. My friend refuses to stretch himself to figure out whenever I use a new phrase. Instead, he’ll call and demand an explanation. I did purchase new posters with these phrases for respect and being oneself. If you don’t speak the language, who’s listening?

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    I assume that languages, or at least dialects, always define a community — both by including and excluding. You are “in the know” or you are not. The question is how long this community sharing some evolved version of txting will last. For example, I suspect that the community of users of Morse code has significantly declined since the 19th century — is txting our Morse Code?

  10. so I’m writing this on iPhone in DDS’s ofc and remembering when I called LD and the call fr east coast was routed thru 6 operators–“Richmond, I have a call for Albuquerque. Will you accept?” & so on, across US. I can’t imagine how my g’kids will commuicate because I grew up when something like this iPhone was only in a box of cereal!

  11. “Will txting disappear when we have virtual keyboards that somehow project in space — or whatever comes next?”

    Ah, see that’s just it – abbreviating text began before cell phones were everywhere. It was a function of people wanting to communicate quickly (or lazily) in chatrooms, MUDs, MOOs, etc. That’s why I don’t think it’ll go away. Maybe fill-in functions will become good enough that programs will accurately auto-complete words as they are typed (the iPhone is okay with this, but not great) so abbreviations will become unnecessary… Until then, however, txting is probably here to stay!

  12. Something else to think about: There’s a whole other set of technology-based slang coming out of online gaming and other tech-geek arenas. Some of these come from mis-typings, such as “teh” (for the) and “pwned” (for owned, as in “I owned you”). These are even starting to show up in pop culture: Cory Doctorow uses the former in Little Brother and the latter has been showing up on TV and in movies.

  13. Marc Aronson says:

    I wonder if these verbal shifts are a product of Moore’s Law — because computers change so quickly, there is always a cutting edge of users. And they seek to form a community and distinguish themselves. The forms of these languages vary, but there is a constant linquistic froth because of the exponential rate of change in hard and software.

  14. Perhaps it’s not just that the technology changes so quickly, but also that language itself is so easily amended. These two forces seem to feed off one another, all the while feeding that desire to create a language that is personal and inclusive. And now that so much conversation is happening with people we never have (and possibly never will) meet, these slang terms become markers as to who is really part of the in-crowd.

  15. Marc Aronson says:

    so language defines the community, rather than the community defining the language as it might in a face to face world.