Txt Spk : Emerging Digital Language


Through a series of discussion groups, MRL Lab Students considered the implications of 'txt spk' as emerging language forms - not entirely borne of or exclusive to digital contexts, but not easily divorced from them either. Without the limitations of a technological deterministic argument where new technologies were thought to be the arbiters of their own development, instead focusing on the interplay of technological possibilities AND the ways in which people adopt or reject them, they asked:

  • What txt spk is
  • What all the fuss is about
  • Whether txt spk is a 'threat to' or 'evolution of' language
  • How txt spk creates / exacerbates 'cultural' separations

Main Student Proponents:

Katarzyna Krok
(idea & write up)

Calleigh Lim
(discussion group lead)

Nolan Duke
(disussion group lead)

Faculty Sponsor:

Ravindra Mohabeer

Txt Spk: Emerging Language and New Media


With “brexit(eer),” “adulting,” “jomo” (joy of missing out), and “ sharenting” appearing on the shortlists for “Word of the Year,” (Collins Dictionary; Oxford Dictionary) it is becoming increasingly clear that language and new media interact to develop new language patterns. In fact, Turner (2009) argues that the new media environment has cultivated a generation of digital natives or those who are, “… fluent in the language that rules computers, video games and the Internet. They write, and perhaps even think, in this alternate speech;” (p. 60) this alternate speech is otherwise known as “text-speak.” (Turner, 2009; Tayebinik & Puteh, 2012) Despite the overwhelming evidence of text-speak as an emerging language, the area remains largely under researched. Much of the available research focuses on the harmful affects text-speak could have on Standard English (SE); supplementing the contemporary panic that new technologies overpower their users. However, it will be argued, that text-speak is evidence of users’ agency in the digital world by creatively challenging traditional notions of language.

To provide some structure, this review will seek to introduce text-speak as an emerging language. Though many readers may be familiar with text-speak from their own daily uses, the first section of this review will seek to outline a clear understanding of exactly what text-speak is. With that understanding, the next section will discuss the arguments for and against text-speak as an emerging language. Lastly, the conclusions will be supplemented with suggestions for future research.

What is text-speak?

In many cases, text-speak is understood as informal written speech that is characterized by non-standard language patterns – much the same as informal verbal speech. Whether through Twitter, Facebook, e-mail or instant messaging (IM) platforms, many readers may already be familiar with text-speak; perhaps even fluent speakers of it. To specify further, Tayebinik & Puteh (2012) understand text-speak as:

The language used in CMC [computer mediated communication] often contain[ing] non-standard features of written language… The short form of words (e.g. I don know), lack of capitalization (e.g. i), omission of vowels (e.g. r), incorrect spellings (e.g. nite), replacement of numbers for words (e.g. gr8), simplified contractions (e.g. cuz), initials (e.g. lol for laugh out loud), subject drop (e.g. am doing), typing letters for homophone words (e.g. c u), and miscellaneous abbreviations (e.g. tq, ok, n)… (p. 98)

Additionally, text-speak can be expanded to include emoticons or smileys, which, “… are applied extensively to show emotion or reaction to CMC users” (Tayebinik & Puteh, p. 99) – an aspct future research might consider. What is made astonishingly clear that text-speak is unique to computer-mediated environments, providing researchers with a unique opportunity. As Wood (2016) mentions, “… because we’re sharing by text and tweets and Instagram, suddenly we have a snail trail of how language is used and how many people are using it.” Despite this unique advantage, it is not clear why text-speak has emerged. Proposed origins include structural elements and performance, both of which will be discussed below. However, the central debate revolves around, “Do communication technologies change the way people speak/write, or do these media reflect established patterns and norms of verbal interaction?” (Cook, p. 104) This review would argue the latter.

From a media studies perspective, it could be the structural elements of computer-mediated environments that cultivate text-speak. For example, character or word limits are often imposed, demanding some creativity for articulating whole thoughts. It appears that the, “… changing nature of language [can be put] down to social media where space is limited and messages are sent in a haste.” (Willgress, Telegraph) Ultimately, from this perspective, in a communication environment characterized by immediacy and efficacy, new language patterns are bound to emerge.

Cook (2004) also offers that language is central for computer-mediated identity construction. This perspective suggests that since the computer-mediated environment is nearly absent of visual or aural markers, “the cyberself [is] embedded in language.” (p. 105) For example race is found to be, “… turned on or off in cyberspace; that is it is either the direct focus of discourse and debate or completely invisible.” (Cook, p. 105) Future research might consider the culturally specific routes of text-speak.

Moral Panic: Is Txt-Spk a Problem?

As with the emergence of many new technologies and patterns, a moral panic surrounds the use of text-speak. The concern is that the non-standard language patterns evident in text-speak will have detrimental affects on the acquisition and maintenance of Standard English, both written and spoken. In other words there is a belief that, “… IM endangers youth literacy since it produces a series of undesirable patterns in readings and writing and such informal language use harms the students’ mastery of formal and standard literacy skills.” (Tayebinik & Puteh, p. 99) A small amount of research supports this fear, but, nonetheless, it will be discussed in this section.

Tayebinik & Puteh’s (2012) study highlighted the perception university student’s have regarding text-speak and it’s affects on SE. Students reported that they unconsciously use abbreviations or symbols in formal written or verbal communication. From one perspective, students report difficulty code switching between text-speak and SE according to context. For example, one interviewee claimed that, “Usually, I use ‘n’ for ‘and’ or ‘2’ for ‘to’ in my assignment or examination automatically. While this finding could support text-speak as a negative influence on SE, it could also support the need to discuss and teach the appropriateness of text-speak in terms of context.

Additionally, it was found that interviewees reported text-speak as influencing their verbal communication. Another interviewee points out that, “I use some abbreviations when I’m speaking. For example: Try to do it A S A P (instead of as soon as possible). It was found that interviewees reported this phenomenon as the cumulative affect of employing text-speak. However, have such abbreviations, or at least informality, not always been present in specific contexts of verbal speech? Even if that is not the case, language change is an inevitable process.

While these findings are concerning, immediately relating them the downfall of the English language would only constitute a moral panic. This would be especially the case given the lack of research on text-speak.

Reasons for Applying Text-Speak

Rather than becoming caught in the panic that is discussed above, it is useful to look at reasons why senders apply text-speak. In doing so, it can be understood that text-speak is not the result of diminishing proficiency, but rather a means of creating more efficient communication in digital environments. From this perspective, text-speak users become active agents in the digital realm by resisting SE boundaries and embracing creative patterns – rather than passive subjects of technologically determinist theories.

Simplicity and Timesaving
Tayebinik & Puteh’s (2012) study highlights this aspect in answering their research questions, “What are the factors that influence the application of textism in CMC?” (p. 100) Their findings show that university students reported text-speak as a means of timesaving and simplicity. These factors have a lot in common, as their essence if to make CMC more efficient. One of their interviewees elaborated that, “If I send a message faster I will get the answer faster too, that is why I shorten words.” (p. 101)

Tayebinik & Puteh’s study also found that text-speak is a form of trendsetting among young users. As two interviewees reported, “such a kind of writing is a fashion.” (p. 102) This corresponds with Cook’s (2004) aforementioned finding that text-speak can take culturally specific routes as a means of performing identity in a digital environment without aural markers.

The Argument for Digital Natives and Code-Switching

If teachers and parents can acknowledge that text-speak is indeed appropriate in the digital world that students navigate daily, then perhaps we can see its use in school as a difference, rather than a deficit. (Turner, p. 64)

Such adamancy on Standard English is misleading and limits the potential for new language variations such as text-speak. Thus, Turner (2009) makes a compelling argument for using text-speak to teach children about the nature of language. Rather than succumb language variance as a neurotic disadvantage, Turner proposes teaching children about code switching. Furthermore, Turner asserts that code-switching not only mediates text-speak and SE, but is beneficial to SE acquisition due to enhanced language awareness.

Turner’s methodology involved three steps. Firstly, students were asked to identify four settings and/or individuals with which they converse (e.g. school, playground, home or parents, friends, teachers). Following this, students were asked to translate one sentence into each of these four settings. Lastly, the teacher generated a discussion about why these patterns are different and effective. In doing so, students were able to grasp that language varies depending on the context and that, “… what is appropriate in one setting may not appropriate in another.” (Turner, p. 62)


As it has been mentioned, text-speak is largely under researched. As such, these findings are far from being considered all encompassing or final. Furthermore, it has been discussed that text-speak is often researched in comparison, which is a valuable insight, however, it distracts from the potential and practical uses of text-speak.

It should be added that all research was geared towards an Anglophone context, which speaks to English as an emerging global language. However, future research might consider how text-speak is employed in other languages. This could be added to the discussion regarding text-speak as taking culturally specific routes.


This review has established that text-speak is a variation of Standard English by featuring non-standard patterns. Contrary to this panic surrounding the potential demise of SE, text-speak is used for various reasons including timesaving and trendsetting. It has also been suggested that text-speak can take culturally specific routes – an area future research might consider. Additionally, it was proposed by Turner (2009) that text-speak is a valuable opportunity for teaching about the nature of language rather than an inhibition of Standard English acquisition. From this perspective, it appears that text-speak is challenging the traditional notions of language and literacy. Building on that perspective, text-speak users become active agents in computer-mediated communication by formulating patterns, which are expressive and efficient rather than simply products of a diminishing English language.

Works Cited

Cook, Susan E. “New technologies and language change: Toward an anthropology of linguistic frontiers.” Annual Review of Anthropology (2004): 103-115.

Filipan-Zignic, Blazenka, et al. “New Literacy of Young People Caused by the use of New Media.” Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 192 (2015): 172-179.

Lee, C. A. R. M. E. N. “My English is so poor… so I take photos.” Meta-linguistic discourse of English online’. In D. Tannen & AM Tester (eds.) Discourse 2 (2013).

OxfordWords. “Word of the Year 2016: other words on the shortlist | OxfordWords blog.” OxfordWords blog. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Stolworthy, Jacob. “Collins Dictionary’s 10 words of the year, from ‘Brexit’ and ‘snowflake generation’ to ‘JOMO’” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016

 Tayebinik, Maryam, and Marlia Puteh. “Txt msg n English language literacy.” Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 66 (2012): 97-105.

Turner, Kristen Hawley. “Flipping the switch: Code-switching from text speak to standard English.” English Journal (2009): 60-65.