“What is texting doing to language?” Suprasegmentals and acronyms in English texting

By Melissa J. Enns

In our last class, we talked about some effects of globalization on language. In the course of the discussion, a question was raised as to how expressive one actually can be when using mobile keyboards with predictive text. Based on my experience, I would argue that despite the limitations imposed by predictive text and autocorrect, “text speak” is a phenomenon in which (in particular) young people enact identities through creative use of acronyms and techniques to achieve the effects of suprasegmentals such as intonation and stress (see O’Grady and Archibald (2009) below). For copyright and privacy purposes, the following examples are my adaptations of the types of text samples I have seen, not word-for-word quotations.

First, let us consider acronyms. I typically find them uncapitalized, so that I first stumble over the odd “word” and then have to go to UrbanDictionary.com to find out what kids are saying now. Omg, there are bajillions of! As the previous sentence demonstrates, using acronyms can imply strong intonational qualities that are less readily available through conventional text. Acronyms can also identify the speaker (yes, I am using the term “speaker” even though technically the speaker is typing) as belonging to a particular group and displaying particular attitudes. Use of the right acronyms for the audience sends a message about the speaker’s texting “street cred” and can even make her sound sick af (“very cool”). Currently, the acronym af (“as f***”) seems to be highly productive among young adults, likely displaying a degree of social resistance in its casual use of a verbal swear as a noun in a comparative construction. I would love to further analyse the sociolinguistic implications of acronyms, but for the moment, space does not permit.

That brings us to suprasegmentals. There are soooo many ways that they can be expressed in texting. One way that I see with enormous frequency is the repetition of letters, often in the dominant vowel of the stressed syllable, as in the previous sentence. These serve to elongate the syllable or word, thereby giving it similar intonational emphasis to that which it would receive in spoken communication. Some other examples include:
Heyyyyyyyyy yoooooooou! (“Hey you!”)
Yaaaaaassssssss! (“Yes!”)
Uggghhhhh, I have waaaaay too much homework. (“[Groan] I have way too much homework.”)
Dooooon’t let me do that againnnnnn. (“Don’t let me do that again.”)
OOOMMMGGGGGGGG! You did it!!! (“OMG! You did it!”)

As I understand it, the more times a letter is repeated, the stronger the intended emphasis. These repetitions, along with selective use of all capitals (as in Awww, not HIM!), serve to add a wealth of intonational features with the intended purpose of conveying subtle meanings that would otherwise be lost in texting. Another really fun application of these techniques is conveying sarcasm (as in Yes, I totally looooooove construction). Despite the existence of predictive text and autocorrect, I see frequent and productive use of both acronyms (including many that would not yet be in predictive text dictionaries) and letter repetition and capitals to achieve certain social effects that would normally be aided by suprasegmentals.

In closing, I would love to further examine identity enactment in texting, and I would love to hear your thoughts. What kinds of sociolinguistic functions do you see enacted through texting? How should we describe and study the texting phenomenon? Most importantly, do you think we can make productive use of it in the classroom, and if so, how?
References:

O’Grady, W. & Archibald, J. (2009). Contemporary Linguistic Analysis. 6th ed. Toronto: Pearson Longman. (Suprasegmentals defined and discussed on pp. 40-45).

(2014). “i loooooove you.” Retrieved from https://memecrunch.com/meme/4PAEI/i-loooooove

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8 thoughts on ““What is texting doing to language?” Suprasegmentals and acronyms in English texting”

  1. Lots to talk about here, Melissa! Identity enactment in texting would be very fascinating to explore. There has been some research on fluid multilingual practices in texting, but that is a bit different from looking at texting in English. I wonder if there are more and less standard variants of English texting (my guess is a firm yes) and how texters play with that knowledge to perform, navigate, and negotiate different identities. As ESL teachers, I think it is valid to make space in our teaching for text language. Wouldn’t this help give our learners tools they need to participate in, or at least, understand the language practices of a particular community?

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    1. Melissa- I agree! Learning how to incorporate text speak into the learning process in a productive way could be a fun challenge. I would be very interested to take a look at some of the multilingual texting studies as well; my phone auto-predicts words in English, Spanish, and French, regardless of which of those languages I have the keyboard set on. On the one hand, it is very easy to text in any of the three languages at any given moment, but on the other, people occasionally get some pretty bizarre words from the wrong language when I don’t watch my swiping!

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    2. Interesting post! As an ESL teacher, I do think it’d be good to incorporate what’s going on in terms of text speech. Actually, I find that a lot of my students are quite well-versed in ‘online English’ because they spend so much time on social media and websites. In fact, I often correct written assignments where my students have tried to include acronyms such as “OMG”, “LOL” and other non-standard words and expressions. I think it’d be good to use examples of text-speech and ‘online English’ to highlight the differences between standard written English in a formal setting and written English in social settings. I do this sometimes as feedback, but usually it’s to direct their attention to the differences between speech and writing when I notice students writing things like “Imma” or “I’m gonna” in an opinion essay or other formal text. To do the same thing but with text speech, and perhaps to create activities based around the differences, could be really useful and – dare I say it – fun for the students.

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      1. Melissa- Thank you for your feedback, Matthew. Yes, I agree that using text speak to highlight differences between formal and informal English could not only be fun, but also help to increase learner awareness of what language use is required in different contexts. Who knows–it may even stimulate their interest in self-correcting their formal English to know why it is used when and where it is and what effects that may have in different situations.

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  2. Melissa- Sorry for the incomplete example sentence (“Omg, there are bajillions of!”), guys. My tablet died as I was touching up my draft, leaving it half posted with a mistake. Also, feel free to check out a fun meme I found to illustrate. 🙂

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  3. Interesting post!
    As an English learner, when I first learn the texting, I felt that I am more identified by the language that I learned in that I felt the texting language is a casual language shared by close friends. When I first texted LOL to my English native speakers, I felt I am more engaged in English culture, instead of being excluded by it.
    As a non-native English ESL speaker, I find that it is very interesting to engage texting in my class. When I first learn English, I did not know texting words like LOL and made mistakes. However, when I shared my story with my students, it is quite beneficial for their English learning. In this way, students can be motivated by some interesting texting words that they can use them in daily life. Personally, I do not suggest learning texting at a formal class. Instead, it could serve as extracurricular fun stuff. For example, when teaching students how to leave a note, what’s difference and what the information we want to tell if we add ASAP (as soon as possible) or FYI (for your information)? We can also leave five to ten minutes to discuss the texting language about numbers, such B4 (before) and 2morro (tomorrow). Or let the students guess the meaning behind the texting languages. In this way, language study would be motivated. And it’s more fun for both teachers and students.

    –comment by Monica

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melissa-
      Thank you for sharing your experience and ideas, Monica! That is an interesting point you bring up about how not knowing “text speak” can actually be a source of social exclusion for the langauge learners. I also like the idea of giving students abbreviations and acronyms and letting them guess the meanings. It could be a good warm-up activity, and I think it could provide part of the scaffolding for, say a vocabulary list that includes the word “acronym” or a discussion on differences in language use between formal and informal settings.

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  4. Hi Melissa,
    Very fascinating topic and nicely analyzed and extended! Interestingly enough, I notice that any connection made to technology is always controversial and debatable. It is the same case for the relationship between language and technology. The influence of texting culture on language makes me think of a saying, “language has a life of its own” and I completely agree. Language comes and goes. No one can stop it. There is formal language and informal language, but there is no bad language. Every language or language culture comes for a reason or with a function. The language we use today surely will be deemed as inappropriate and even laughed at by ancient people who use classical English. Since the trend is unstoppable, we certainly should give some space for texting language in classroom. Thank you for picking this topic and prompting thinking!

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