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

4 replies
  1. Meg
    Meg says:

    In my opinion, the fact that languages change should be accepted. If there are people willing to go down the LOL and ROTFL road, good luck! But language change should not be labelled as language limitation.

    • Alison Kroulek
      Alison Kroulek says:

      Right, Meg. But the point is, the study found that the only type of linguistic change that people who text often willingly accept is abbreviations like “LOL.” These aren’t new words, they are shorthand for existing words. The frequent texters were less likely to accept new words.

      Of course, more research needs to be done before we can really draw any conclusions about how texting might affect the rate of language change. This was just one small study.

  2. John M.
    John M. says:

    Pretty interesting study, though a more experimental one would tell us more.

    Also, I realize the title is meant to be an open-ended question, but the study itself (based on what I’ve read about it) really just addresses a correlation. Anyway, as you say, it’s limited in its scope but hopefully it will inspire more people to study the phenomenon.


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