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LOL isn't funny anymore

By John McWhorter, Special to CNN
April 30, 2013 -- Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John McWhorter: People see the language of texting as a sign of bad writing
  • He says the evolution of the phrase "LOL" shows how texting is a new form of communication
  • Once a sign of humor, now "LOL" is a way of indicating empathy, he says
  • McWhorter: Texting isn't corrupting the way we communicate; it's enhancing it

Editor's note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and Western civilization at Columbia University and is contributing editor for The New Republic and a columnist for The New York Daily News. His latest book is "What Language Is (and What It Isn't and What It Could Be)." He spoke at the TED2013 conference in February. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- The going idea is that texting has, in essence, made graffiti a universal pastime: Barely punctuated, sparsely capitalized and with decidedly creative spellings throughout, texting means that today's America is reveling in writing badly.

Ten years ago (we'll soon get to why it would only be back then) the proper answer to this would have been LOL -- "laughing out loud" -- because in reality, texting is sprouting new grammar all the time. Yes, grammar, as subtle and sophisticated as subjunctives and such.

Take LOL. Today, it wouldn't signify amusement the way it did when it first caught on. Jocelyn texts "where have you been?" and Annabelle texts back "LOL at the library studying for two hours."

John McWhorter
John McWhorter

How funny is that, really? Or an exchange such as "LOL theres only one slice left" / "don't deprive me LOL" -- text exchanges often drip with these LOL's the way normal writing drips with commas. Let's face it -- no mentally composed human being spend his or her entire life immersed in ceaseless hilarity. The LOLs must mean something else.

They do. They signal basic empathy between texters. What began as signifying laughter morphed into easing tension and creating a sense of equality.

Watch John McWhorter's TED Talk

Linguist: Texting isn't killing language

That is, "LOL" no longer "means" anything. Rather, it "does something" -- conveying an attitude -- just as the ending "-ed" doesn't "mean" anything but conveys past tense. LOL is, of all things, grammar.

Of course, no texter thinks about that consciously. But then most of communication operates below the radar, where things tend not to mean what they would literally. Over time, the meaning of a word or an expression drifts. "Meat" used to mean any kind of food. "Silly" used to mean, believe it or not, blessed.

We can see LOL-type expressions happening in speech.

"I know, right?" means little; it assures the listener of agreement and acknowledgment. Or, there is the phrase "You know what I'm sayin'?" used most in what is best known as "Ebonics," but increasingly by young people of various shades and demographics.

TED.com: Q&A with John McWhorter

Technically, it is composed of seven words: do, you, know, what, I, am, and saying. However, it is now more often pronounced as two syllables -- "noam sayin'?" -- or sometimes even just a single one, roughly: "Msehn?"

It, too, is now a piece of grammar, soliciting the same sense of empathy and group membership that LOL does. LOL is one of several texting expressions that convey nuance in a system where you don't have the voice and face to do it the way you normally would.

Civilization, then, is fine. People banging away on their smartphones are fluently using a code separate from the one they use in actual writing, but a code it is, to which linguists are currently devoting articles.

People have been warning us that language was going to the dogs ever since Latin started turning into French. Yet the dogs in question never seem to emerge yelping on the horizon.

TED.com: Steven Pinker on what our language habits reveal

There is no evidence that texting is ruining composition skills. Worldwide, people speak differently than they write, and texting -- quick, casual and only intended to be read once -- is actually a way of talking with your fingers.

All indications are that America's youth are doing it quite well. Texting is not the mangling of language -- it's the birth of a new one.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John McWhorter.

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