The Linguistics of Texting: Because Internet

9 mins read

Why do grandparents always text … kind of like this … with the dots … and use them to separate phrases? Why does everyone feel the need to type “lol” even when they’re not laughing? And why does a period at the end of a text message feel so passive-aggressive? I’ve wondered about the answers to these and many other questions, which is why a while ago I picked up Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch. It answers these questions (and many others), while remaining a breezy, interesting, and fun read. I highly recommend perusing it for a more in-depth look at the ideas covered here and other related topics, including a broader history of the internet from a social perspective, a fascinating discussion of how specific language markers in online and offline speech reinforce group identity, some interesting tidbits about how Arabic-speaking internet denizens adapted to use early chat systems that only supported Latin characters, and a bunch of other things. I’m going to be talking about one of the most fascinating parts: McCulloch’s analysis of the informal written English we all use in our group chats, DMs, Tweets, and the million other little ways we express ourselves online.

McCulloch covers a bunch of stuff you already know how to do, but maybe didn’t even realize you were doing or why. For instance, mashing your fingers against the keyboard to create something like “ajsdklfjalskdf” is a common way to signal frustration. But imagine receiving a keysmash that went something like “p9qr38ebc” or “9elnqr8lgrjahfl.” Both of these are strings of characters that I created by smashing my real human hands onto a real keyboard. But they just look wrong, don’t they? McCulloch points out that there’s a pattern that we’ve all seemingly picked up on: key smashes almost exclusively use characters found in the middle row of a standard QWERTY keyboard. A “normal” keysmash is done by mashing your fingers down from a standard resting position (and mashing them down sort of left-to-right, so that the first letter is almost always an “a” and usually an “asdf”). Anything else and it’s just … not right. 

Repeating letters (“yeahhhhhh,” “lmaoooooooo,” etc.) have a certain logic to them too. We tend to lengthen the last letter in a word or abbreviation (as you can see in the example), but when we don’t, we usually lengthen the last letter in a sound. You’d write “loveeee” or “loooove,” but “lovvvve” seems a bit wrong, in the same way “vncxmvnxcmvn” does. As she puts it, “even when we’re not trying to make patterns, when we think we’re just a billion monkeys mashing incoherently on a billion keyboards, we’re social monkeys — we can’t help but notice each other and respond to each other.” 

What about “lol”? It’s common knowledge at this point that “lol” doesn’t mean actually laughing, or even that something was funny. In her view (and, once I thought about it for five seconds, my view as well), it basically represents a generic smile or laugh, and we all unconsciously read it that way. After all, we smile all the time in social situations even when we’re not necessarily happy or prompted by something funny: when we’re being ironic, passive-aggressive, flirty, or a million other emotions. We have other tools in our toolbox for genuine laughter, like “hahahahahaha.”  

McCulloch expands the concept she develops with “lol” into a broader theory of typographical tone of voice, and when she does so, the seemingly nonsensical social cues attached to periods at the end of sentences make perfect sense. After all, she explains, periods are a product of formal writing and formal speaking. When we’re making a formal speech, or reading from formal writing, we put a distinct falling tone at the end of sentences. Try reading this article out loud. You’re probably rounding off each sentence with a falling tone to indicate that a sentence is ending here. The falling tones are what give formal speech its rehearsed, grand, and structured air. But if a falling tone shows up in informal speech, that means something else is going on. It could be sadness, irony, or a flourish to emphasize a point, but it often is interpreted as coldness or passive-aggression.

This can occasionally cause problems when people well-versed in this sort of signaling receive messages from people who put periods at the end of things because that is the Correct Thing to Do When Writing, such as various grandparents or my socially-incompetent self in middle school. At best, such an affect ends up reading as stilted; at worst, it can convey unintentional anger or the implication that the recipient has done something wrong.

These misfires of typographical tone of voice also explain why old people can sound so hesitant when sending messages. People who grew up in the age of unlimited online messaging, where sending another message is just a matter of hitting the enter key, typically use new messages or line breaks to communicate a pause or a gap between an utterance: something “hey / how’s it going / I’ve been busy with work,” where each is sent as a separate message and takes advantage of the infinite scrollability of the computer screen. But in the space-constrained medium of physical letters and postcards, sending a separate letter per utterance would be ridiculous, and even using line breaks would be a waste of space on a very finite piece of paper. So, McCulloch explains, enter the ellipsis! (Or the hyphen.) “hey … how’s it going … I’ve been busy with work.” While we interpret the ellipsis as a trailing off, an indicator of more to say, those dinosaurs among us who grew up sending physical letters read it the same way we would read a line break. If I had learned nothing else from Because Internet, this little tidbit would have still completely changed the way I see most of my Facebook feed.

This has just been a very brief summary of a couple of the most interesting points—the entire book is a few hundred pages of similar insights and an expansion on all the ones I mention here. Throughout the book, I felt like I was being explained to myself — all the little idiosyncratic things I do when texting for little to no discernible reason fell into place. If you’ve been enjoying my columns so far, I highly recommend giving Because Internet a look.

If you have any further questions, would like to see a column on a specific topic, or think that I got something wrong, feel free to email me at zrobins2@swarthmore.edu. You can also DM me on Instagram @software.dude.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of The Phoenix Editorial Board. 

Zachary Robinson

Zack Robinson '24 is a sophomore from Portland, Oregon, studying computer science and English literature. He enjoys tinkering with technology, epeé fencing, and diving into random Wikipedia rabbit holes.

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