New research finds that textisms like emoticons, irregular spellings, and exclamation points in text messages are not simply crude or sloppy methods to replace written language.
Investigators from Binghamton University, State University of New York, explain that these “textisms” help convey meaning and intent in the absence of spoken conversation.
“In contrast with face-to-face conversation, texters can’t rely on extra-linguistic cues such as tone of voice and pauses, or non-linguistic cues such as facial expressions and hand gestures,” said Professor of Psychology Dr. Celia Klin.
“In a spoken conversation, the cues aren’t simply add-ons to our words; they convey critical information. A facial expression or a rise in the pitch of our voices can entirely change the meaning of our words,” she said.
“It’s been suggested that one way that texters add meaning to their words is by using “textisms”– things like emoticons, irregular spellings (sooooo) and irregular use of punctuation (!!!).”
A 2016 study led by Klin found that text messages that end with a period are seen as less sincere than text messages that do not end with a period.
Klin pursued this subject further, conducting experiments to see if people reading texts understand textisms, asking how people’s understanding of a single-word text (e.g., yeah, nope, maybe) as a response to an invitation is influenced by the inclusion, or absence, of a period.
“In formal writing, such as what you’d find in a novel or an essay, the period is almost always used grammatically to indicate that a sentence is complete. With texts, we found that the period can also be used rhetorically to add meaning,” said Klin.
“Specifically, when one texter asked a question (e.g., I got a new dog. Wanna come over?), and it was answered with a single word (e.g., yeah), readers understood the response somewhat differently depending if it ended with a period (yeah.) or did not end with a period (yeah).
This was true if the response was positive (yeah, yup), negative (nope, nah), or more ambiguous (maybe, alright). We concluded that although periods no doubt can serve a grammatical function in texts just as they can with more formal writing — for example, when a period is at the end of a sentence — periods can also serve as textisms, changing the meaning of the text.”
Researchers are aware that text messages represent a new form of language evolving in real time. As such, this is an unique moment to observe the way in which traditional communication methods adapt to the new channel.
“What we are seeing with electronic communication is that, as with any unmet language need, new language constructions are emerging to fill the gap between what people want to express and what they are able to express with the tools they have available to them,” said Klin.
“The findings indicate that our understanding of written language varies across contexts. We read text messages in a slightly different way than we read a novel or an essay. Further, all the elements of our texts — the punctuation we choose, the way that words are spelled, a smiley face — can change the meaning.
The hope, of course, is that the meaning that is understood is the one we intended. Certainly, it’s not uncommon for those of us in the lab to take an extra second or two before we send texts. We wonder: How might this be interpreted? ‘Hmmm, period or no period? That sounds a little harsh; maybe I should soften it with a “lol” or a winky-face-tongue-out emoji.'”
With trillions of text messages sent each year, we can expect the evolution of textisms, and of the language of texting more generally, to continue at a rapid rate, wrote the researchers.
“The results of the current experiments reinforce the claim that the divergence from formal written English that is found in digital communication is neither arbitrary nor sloppy,” said Klin.
The study appears in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
Source: Binghamton University/EurekAlert