How irregular spellings add meaning to text messages
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.
If someone thanks you "soooo" much on WhatsApp, there is no reason to mark it as a sloppy message. New research has found that "textisms" – emoticons, irregular spellings and exclamation points in text messages – help convey meaning and intent in the absence of spoken conversation.
"Textisms" is not a sign that written language is going down the tubes, according to the study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
"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 Celia Klin, Professor at Binghamton University, State University of New York.
"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," Klin pointed out.
It has been suggested that one way to add meaning to the words in text messages is by using "textisms"– things like emoticons, irregular spellings (sooooo) and irregular use of punctuation (!!!), Klin said.
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 ( such as 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.
The study 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.
The researchers believe that with electronic communication, scientists can observe language evolving in real time.
"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," Klin said.
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, the researchers said.