Those narrow-minded, prescriptivist . . . texters?

Texting encourages us to be creative and unconstrained with our language, right? Traditional print media, fettered as they are by the bounds of Standard English, promote more rigid acceptability and grammaticality judgments, don’t they? Aren’t those prescriptivist editors and stodgy old style columnists just concerned with dictating how we speak and write?

Not so says some new research from University of Calgary linguist Joan Lee.

Lee’s Master’s thesis tested students with varying levels of exposure to text/instant messaging versus traditional media (newspapers, magazines, literature, nonfiction). She hypothesized that those with comparatively more exposure to the free-form nature of ‘text speak’ would be comparatively more lenient in their acceptance of novel and deviate forms of words, both morphological and orthographic. What she found was the opposite.  Students who had spent more time reading books and newspapers were more likely to judge novel words or deviate forms of words as acceptable. Those who had more exposure to text speak tended to be considerably more rigid and constrained in their acceptability judgments.

This result is moderately mind-boggling. Think of all you know about texting and compare that to your expectations of the effects of traditional media on language use. From texters, we see such classics as ‘wot r u doin 2day‘ and ‘ur stoopid dood‘ and ‘kewl‘ and, perhaps best of all, kthxbai‘. There’s a bunch of research discussing why texters say and spell things like this. In the preview of her thesis linked above, Lee cites one such study that says people are trying to be playful, spontaneous, socially interactive, and even creative. Compare this to what you read in the New York Times, where there’s actually someone who writes articles nitpicking the grammar of other traditional-print-media articles, including sometimes the NYTimes itself!

I haven’t read the whole 150-page thesis yet, but it seems there are several plausible explanations for what’s going on. One idea is that for a novel form to be acceptable to texters, it must be a novel form commonly seen in text speak. So while there may not be the same types of grammatical constraints, there are conventions that are respected nonetheless. Or perhaps text speak is still free-form and not subject to constraints in the ways that traditional media might be, but free-formedness doesn’t actually equate with creativity. So while you’re tossing standardized grammar out the window, you’re not necessarily looking for the most precise, novel, creative word to express a given idea. You may be using words with odd morphology and spelling, but you’re probably not reaching deep into the dictionary to find those words. This means that readers of text speak don’t often see words they’re unfamiliar with and thus don’t often have to figure what those unfamiliar words might mean.

If, on the other hand, you’re a big-time reader of traditional print media, you probably encounter unusual words all the time. To figure out what they mean, you either infer their meaning from context or use your knowledge of productive morphology like -ity or -ness. This could explain why texters are ok with ur and kthxbai and wot, but not some of the novel forms that Lee proposed in her study, like canality and groundness. If you read and don’t text, the textisms may be ridiculous to you, but you might be able to come up with a meaning for canality and groundness that makes sense, and thus conclude they’re acceptable words.

I’m sure much more will be said on this front in the near future. For now, I think it’s enough to note this interesting bit of research and sign off — TTYL, folks.