Fingered Speech

It’s easy to nod your head in full agreement when you hear someone bemoaning the corruption of (English) language — the decline of literacy — caused by texting, especially by those teenagers obsessed with smartphones. It’s quite common to scoff at their incessant initialism that seems to crop up a new “word” — like LOL and BRB — at a rate faster than our ability to keep up with them. Their utter disregard for capitalization and punctuation induce ridicule and even derision among the cultural pessimists who are quick to deplore anything and everything that is new and different than how it used to be.

While we grapple with this overcoming intuitive sensation that language (in specific), and culture (in general) is deteriorating, we conveniently overlook the fact that virtually every generation believed that people are not up to the standards of their parents and grandparents. Texting is yet another example, apparently, which exposes our pessimistic bias. In a thought-provoking TED talk (linked below) linguist John McWhorter discusses how – in spite of what our gut feeling suggests – texting is not a modern scourge. In fact, it might just be “a linguistic miracle happening right under our noses.” To comprehend why this might be the case, to grasp the reasons behind the emergent complexity of texting, you have to zoom out a bit, and start with understanding the difference between written and spoken language. [Here’s a fun fact: If humanity has existed for 24 hours, writing came about at 11:07 pm.]

I recommend you watch this short (13-minutes) video for more details, but here’s the gist of it: McWhorter offers a novel point of view that doesn’t constrain texting as purely a written form of language. Instead, texting is a case of ‘writing as we speak’. It’s fingered speech, if you will. Just like how we don’t bother about capitalization and punctuation when we talk with each other in person, texting is also a form of spoken language with a very casual make-up, with its own rules, structure and vocabulary. While texting may be violating existing grammar rules, it’s developing its own set of complex, dynamic, and rich linguistic repertoire. And it’s happening at such a fast rate that not only we struggle to keep up with it, we fail to recognize the profundity of this possibly miraculous linguistic development.

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2 responses to “Fingered Speech

  1. I am one of those “cultural pessimists”, however I had never looked at it from McWhorter’s angle.I must admit that LOLs, TTYs and BRBs are the colonization of a new avenue of communication.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • It takes an extra effort to look beyond our innate, cognitive biases and appreciate the value of a new development, such as texting. Glad you enjoyed the post and POV.

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