LONG BEACH, CA—Is texting shorthand a convenience, a catastrophe for the English language, or actually something new and special? John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, sides with the latter. According to McWhorter, texting is actually a new form of speech, and he outlined the reasons why today at the TED2013 conference in Southern California.
We often hear that “texting is a scourge,” damaging the literacy of the young. But it’s “actually a miraculous thing,” McWhorter said. Texting, he argued, is not really writing at all—not in the way we have historically thought about writing. To explain this, he drew an important distinction between speech and writing as functions of language. Language was born in speech some 80,000 years ago (at least). Writing, on the other hand, is relatively new (5,000 or 6,000 years old). So humanity has been talking for longer than it has been writing, and this is especially true when you consider that writing skills have hardly been ubiquitous in human societies.
Furthermore, writing is typically not a reflection of casual speech. “We speak in word packets of seven to 10 words. It’s much more loose, much more telegraphic,” McWhorter said. Of course, speech can imitate writing, particularly in formal contexts like speechmaking. He pointed out that in those cases you might speak like you write, but it's clearly not a natural way of speaking.