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We're not just kidding: If you're still laughing out loud, your age may be showing

Dec 8, 2015

Credit flickr user Intel Free Press / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

If there’s a teen or 20-something in your life, chances are that you’ve seen plenty of “LOL” and “BFF” in your texting conversations.

It seems like text abbreviations are becoming an increasingly prevalent part of written correspondence. Are they making communication more efficient, or are they just making it harder to do so clearly?

University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan tells us that, to some extent, texting abbreviations are creating a sort of generation gap.

“Young people text at a rate that I have to say I don’t,” she says. Polling her students, she typically finds they each send between 40 and 150 texts per day.

“And they look at me and they say, ‘how many texts do you send a day?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, four?’ So right there you see a generation gap,” Curzan says.

Curzan tells us that at the rate young people are texting, it isn’t surprising that they’d use some abbreviations, but the phenomenon isn’t exactly new.

“Young people will always have language that older people don’t have. We call it slang,” she says. “It’s a way to signal that you’re young, to be a little irreverent, to have language that distinguishes you.”

But despite the fact that new abbreviations are born into existence every day, Curzan tells us research is suggesting that texting slang might not be used as commonly as one would believe.

“One study said somewhere between 6% and 20% of texts have abbreviations, which means a whole lot of them don’t,” she says.

She's backed up by her experience as a teacher. Her students tell her that “Yeah, some [abbreviations] we use, but using a whole lot of them isn’t necessarily that cool,” she says. Some point out that their parents tend to use a lot more abbreviations than they do.

Curzan tells us that in the relatively short lifespan many of these abbreviations have enjoyed, some have shifted meaning. While “LOL” has made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary, some of her students have suggested that the definition there is no longer accurate “if you are interested in how young people use it,” she says.

Rather than the original “laughing out loud,” Curzan says “LOL” is more commonly used now as a way to express tone and acknowledgement.

For example, she says “LOL” is often used in a similar context as “JK,” or “just kidding,” expressing that you’re not speaking in a serious tone.

She adds that it also functions as what linguists call a backchannel. “When we’re in conversation and we’re listening to someone, we make those little noises, like ‘uh-huh, yeah,’ and we need to do that on texting,” she says.

It can be confusing and kind of hard to keep up with, but according to Curzan the ever-changing nature of text-speak is baked into the language just like more traditional slang. It’s not surprising, she says, that young people make up and use terms that older generations don’t know “because they want us not to know.”

“It makes me so grateful that I hang out with 18- to 24-year-olds on such a regular basis because they keep me informed about what’s happening in this kind of written language,” Curzan says.

Anne Curzan is an English professor at the University of Michigan and co-host of Michigan Radio’s That’s What They Say.

She tells us more about abbreviation do's and don't's in our conversation above.

- Ryan Grimes, Stateside