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The Unique Linguistic Effects of 'Laughing Out Loud'

Historically, written language has been created to represent spoken language. For the first time, that dynamic is working in the opposite direction.
Texting alone

When some future alien historian takes a look through the Book of Earth, they will, at some point, in the Chapter on The Internet, come across a footnote-sized entry on the phrase "laughing out loud." And they should, correctly, be baffled by it.

Laughter, to the alien's understanding, is a vocal expression that one human used to signify to the other that they find something funny. It's impossible not to perform the act of laughing "out loud," albeit sometimes in a muffled form. So, the alien historian will wonder, why the need for the redundant phrasing of "laughing out loud?" (At some point, the alien will get to the section of #FakeNews, and likely just throw the book in the trash.)

This article is intended to help that alien along by trying to figure out how "laughing out loud" entered into our lexicon, and what it tells us about changing linguistics.


"Laughing out loud" is a decidedly modern turn of phrase; it had no place in pre-Internet conversations, back when you could see or hear a person's response (in this case: laughter) in real time. But ,with the Internet, "laughing out loud" became a necessary, silent descriptor of a response.

That abbreviation has since come into real, human verbal interactions—think of someone chortling "l-o-l!" But things have gone a step further: The "LOL" acronym has morphed into "lawl," an attempt to mimic a more casual, conversational, and spoken tone, but in written form. It is the Internet's version of colloquialism. It's a pretty crazy journey, but it's not without precedent.

"When I was a kid, there were friends of my parents who'd always, when they wanted to add something, say 'and P.S.'" says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. "People also say 'FYI' a lot."

Of course, FYI is different. No one begins gossip by slurring out "fyui." One possibility is that "FYI" was formed in an era when written text was reserved for rarer cases of communication, like letter writing or professional correspondence. Not so anymore. For the first time in the existence of our species, we're having a huge chunk of our conversations through instantaneously delivered written messages. (According to Pew, the number of text messages exploded from 14 billion in the United States in 2000, to over 188 billion in 2010.)

So, whereas historically written language has been created to represent spoken language, for the first time, it's working in the opposite direction.

"There's something new about the way communities are communicating mostly through writing," says Lauren Squires, a linguistics professor at Ohio State University. "They're developing new ways of communicating, and those new ways get transferred to how people are speaking outside of writing."

And, because of this new way of communication, quirks (like: "lawl") have developed. Or, how the written word is translated across the generational lines that straddle pre- and post-Internet, particularly evident in the miscommunications that occur.

"It's particularly funny because these initialisms are developed to save keystrokes, but clearly that isn't always the case."

"One of the biggest surprises for me is now [for younger people], if someone puts the period at the end of the sentence, it comes across as angry," Tannen says. "And the three-dot ellipses. Older people think it means 'and so on,' but young people use it to undercut what they just said." (Tannen's example: A father asks a daughter where she was last night, and she gives an answer, and he responds "wow..." The father may have intended "go on…" but the daughter may take that as "you can't find a better lie than that?")

Another quirk is the spelling out of keyboard symbols that were originally meant as shortcuts to save time in the written world. The slightly diagonal mark we know as "slash" (this thing: /) has been around forever, but it only become associated with the verbal term "slash," according to Oxford, in the 16th century. From there, we'd write out "/" and maybe verbally say "slash." But the rise of computers and everyday usage of the "/" has shoehorned itself into common conversation that we are not only saying "slash" much more, but we're writing out the word "s-l-a-s-h" in texts.

"It's particularly funny because these initialisms are developed to save keystrokes," Tannen says. In fact, whereas the old focus of each new communication technology was the increasing speed of delivery, that's no longer the case. "We're sometimes taking even longer to deliver messages."


The usage of memes and gifs, and other images in online conversations, bogs down the time of actually delivering the message; it takes a while to find that perfect Beyoncé gif or whatever it is you use to accurately describe your state of being. Now, the emphasis is on trying to recreate the actual physical act of speaking, by which I mean, the visual cues that go along with the actual words being spoken.

"There's plenty of visual stuff that goes on in producing and interpreting language," Squires says. "Bodily cues, facial expressions, gestures. Those are complements on the spoken message that can change how the message is interpreted. For some extent, that mirror what people are doing online, especially with emoji."

But, maybe more importantly than any highfalutin theory that we are using emojis to mimic our facial expressions, there's a way more valid and realistic one. "They're fun," Tannen says. "It isn't so much about saving time anymore as it is about being clever."

To that, all one can say is: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Which, for those curious aliens, means something along the lines of "I guess?"