The growing popularity of sending messages electronically has led to changes in the way people communicate. To increase the efficiency of their messages, people often abbreviate words or expressions, for example by combining letters with numbers, using acronyms, or removing vowels or letters altogether. For example, gr8 for “great,” ROFL for “Rolling On the Floor laughing” or msg for “message”. But does this also make reading faster for the receiving person? 

While text-speak (also known as cyberspeak, weblish or SMS language) might be more efficient for the person sending the message, it is unclear whether it makes reading easier or more difficult for the person receiving or reading the message. Since text-speak is quite different from conventional words or phrases, it is interesting to investigate how easily our brains are able to read this abbreviated form of language. 

Researchers have been looking into exactly this issue. For example, Ganushchak and colleagues (2010) used an experiment to investigate the processing of text-speak. In their experiment, participants were shown real words, text-speak (“4ever”) and pseudo-text-speak (“4ewer”; combinations of letters and numbers that look like text-speak, but aren’t actual text-speak) and asked to indicate if they saw a real word or not. While they were doing this, the researchers recorded their brain activity with a method called EEG. Their results indicated that people were slower to decide whether words written in text-speak were real words or non-words, compared to pseudo-text-speak. Additionally, there was a difference in brain activity. Specifically, in a well known brain response called the N400, which is related to processing word meaning, there was a stronger response for pseudo-text-speak than for text-speak. This suggests that text-speak is more ‘word-like’ than pseudo-text-speak, leading to a response conflict and a slower non-word response. 

But how does text-speak processing then compare to real-word processing? In a second experiment, investigated this using a priming task. Priming is a technique in which the presentation of one word influences how people respond to a subsequent word. For example, the word “food” is recognized more quickly following the related word “dinner” than following the unrelated word “school”. In this experiment, the researchers used this priming technique to investigate how ordinary words and text-speak words influence processing of a next target word. While the researchers found that real words and text-speak words both led to a faster recognition of  related target words, the effect was stronger for real words. This suggests that text-speak words are generally read more slowly than real words. 

Other evidence that the brain finds it more demanding to read text-speak than normal words comes from Head and colleagues (2011). They also compared the influence of real words (such as “message” or “text”), text-speak words (such as “msg” or “txt”; an abbreviated form of a complete word with a letter omitted) and non-words (“grf”) on subsequent target word processing. While they found that text-speak words produced faster and more accurate responses than non-words, normal words produced the fastest and most accurate responses. This again suggests that reading text-speak might be more demanding than reading normal words. Now, the researchers were wondering whether participants’ experience with texting influenced their results. For experienced “texters”, there might be a closer connection between text-speak words and the normal words. Indeed, when the researchers asked participants about their experience they found that those who reported more experience with text-speak benefited more from text-speak than those who reported less experience. 

Texting has become one of the main forms of communication in the modern world. Often people take advantage of the redundancy of written language by using abbreviations. But is this also helpful for the reader? While for highly skilled texters, text-speak is reasonably intelligible and leads to similar brain patterns, it remains harder to process than normal text. Still, a lot more research is needed to understand the similarities and differences between text-speak and standard language across a number of variables (e.g. the number of removed letters, the role of word frequency, the role of phonology, landing position, etc.) and to examine the implications of this new language. 

This blog has been written by Noor Seijdel.

** ignoring other forms, such as repeating letters (yessssss I really looooove cycling) and typographic symbols (I ❤ cycling) which are non-abbreviations.

Read more

Ganushchak, L. Y., Krott, A., & Meyer, A. S. (2010). Electroencephalographic responses to SMS shortcuts. Brain Research, 1348, 120-127.

Ganushchak, L., Krott, A., & Meyer, A. S. (2012). From gr8 to great: lexical access to SMS shortcuts. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 150.

Head, J. R., Helton, W. S., Neumann, E., Russell, P. N., & Shears, C. (2011, September). Text-speak processing. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 55, No. 1, pp. 470-474). Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.