Does Texting Limit Your Vocabulary?

The popularity of texting may have expanded the English language with abbreviations like “LOL” and “ROFL,” but is it actually limiting our vocabulary? Research conducted by Joan Lee, a linguistics student at the University of Calgary in Canada suggest that it might be.

The abbreviations used in text messages irritate language curmudgeons to no end, so Ms. Lee assumed that people who texted frequently were linguistic iconoclasts, willing to make up new words on the fly. As she told the Calgary Herald:

“I had a hypothesis that because there are a lot of acronyms and novelties in texting language, that people who texted more would be more flexible or casual about what they considered acceptable.”

To test this hypothesis, she rounded up some college students and gave them a questionnaire to gauge how much texting they did. Then, she presented them with a mix of real and made-up words to test how accepting they were of words they had not encountered before. As she explained, the results defied her expectations:

“People who texted accepted fewer words while people who read traditional media accepted more words. People who read more traditional print media were generally more accepting of real words and fictitious words.”

Why is that? According to Lee, people who text more may tend to read less. Reading exposes you to many different types of language and expands your vocabulary, which makes it easier to accept new words. As she put it,

“Exposure to print media gives people exposure to more variety of words, or difficult words, which may be helping people who read more frequently to interpret words they’ve never seen before. People who are texting more may not be getting that exposure to all that variety.”

Texting may seem like a secret language to people who aren’t familiar with it, but it’s not. The purpose of that jumble of acronyms and abbreviations is not to create new words, but rather to more efficiently communicate words that already exist. Or, as Lee explained to Psych Central , “Textisms represent real words which are commonly known among people who text.”

Should we be concerned about this? Possibly. Remember, it’s normal and healthy for a language to change over time. If it were not, we’d all still be talking like this:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

That’s the first bit of the prologue of Beowulf, in Old English.

Image Source: Attribution Some rights reserved by nate steiner

A New Language for Texting

LOL, BRB, ROTFL…text messaging and instant messaging has a language all its own.  But it didn’t seem good enough for Kai Staats, the inventor of  iConji, a new, hieroglyphic-like language strictly for text messaging. iConji has an “alphabet” of pictures, each representing a word or a group of related words. There are 1,185 symbols, each of which has been translated into English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese. Users are allowed to submit new pictures, which might come to mean different things in different cultures.

So, what’s the advantage of using iConji over standard text messaging abbreviations? Staats explained to Fox News why he likes using iConji to communicate:

“It’s just fun to use. Using homonyms and plays-on-words, iConji messages are often quite humorous as well as informative. Whether you are sending a complete sentence with proper grammar to a co-worker, or a simple, one-character message inviting a friend for a drink after work, receiving an iConji message always causes me to smile.”

That does sound like fun, but will iConji become the new standard for texting?

Alan Timberlake, the chair of Columbia University’s Linguistics Department, thinks that even with 1,185 characters, the language still may not be expressive enough:

“Think of emoticons and abbreviations like ‘lol.’ They can’t express everything. It seems to be quite difficult to learn a large number of distinct symbols (learning Chinese characters takes non-natives much longer than learning words in a language with an alphabet). In short, if it works, which means if people use it and develop it, let’s congratulate them, but the project has built-in limitations.”

I could see iConji becoming popular among certain groups who crave the exclusivity of learning a “secret language,” like teens with nosy parents. But for everyday use, it seems unlikely that most people are going to want to learn 1,185 new symbols just to do something that millions of people already do everyday.

How to Text in 4 Languages

OMG, BRB TTY…does that make sense to you? If you text message or use instant messaging, you probably didn’t even have to think twice about it. Texting has its own language, kind of like a secret code. Make that languages, actually. The desire to say as much as possible in as few letters as possible is universal, and each language has its own version of abbreviations for use when sending IM’s and text messages. Here are some examples (via Wikipedia, Matador Travel and David Crystal’s Txting: the Gr8 Db8):


  • Jajaja / jejeje / jijiji: LOL or “laughing out loud”
  • X: Short for “por,” means “for” in English
  • Muak / muac / bs / besi2 / bx : Short for “besitos,” means “kisses”
  • Grax / gr: Short for “gracias,” means “Thanks”
  • Ktal: Short for “Que tál?,” means “what’s up?”
  • A2: Short for “Adios,” means “goodbye”
  • Hl: Short for “hola,” means “hello”

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