THE GR8 DB8
Despite doom-laden prophecies, texting has not been the disaster for language many feared, argues linguistics professor David Crystal. On the contrary, it improves children’s writing and spelling.
Last year, in a newspaper article headed “I h8 txt msgs: How texting is wrecking our language”, John Humphrys argued that texters are “vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.”
As a new variety of language, texting has been condemned as “textese”, “slanguage”, a “digital virus”. Ever since the arrival of printing - thought to be the invention of the devil because it would put false opinions into people’s minds - people have been arguing that new technology would have disastrous consequences for language. Scares accompanied the introduction of the telegraph, telephone, and broadcasting. But has there ever been a linguistic phenomenon that has aroused such curiosity, suspicion, fear, confusion, antagonism, fascination, excitement and enthusiasm all at once as texting? And in such a short space of time. Less than a decade ago, hardly anyone had heard of it.
People think that the written language seen on mobile phone screens is new and alien, but all the popular beliefs about texting are wrong. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy. Although many texters enjoy breaking linguistic rules, they also know they need to be understood. There is no point in paying to send a message if it breaks so many rules that it ceases to be intelligible. Research has made it clear that the early media hysteria about the novelty (and thus the dangers) of text messaging was misplaced. In one American study, less than 20% of the text messages looked at showed abbreviated forms of any kind - about three per message. And in a Norwegian study, the proportion was even lower, with just 6% using abbreviations. In my own text collection, the figure is about 10%.
People seem to have swallowed whole the stories that youngsters use nothing else but abbreviations when they text, such as the reports in 2003 that a teenager had written an essay so full of textspeak that her teacher was unable to understand it. An extract was posted online, and quoted incessantly, but as no one was ever able to track down the entire essay, it was probably a hoax.
There are several distinctive features of the way texts are written that combine to give the impression of novelty, but none of them is, in fact, linguistically novel. The most noticeable feature is the use of single letters, numerals, and symbols to represent words or parts of words, as with b “be” and 2 “to”. They are called rebuses, and they go back centuries. Adults who condemn a “c u” in a young person’s texting have forgotten that they once did the same thing themselves (though not on a mobile phone). In countless Christmas annuals, they solved puzzles like this one: YY U R YY U B I C U R YY 4 ME (“Too wise you are …”)
Similarly, the use of initial letters for whole words (n for “no”, gf for “girlfriend”, cmb “call me back”) is not at all new. People have been initialising common phrases for ages. IOU is known from 1618. There is no difference, apart from the medium of communication, between a modern kid’s “lol” (“laughing out loud”) and an earlier generation’s “Swalk” (“sealed with a loving kiss”).
In texts we find abbreviated forms such as msg (“message”) and xlnt (“excellent”). Almst any wrd cn be abbrvted in ths wy - though there is no consistency between texters. But this isn’t new either. Eric Partridge published his Dictionary of Abbreviations in 1942. It contained dozens of SMS-looking examples, such as agn “again”, mth “month”, and gd “good” - 50 years before texting was born. English has had abbreviated words ever since it began to be written down. Words such as exam, vet, fridge, cox and bus are so familiar that they have effectively become new words. When some of these abbreviated forms first came into use, they also attracted criticism.
Texters use deviant spellings - and they know they are deviant. But they are by no means the first to use such nonstandard forms as cos “because”, wot “what”, or gissa “give us a”. Several of these are so much part of English literary tradition that they have been given entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. “Cos” is there from 1828 and “wot” from 1829.
But the need to save time and energy is by no means the whole story of texting. There are an extraordinary number of ways in which people play with language - creating riddles, solving crosswords, playing Scrabble, inventing new words. Professional writers do the same - providing catchy copy for advertising slogans, thinking up puns in newspaper headlines, and writing poems, novels and plays. Children quickly learn that one of the most enjoyable things you can do with language is to play with its sounds, words, grammar - and spelling.
The drive to be playful is there when we text, and it is hugely powerful. Texting can be truly creative. To celebrate World Poetry day in 2007, T-Mobile tried to find the UK’s first “Txt laureate” in a competition for the best romantic poem in SMS. The length constraint in text-poetry fosters economy of expression in much the same way as other tightly constrained forms of poetry do, such as the haiku. Put such a discipline into the hands of a master, and the result can be poetic magic. Of course, SMS poetry has some way to go before it can match the haiku tradition; but then, haikus have had a head-start of several hundred years.
An extraordinary number of doom-laden prophecies have been made about the supposed linguistic evils unleashed by texting. But five years of research has at last begun to dispel the myths. The most important finding is that texting does not erode children’s ability to read and write. On the contrary, literacy improves. The latest studies (from a team at Coventry University) have found strong positive links between the use of text language and the skills underlying success in standard English in pre-teenage children. The more abbreviations in their messages, the higher they scored on tests of reading and vocabulary. The children who were better at spelling and writing used the most textisms. And the younger they received their first phone, the higher their scores. Children could not be good at texting if they had not already developed considerable literacy awareness.
Some people dislike texting. But it is merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language. There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.