An essay by Noelle McManus
In twelfth grade, I was bused off to a local college with the other members of my high school newspaper club. Tour guides ushered us inside a lecture hall, where we were to hear from the communications department head. He sidled into the room emptyhanded and straddled a folding chair. For the next twenty minutes or so, he treated us to an improvised speech about how our generation was ruining the English language.
“You text,” he told us, as if it were a revelation. “You text and text and text and throw grammar out the window. Kids don’t read anymore. They don’t know how to spell.” Slowly, he leaned back, a smug grin playing at his lips, and mentioned, “You know, if my daughters ever use that ‘text speak’ when messaging me, I refuse to respond until they type it correctly.”
“You text,” he told us, as if it were a revelation. “You text and text and text Correctly. What a word to use. I bit the inside of my cheek and continued to listen to this man tell us we were doing ourselves a disservice, refusing to use our brain power—in other words, allowing ourselves to become stupid. His lecture finished, he sent us away with a wave and a self-satisfied smile, clear that he had enlightened us to new avenues of thought. But all I could think of was how steadfastly I disagreed.
“You text,” he told us, as if it were a revelation. “You text and text and text Many people fear that the changes in language fostered by texting will erode modern youth’s capacity to communicate. This concern is not new; in fact, it has existed as long as language has.
Many people fear that the changes in language fostered by texting will erode To understand why such changes are natural, one must understand how our world came to have as many idioms as it does. Each individual language had a complex beginning. Speakers of Vulgar Latin, for instance, were looked down on by the educated scholars of the time, similar to how we young “texters” are viewed by many modern academics. These common speakers, however, did not sacrifice or lose their ability to communicate effectively, nor did their dialect bring about some kind of intellectual dark age. Instead, Vulgar Latin evolved into what we know today as the romance languages: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Catalan, and Romanian—beautiful, flowing tongues of love and poetry placed on lofty pedestals in American society.
This brings up another reality that may upset language primitivists: languages die. Latin is no longer in colloquial use. Neither is Sanskrit, Old English, Ancient Greek, Aramaic, or a slew of others that gave birth to modern languages. These departures are nothing to mourn over. Of course the old languages were wonderful, and so are their legacies. Now, how could any of this be related to today’s “text speak”? Isn’t sending a message like “lmk tm :)” only a corruption of English? An indication of laziness? All it is is a mess of misspellings and grammatical mistakes, right? Wrong.
In reality, text speak has the complexities of a dialect. Its native speakers— young people like myself—are well-versed in its rules. After all, we can scarcely remember life before smart phones and internet; text speak, to us, is something fluid and poignant and right, useful in areas that Mainstream English is not. A reader can easily tell the writer’s tone based on presence or lack of misspellings, excess of punctuation, usage of abbreviations, and other nuances that leave outsiders scratching their heads. For example, there now exists a divide between the formal case “you” and informal case “u.” “I’m ready!!” clearly shows more excitement than “I’m ready” and “I’m ready.” adds a layer of solemnity. Wellknown acronyms like “lol” have almost taken on the role of punctuation to either diffuse any supposed seriousness or show passive-aggressiveness.
This oddly complicated way of writing didn’t appear out of nowhere. It emerged to fulfill a need. Typed sentences on their own can do little to explain one’s emotional state or feeling about a topic, both things that can be gleaned easily from face-to-face communication. Therefore, texting evolved to express as much feeling as necessary using as few letters as possible. Typed emoticons or emojis are not indolent placeholders for people who don’t understand writing; they are replacements for the body language and tone of voice the bare written word lacks. Even paragraph breaks are utilized to simulate the pauses that would normally occur in spoken discussions.
And all that is only the tip of the iceberg. In truth, young people know text speak so well that many of us they have difficulty explaining how, exactly, we understand it. Like a native language, we find it quicker to read and comprehend than formal English. Its so-called “simplification” is merely an evolution.
Another dialect of English that has long been considered non-standard is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), popularly known as ebonics (a portmanteau of “ebony” and “phonics”). Its unique grammar and vocabulary has led some to see it as a lesser form of English. Though AAVE’s origins are not fully known, to me at least, it is generally accepted that it began as a mixture between southern American English and the various languages of creole people forcibly brought here to be slaves. What to some may seem like grammatical errors in AAVE actually follow specific rules. It is an “aspect heavy” linguistic variety, as opposed to mainstream English’s tense heaviness. Aspect is a focus on the progression and whole makeup of an event rather than the time or present of the event. Therefore, the sentence, “She been working,” means, “She had been working for a long period of time.” “She be steady working,” means, “She consistently and intensely works.” Emphasis also plays a critical role in imparting the meaning of a statement. “She been working,” for example, can be transformed to mean “She has been working” if emphasis is moved from been to working. These conventions and many others found in AAVE—including zero copula, which is shown when one says, “She at home,” rather than “She is at home” —have their roots in Caribbean creoles (stable languages that are a mashup of earlier tongues), in which habitual verbs and omission of “to be” are common. Thus, AAVE is the result of a story that mainstream American English cannot tell, the product of centuries of enslavement and the culture and communication that burst through the cracks. Far from a “dumbing down” or regression from proper language, it is the very epitome of innovation and evolution.
Despite this fact, speakers of AAVE still struggle to be respected and taken seriously in academic fields. To this day, disproportionate numbers of African American children are needlessly placed in special education by teachers and staff who don’t understand the dialect’s intricacy or how it conveys thought. Yes, AAVE has a logical structure, but many of us, even among educators, have not been taught that language is flexible—that a person’s dialect reflects much, much more than their intelligence. By contrast, an inability to accept and “read” the versatility of language speaks to a lack of intelligence.
Which brings me back to text speak. Though it isn’t an “ethnolect” like AAVE, it is still associated with a very specific group of people: young people. Its properties, which so many have gone to such great lengths to criticize, have existed in various forms throughout history. Text speak makes use of initializations (recorded in Ancient Greece and Rome), pictograms (most notable in storytelling cave paintings), and logograms (used in Chinese, Japanese, and certain Egyptian hieroglyphs).
I am, of course, biased. After all, my text messages are filled with abbreviations, run-ons, and fragments that would make any language purist feel ill. I can say with certainty, however, that while people love to be angry about language, what they seem to forget is that language adjusts itself to suit the needs of its speakers. It is not a static entity. Rather, as foundational linguist Edward Sapir stated in his 1921 book, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech: “Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.”
I’m 18 years old and about to begin my second year of college majoring in linguistics. I have much to learn. I know I must grow used to the neverending complexities of academia: the need to stay quiet and listen, to respect those who came before you, and to trust in the word of your elders. Even so, I resent being told that the natural branching out of language is something to fear and prevent. I welcome text speak. I welcome AAVE. I welcome the transformation of my language. If, one day, English is a dead language, so be it. It will have been replaced by something the population needs even more.
Noelle McManus is an editorial intern at the Women’s Review of Books and a linguistics major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst actively studying Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and—soon enough—German. In addition to foreign language study, she writes fiction and poetry in an effort to show the beauty of words in all their forms.