Frequent commenter Kári Tulinius sent me the most sensible thing I’ve yet read about texting (a form of communication with which I, fossil that I am, have had zero experience), a Guardian piece, 2b or not 2b?, by that eminently sensible man, David Crystal. Some nuggets:

People think that the written language seen on mobile phone screens is new and alien, but all the popular beliefs about texting are wrong. Its graphic distinctiveness is not a new phenomenon, nor is its use restricted to the young. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy. And only a very tiny part of it uses a distinctive orthography. A trillion text messages might seem a lot, but when we set these alongside the multi-trillion instances of standard orthography in everyday life, they appear as no more than a few ripples on the surface of the sea of language. Texting has added a new dimension to language use, but its long-term impact is negligible. It is not a disaster.
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. When messages are longer, containing more information, the amount of standard orthography increases. Many texters alter just the grammatical words (such as “you” and “be”). As older and more conservative language users have begun to text, an even more standardised style has appeared. Some texters refuse to depart at all from traditional orthography. And conventional spelling and punctuation is the norm when institutions send out information messages, as in this university text to students: “Weather Alert! No classes today due to snow storm”, or in the texts which radio listeners are invited to send in to programmes. These institutional messages now form the majority of texts in cyberspace – and several organisations forbid the use of abbreviations, knowing that many readers will not understand them. Bad textiquette.
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%…

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. In 1711, for example, Joseph Addison complained about the way words were being “miserably curtailed” – he mentioned pos (itive) and incog (nito). And Jonathan Swift thought that abbreviating words was a “barbarous custom”.
What novelty there is in texting lies chiefly in the way it takes further some of the processes used in the past…
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. Within two or three years of the arrival of texting, it developed a ludic dimension. In short, it’s fun.

Crystal goes on to discuss “text-poetry,” which I confess does not interest me, but he finishes up by making an important point about children:

An extraordinary number of doom-laden prophecies have been made about the supposed linguistic evils unleashed by texting. Sadly, its creative potential has been virtually ignored. 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. Before you can write and play with abbreviated forms, you need to have a sense of how the sounds of your language relate to the letters. You need to know that there are such things as alternative spellings. If you are aware that your texting behaviour is different, you must have already intuited that there is such a thing as a standard…

I wasn’t panicked about the evils of texting anyway, but having read the essay I’m even less so. Let there be text!



  2. To anyone who’s spent much time with manuscripts, ancient, medieval, or modern, the idea that numerous abbreviations will destroy literacy will seem — well, quaint. A lack of abbreviations is, I think, an passing aberration of print culture. Spelling a word out is worth the time and effort if you’re doing it once for ten thousand readers. If you’re writing for just one or two readers, or even ten or twenty, it’s not, except on very formal occasions. Handwriting has always been full of abbreviations and always will be. Texting is functionally more like handwriting than it is like typewriting. Why spell things out to an audience of one or two, who are sure to understand you, and who will throw your communication away when they’re done? That’s not so much literacy as anal-retentiveness.

  3. rootlesscosmo says

    Either Addison or Steele objected to “mob” as an ignorant clipping of “mobile vulgus.

  4. ‘Twas Addison (and Swift). More here.

  5. I liked zmjezhd’s related piece a while ago on this subject. As a 40-year old who now relies on texting too keep in touch with his staff, I’ve grown to treasure txtspk and admire the cre8tvty with which experts at it can communicate. Although having to learn Chileno texting at the same as brushing up my incredibly rusty Spanish last year was VERY difficult!

  6. To see really exciting new multimedia literacy try out Inanimate Alice. http://www.inanimatealice.com And its a free online resource!
    More an interactive piece of fiction than a traditional game, Inanimate Alice: Episode 4 continues the story of the young game animator as she leaves her home in Russia and travels abroad. Inanimate Alice serves as both entertainment and a peek into the future of literature as a fusion of multimedia technologies. The haunting images and accompanying music and text weave a remarkably gripping tale that must be experienced to be believed.
    And better still for schools there is a piece of software now available that allows learners to create their own stories. Valuable for all forms of literacy and this is being sold as a perpetual site licence for schools at £99 ! http://www.istori.es

  7. Women have been using “shorthand”–as a way of txt massaging using a pencil and a pad of paper for over 100 years…journalists invented short-forms of words, like foto for photograph, in order to fit texts into column perimeters…txt massaging is nothing new–only the young and innocent find the things they do new and innovative (and that includes our youthful computer designers and sftwre composers). Doctors have used “scripting” for a hundred years, too…how about telegraphers and Morse code? Look at old telegrams–that’s txt massaging. Plus the US Army has been using abbreviated words in its orders since as far back as when I was in the US Army…look at a letter from the IRS–they use abbreviations galore in their own communications…Look at html–isn’t that just a bunch of made-up abbreviated words? O’well, will wonders in language use ever cease? This txt massaging stuff is being encouraged in the computer world of computer designers who for years have been trying to “minimize”–minimz–computers–eventually reducing them down to chips being implanted (embedded) in our foreheads–then our brain signals will txt massage directly onto the screens of our skulls, and then we’ll blink our eyes and out will go the massage (with aid of an online txt massaging OED and txt massaging spellcheck (splck–which could also mean “Some plump chick”)…recipe books are full of abbreviations–on the other hand, how does one txt massage a poem? (“” the Ravn, ‘Nvrmre’) I think we are all being minimized, being reduced to massaged, controllable elves. Maybe we’re reverting back to the days when we were smart monkeys and using the earliest forms of human language–which brings up the question–have they taught a monkey to txt massage yet?

  8. “…positive links between the use of text language and the skills underlying success in standard English”. Could it be that link between texting and literacy is the link between spelling and phonetics that texting reinforces? Should we still be suprised that understanding these structures helps literacy skills?

  9. Ken Portnoy says

    The publicly visible concern derives from a particular economic/demographic stratum: young, affluent, white; future elites. The anecdotal evidence for deteriorating written language, as indicated by the occurrence of text-messaging syntax in their “scholarly” work, has caused a stir among the adults (old, affluent, white) who nurture them at home and school. Similarly, nobody gave-a-darn about evil rap music until it infiltrated this same demographic.
    Culture distinguishes human groups; economic classes, ethnic groups; etc. Upper crust adults’ concern about the erosion of the culture they feel is key to their progeny’s retention of advantageous positions in their society is understandable. It is as it always was.
    Whether trends among this demographic are permanent or whether they are evil is a whole different discourse.
    If language trends are subject to Darwinian concepts, do we care how the language evolves? In the long run those changes that are selectively advantageous will survive. My personal belief is that segregation into tribes via culture and language is selectively advantageous for human communities. Ref: Ethnic Cleansing. Everchanging language is a key component of this human(primate?) process, along with other teenage fetishes such as hair and clothing styles, the associated feeling-of- belonging; etc.

  10. While I haven’t actually read the research, I wonder how much controlling was done for socio-economic factors.
    I would imagine that a child who receives a cellphone at a young age is more likely to come from a wealthy family than a working-class one, and hence likely to have parents who went to college, attend a better school, with peers that also have parents that went to college, and myriad other things that may influence his/her literacy.
    I don’t believe for a minute that texting is destroying people’s ability to communicate, spell, or use proper grammar. But pre-teen children who have had cellphones for years already I don’t think are the best way to determine what actual effects it does have, if any.

  11. Lugubert says

    I don’t use texting in my SMS’s. But you should see the abbreviations on my shopping lists…

  12. I’m 24, and I think that I have only sent four or five text messages in my life. Now if a friend texts me I reply by email. I was immediately turned off by texting because it restricted me to a hundred or so characters. A similar problem frustrated me about IMing over AIM or ICQ. I would always have to send three or four messages at once to get myself across. That’s why emails for the last twelve years have been perfect for me: if I am out, I can collect my thoughts in my head, and when I get to a computer I can type away. A cell phone for me is just a device for oral communication.
    Perhaps I am too long-winded? Is it because that I am still in the ivory tower and have yet to get out into the real world, and when I want to communicate with someone, it is about some esoteric point of academic minutiae and not about what is for dinner?

  13. Siganus Sutor says

    The other night we were already asleep when our mobile phones rang, both of them, my wife’s and mine. “Who the hell is sending us an SMS at this time of the night!?”
    It was our teenage daughter who was (not yet) sleeping at a friend’s home. And despite being woken up in the dark and despite my lack of fluency in text language, I somehow managed to understand the message: “Je vous embrasse 444.”
    What amazed me though is that our non-English-speaking daughter had used an English abbreviation to mean “Je vous embrasse fort, fort, fort.” At that time I didn’t recall what Martin was saying on Language Hat on March 16, 2008 10:01 AM, but now I do:

    Tweenspeak the international text-messaging lingo, which “enables tweens in the U. S. to talk with tweens in Japan with very little misunderstanding.”

  14. David Marjanović says

    “Je vous embrasse 444.”

    Almost the same in Chinese: 5i2.

  15. unrelatedwaffle says

    Has anyone else also noticed the phenomenon of internet abbreviations making their way into the spoken word? I, for one, love it. Here’s a short list of netspeak that’s made its way into the speech of my friends and myself:
    wtf, pronounced as “wuh-tuff” [‘wətəf]
    omg, pronounced as “ah-mg” [ɑmgʰ] or spelled out O-M-G! or O-M-F-G! (along with the ever popular OMGWTFBBQ!)
    brb, pronounced as “berb” [bɚb], or spelled out as B-R-B.
    lol, pronounced as “loll” [loʊl], can also be used as a verb “I loled so hard,” or lengthened for playful emphasis “Lollerskates!” and is even subject to vowel shift “Doin’ it for the lulz” (one of my personal favorites).

  16. David Marjanović says



  17. I think the point is that the [g] is exploded (contrary to the usual rule for English final stops); you can think of what follows as aspiration or a devoiced schwa.

  18. jamessal says

    From this month’s ever-ominous Harper’s Index:
    “Percentage of U.S. students aged 12 to 17 who say they use text-message slang in their written school assignments: 38”
    The end is near! The end is near!

  19. I think you mean: th nd s nr! th nd s nr!

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