Why Texting "LOL" May Be Making You Smarter

Linguist John McWhorter defended the language of most teenage girls (and quick-typing adults) in his TED talk.

Teachers and parents alike bemoan texting as the fall of literacy, turning writing into an informal landscape that neglects the tenets of language. But during his TED talk, linguist John McWhorter introduced a more positive view of the language-changing phenomenon: Texting is actually a "linguistic miracle happening right under our noses."

McWhorter argued that language is not necessarily the written word. "If humanity existed for 24 hours, writing only came around at 11:07 p.m.," he said. So the rest of that time was taken up by the spoken word, the natural conversational tone that doesn't always come through in writing.

In time, though, texting has made it possible to mimic the cadence of a conversation with its near instantaneous messaging ability. And through this mode of writing the way we speak has led to our language developing things like LOL. Most people don't use LOL when they're actually laughing out loud. McWhorter believes it's become something more subtle than that, a way of communicating empathy without the physical gestures that would normally do that job.

"Emergent complexity, this is what we're seeing in this fingered speech," he said.

And that's a good thing. It's often tossed around that being bilingual is good for your mind—and even makes you smarter—but so is being bidialectal. McWhorter calls texting an expansion of linguistic repertoire, which will only keep expanding.

"If I could go into the future, to 2033, I would ask to see a sheaf of texts written by 16-year-old girls," McWhorter says. "I want to see where language has developed since our times."

[Photo by Flickr user Summer Skyes 11]

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6 Comments

  • Jamie

    While I am still opposed to writing textspeak outside of texting/personal social media, I can't help but remember that even Socrates didn't like the idea of writing at all! He thought writing instead of relying on speaking would be detrimental to society and culture. So I wonder if the opposition of textspeak is just stubbornness to accept the evolution of communication like Socrates.

  • Camferrin

    Whether or not you like texting or the evolution of language associated with this growing medium of communication, you cannot ignore the increased efficiency of 'txtspk.'  I'm not saying its appropriate for all situations but I do agree that it represents a very interesting phenomenon.  The fact that entire sentences and even emotions can be communicated in only a few letters is pretty amazing!

  • Christina Gleason

    For the most part, I despise "txtspk," but I see what the author is getting at here. I can type a sentence that has two entirely different meanings depending on whether or not I add "LOL" at the end. Like emoticons, things like LOL have helped us communicate MEANING better through writing. Since we have not yet developed a sarcasm font or punctuation, LOL elicits the tone that is absent without voice or expression for context. 

    Now, if someone were to ONLY text in acronyms and lazy shortcuts like "u r gr8," then that is, indeed, a dumbing down of language. Functional shorthand, however, is quite innovative.

  • tcliff1

    Trying to picture a world where conversation has been reduced to acronyms. I don't see how that makes anyone smarter, in fact it makes me sad to think that the author considers this the dawn of a new era

  • Harrison

    The fallacy of the author is in presupposing that a language resulting from the texts of 16 yr old girls is desirable progress and an improvement. Abbreviations and acronyms, the driving forces behind the shorthand in texting, do not make necessarily make communication richer and more nuanced. Just look at any governmental or military memo or manual with their profusion of both. The opposite hypothesis, that texting shorthand is a dumbing-down of English, is more supportable.

  • Dannel Gomiller

     Language is an ever growing and changing medium.  What is your definition of "richer"?  What is your definition of nuanced?  The author explicitly states that phrases such as LOL are allowing for tone in writing that was hard to get before, sounds nuanced to me.