Text-speak is not ruining language, expert claims

Few technologies have impacted the way humans communicate like SMS. It’s not just the convenience it affords either; many people argue that texting has influenced the evolution of the English language. After all, without it, oxforddictionaries.com probably wouldn’t list terms like ‘lol’, ‘OMG’, or ‘srsly’ alongside its other, more traditional entries.

New research from the US, however, refutes these claims by pointing out that buzzwords rarely become universal – things move too quickly for digital colloquialisms to cause any long-term harm.

To conduct the study, Mary Kohn, a professor of English at Kansas State University, analysed interviews and audio clips archived as part of the Frank Porter Graham initiative – a project that followed the growth of children from early infancy to the first stages of adulthood.

The research involved using sound waves to measure how people’s pronunciation of certain words changed over time, focusing on four different time periods when the subjects were eight, 13, 15 and 20 years old.

Professor Kohn said of the results: “The teenager subgroup did not stand out as a group from the rest of the subgroups, meaning there was nothing special about being a teenager.

“Just because you are a teenager does not mean you will change your language. Perhaps our stereotypes about how teenagers speak are often based on subgroups of teenagers that stand out to us as most distinct. We notice the kids who make bold fashion statements, so we also might notice the kids who are making dramatic linguistic changes.”

This seems to suggest the changes in language use we see so often amongst today’s youngsters are as short-term as the haircuts they sport or the pop artists they follow.

Kohn, who specialises in language variation and evolution, went on to explain that teens are prone to changing the words and pronunciations they use, but necessarily in a consistent way. “We are not eliminating the possibility teenagers are driving sound change, but we might be grossly overstating their role,” she added.

It’s interesting to note at this point that many youngsters today are actually moving away from words in favour of more visual communication. Teens are seemingly just as likely to communicate using images and emojis as they are with conventional messages.

Regardless of the long-term impact, businesses using SMS should make sure they stay on top of the latest trends in SMS communication. It’s not a great idea to use “lol” at a time when its popularity is in decline, for example.