Evolution of Language: How 'Textisms' Help Us Get Meaning Across in the Digital Era

Two Finnish youngsters exchange SMS messages in Kaivopuisto park in Helsinki 17 July 2006. Roni Rekomaa/AFP/Getty Images

It is widely accepted that any person who texts you using periods is a person who has no business texting you at all. The only exception to this is your Nana. Yet this may be why you love her texts: it turns out that punctuation is quite effective at conveying emotion when we can't be face to face.

Other particulars of texting—emoticons, deliberate misspellings, and so forth—follow suit. They don't just convey nuance, they actually replace some of the context we miss out on by not seeing the person we're talking to. In other words, text punctuation can at times tell us just as much as a human face.

Binghamton University professor of psychology Celia Klin had concluded from previous research that texts ending with a period are perceived as less sincere compared to texts that simply end. Intrigued by the potential of texting to record language evolving in real time, she conducted a further series of experiments to test reactions to messages that varied by length and formality of punctuation. A paper detailing the new research was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Texting has some interesting constraints when it comes to conveying the subtler aspects of communication. "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," Klin wrote, according to Phys.org. These cues aren't extra niceties; they are crucial to someone understanding what we mean. "A facial expression or a rise in the pitch of our voices can entirely change the meaning of our words," she wrote. Despite the limitations of texting, we have found ways to bend the medium around our needs. "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 (!!!)," said Klin.

In the new study, Klin and her colleagues found that single-word texts ending in periods were interpreted as more negative and more abrupt than texts containing the same single word and nothing else. They also concluded that seemingly unnecessary punctuation added as a result of personal style could still convey relevant and tangible information. And possibly of greatest interest, they found that "textisms" could actually replace the nonverbal cues we rely on in a face-to-face conversation.

"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," Klin continued. "It wasn't too long ago that people began using email, instant messaging and text messaging on a regular basis. Because these forms of communication provide limited ways to communicate nuanced meaning, especially compared to face-to-face conversations, people have found other tools."