Over the past few years, students have kept me informed about how texting (and instagramming and facebooking and snapchatting and the like) is changing both written and spoken English. As I have written about before, I am not concerned that these kinds of electronically mediated communication (or “fingered speech,” as John McWhorter calls it) are ruining the language, either spoken or written. I am much more interested in the inventiveness of the usage in these new registers, from punctuation and ALL CAPS being repurposed to capture tone to LOL becoming a kind of backchanneling to hashtags providing metacommentary in both written and spoken language.
Early on, research on texting sometimes got distracted by all the acronyms and alphabetisms, which seemed so characteristic of these new registers of writing. While some of those are still around (e.g., ttyl, lol, brb, lmao), students tell me that text spelling has generally become more standard, especially with auto-complete and auto-correct on smartphones. And many of these initialisms have remained primarily written, fun and sometimes funny shorthands as we type, but not regular parts of our speech.
Emojis have now stolen the limelight, and I am regularly asked whether emojis count as their own language. (My answer: I don’t think so, not as a full-fledged human language. And while I’m in this parenthetical, let me note that I know some people use emoji as the plural of emoji — i.e., it is a zero plural. I have chosen to regularize it because students tell me that is what they do, and they use many more emojis than I do!) For the past few years, I have thought of emojis as primarily a written and visual phenomenon, but the inventiveness of texting language has surprised me yet again.
A couple of weeks ago, students in my introductory linguistics course told me about sad react and angry react as new slang terms. I didn’t realize I was wondering what an emoji might sound like if said out loud, but now I know. The phrases may originate with Facebook, where the sad emoji and the angry emoji are among the reaction choices to other people’s posts. Students report that now if you want to express in speech that you are sorry or that you are angry, you can say, respectively, “sad react” (to capture the sad emoji pictured above) or “angry react” (to capture the angry emoji pictured here). Sure, this may be a more lighthearted, less serious way to express these emotions, but there are times when that hits just the right tone.
I urge readers not to take this new slang as an indication that young people aren’t really feeling their emotions — that they are, instead, talking about their emotional reactions at a meta level. As a faculty member on a university campus, I can tell you that students can and are expressing their anger, sadness, frustration, and a range of other emotions in passionate, eloquent, compelling ways right now as we grapple with hateful incidents on and off campus.
Sad react and angry react are, instead, language at its most playful, and there’s a place for that too.Return to Top