"txt-speak" appeared because of the need to fit a communication into 160 characters.

"Emoticons" appeared due to the need to convey an emotional context with your message so that it is read correctly (many times I've written an email and found that it has been read in a totally different manner than I wrote it).

Given that the only thing that is static about the English language is its name, and that there are many variations of it within England alone, does the new-ish phenomenon of txt-speak and emoticons really pose any threat to language?

Even though emoticons could be seen as a return to "picture-words" and "txt-speak" a return to phonetic spellings, is there anything other than the medium they grew from that would separate these from normal language evolution?

  • 1
    "txt-speak" is not actually as new as we like to believe. There is evidence of it as far back as the early-mid 1800s
    – acattle
    Oct 24, 2012 at 6:28
  • @acattle I see your point, but I think that this might be different. It's language which is novel for the sake of being novel, as opposed to being forced to change by some force. In this case, that the media changed and so a new form of communication had to develop to use if efficiently.
    – BanksySan
    Oct 24, 2012 at 9:29
  • I would argue that they simply repurposed an existing phenomena and the wide spread of these technologies is what brought it to the masses. This in no way means that txt-speak isn't worth studying, I just wanted to challenge your presupposition.
    – acattle
    Oct 24, 2012 at 14:47

2 Answers 2


does the new-ish phenomenon of txt-speak and emoticons really pose any threat to language?

I think, it's natural evolution of the language, and it exposes no threats.

Languages evolve.

In fact, languages never stop developing (except Latin). New words appear, new semantic constructs arise, others fade out or disappear. You can't stop this process.

We all use "i.e.", "e.g.", "etc.", "$", "&", and it made no harm to the language.

is there anything other than the medium they grew from that would separate these from normal language evolution?

It happened before. On paper.

Languages, likewise all instruments, adopt to answer changing requirements. There was an objective need to reduce the number of symbols entered, and the language responded this very need.


Look at the ancient texts. They are full of scribal abbreviations which took place for very same reason: cost of the media.

Also, if it has not ruined the languages before, why should we consider it a threat today?

Emoticons (smileys) are part of this process

You are correct, emoticons seem to be an interesting phenomenon as they are actually ideographic symbols appearing in alphabetic scripts. They evolve exactly the same way as the ideographic symbols have evolved. Their goal is to convey a certain meaning while using minimum of the space.

Save button

What do you see on this image? Of course, a Save button. But what exactly is depicted here? Someone young enough may have never seen a diskette, but still, they know the context this image conveys.

  • Would you say that icons fell in the same category as emoticons?
    – BanksySan
    Oct 24, 2012 at 9:36
  • @BanksySan Well, they both seem to be "picture words", except that emoticons are "drawn" with ASCII symbols. Oct 25, 2012 at 23:36
  • Icons tend to represent a thing or an action. Save, Folder etc. The same is true on road signs, icons for railways, danger etc. An emoticon conveys context. It tells the reader how to interpret what you are saying. Spoken communication does this with voice tone and gestures. Emoticons are more like punctuation than words. :) means I mean this to be interpreted light hardedly, ;), cheeky, or edgy, in the same way that a ? would ask the reader to read the sentence in the style of a question, or ! an expletive. Could it be said that emoticons are punctuation?
    – BanksySan
    Oct 30, 2012 at 15:14
  • @BanksySan I like your idea on punctuation; it seems to be very accurate definition. I think you may raise another question to know what others think. Oct 30, 2012 at 22:27

What we tell undergraduates in LING 101 is that the conventions of written language are not the object of linguistic investigation. But this might be a bit of an oversimplification (and I wonder if others here would agree). After all, corpus linguistics is a very fruitful approach to language research, on the assumption that the texts collected in corpora represent the writers' language experience, even though they may not fully represent their "competence". Now, what gets collected into corpora is usually not text messages or chat histories, presumably because they don't reflect spoken language use very well.

But I think it can be useful to think of the language of these mediums as a sort of register, in which case it could be in the range of sociolinguistics. A few months ago I saw a talk by sociolinguist Sali Tagliamonte on IM language. Some googling reveals this article (pdf). I haven't read it, but if it is similar to the talk I head, it might be of interest. There might also be a newer incarnation that you could look for.


Tagliamonte, Sali & Derek Denis (2008). Linguistic ruin? LOL! Instant messaging and teen language. In: American Speech, Vol. 83, No. 1, Spring 2008. doi 10.1215/00031283-2008-001

  • Writing systems is certainly a subject that linguists deal with. But writing systems change independently, and for different reasons, than languages. Writing systems are technological, and when technology changes, they change with them or become obsolete. Look at any handwriting systems, like Latin or Chinese, for instance. txt and l33t are just another example, and no more dangerous than the shift from long s to short s in English printing; i.e, not at all. Oct 24, 2012 at 12:20
  • @JohnLawler Sure, that's a fair point. But I think there's more to txt-speak and emoticons than just writing systems. There's a "grammar" to them if you will, with its own rules and social conventions, as well as a lexicon. Nothing dangerous about it to be sure, but txt-speak and IM language do have more of a potential to ship stuff into the standard language, if only just words like "LOL". I'd be curious if any syntactic construction made the jump.
    – lapropriu
    Oct 24, 2012 at 14:45
  • But do they, really, "ship stuff into standard language"? Standard language is spoken, and I've never heard anyone say "LOL"; I don't think I'd recognize it if I did. How's it pronounced, for instance? Oct 31, 2012 at 15:22
  • @JohnLawler /lɔl/ :).
    – lapropriu
    Nov 1, 2012 at 0:01
  • 1
    @JohnLawler I've hurt "lol" and "ROFL" ('roffal') used quite a bit, albeit, in a sarcastic tone. However, lol seems to be loosing its reputation and is becoming more common. I'm only talking from personal observations though.
    – BanksySan
    Nov 5, 2012 at 13:35

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