The evolution of writing (and perhaps thinking)

Just working on the next issue of What’s Next. Here’s a sneaky peak…

Text messages were originally invented so that operators could test the early mobile phone networks. Now there are about 20 billion text messages circumnavigating the globe each day (plus a staggering 30 billion WhatsApp messages), each with their own special meaning for sender and receiver. What it means for our language is an evolution in how much we can say in so few words.

Typing on screens is a dominant force in the way language is changing. Just as some words are being weakened or cheapened, others have hidden complexity. One author, Tom Chatfield, carefully considers the meanings behind OMG, LOL (or lol), ROFL or ROFLMAO and says they reflect a lot more than they appear.

When people write LOL, for example, it does not mean they are laughing out loud necessarily. LOL acknowledges they are in an emotional conversation with you and making up for the fact you cannot see their face or hear their voice. It also shows they are members of your tribe and that they recognise you or your wit.

The language of text messages has found its way into the culture, just as any language would. A popular dance music band calls itself LMFAO (laughing my f— ass off) and a UK Indie band calls itself ‘Alt J’, the shortcut on an Apple keyboard that finds the symbol for its name.

The expression “for the lulz” is an interesting one, describing the fact someone does it just for the fun of it. But this usage is usually ironic, for example, “I killed him for the lulz”, and the more serious the act, the greater the lulz. The word, ‘lulz’ is known as ‘eye dialect’ because it is aimed at the eye rather than the ear.

In some ways, language has had to become tighter, rather than looser, because it is so easy to misunderstand a few words. As Chatfield says, one letter can “carry an amazing burden of significance”. (We remember one poor chap who went through purgatory because his text said “you’re pretty much the perfect girlfriend”.) He claims some young people outsource the writing of crucial texts or spend ages finding 140 characters that sound perfect but spontaneous.

All our text messages, or Twitter comments, or any other kind of screen communication, blur the boundary between public and private. Perhaps there is no privacy anymore. But people have to be very careful what they make public because there is often a serious gulf between their own private self, and the image they project on to the world’s screens.

While it is possible to project oceans of meaning into one text word, we can still communicate much, much more with just one look.

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