Wednesday, 24 July 2013


For years I've been reading about how text messaging is destroying the language. My favourite rant is John Humphrys' overwrought doomsaying:
It is the relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS (Short Message Service) vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.
Compare this to Johannes Trithemius's panic in the 15th century about how the printing press was going to make people lazy. Or Jonathan Swift's complaint about the "barbarous Custom of abbreviating Words". Or the panic over how the telephone might "break up home life".

David Crystal’s txtng: the gr8 db8 (2008) clearly and concisely explains how text messaging isn’t the threat to English that the linguistic Cassandras pretend it is.

When Ben Zimmer reviewed this book, he listed the main points Crystal makes:
Text messages aren’t full of abbreviations” – typically less than ten percent of the words use them. [Frequency Illusion]
These abbreviations aren't a new language – they’ve been around for decades. [Recency Illusion]
They aren't just used by kids – adults of all ages and institutions are the leading texters these days. [Adolescent Illusion]
Pupils don't routinely put them into their school-work or examinations.
It isn't a cause of bad spelling: you have to know how to spell before you can text.
Texting actually improves your literacy, as it gives you more practice in reading and writing.
In a striking example of how abbreviation isn't new, Crystal provides a list of abbreviations that appear in text messages and that also appeared in a dictionary of abbreviations from 1942. He doesn't mention how Roman inscriptions were heavily abbreviated, but he could have.

Furthermore, a lot of nonstandard spellings that are associated with text messaging, such as luv, gonna, thru, would of, are all much older than texting.

The interaction between texting and literacy in the standard language interests me the most. About spelling, Crystal notes that you can't use SMS in the first place unless you have some grounding in how to read and write. He cites some studies, which I summarize here:
In a comparison of texting and non-texting pre-teens, neither group had worse spelling or grammar than the other. (This is from a City University study by Veena Raval, which I can no longer find online.)

Texting is motivating for teenage boys, and provides opportunities for linguistic creativity.
(E.-L. Kasesniemi and P. Rautiainen (2002), 'Mobile culture of children and teenagers in Finland', in J.E. Katz and M. Aakhus (eds.), Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk and Public Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 170-92.)

A series of studies found positive links between texting and the skills used for standard English in pre-teen children. “The children were asked to compose text messages that they might write in a particular situation - such as texting a friend to say that they had missed their bus and they we going to be late. The more text abbreviations they used 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 texting abbreviations.”
(Beverly Plester, Clare Wood, and Victoria Bell (2006), 'Txt msg n school literacy: does mobile phone use adversely affect children's literacy attainment?' and Beverly Plester, Clare Wood, and Puja Joshi (2007), 'Exploring the relationship between children's knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes'; both Coventry University Psychology Department.)
There should be nothing surprising about these results. As Crystal says:
I do not see how texting could be a significant factor when discussing children who have real problems with literacy. If you have difficulty with reading and writing, you are hardly going to be predisposed to use a technology which demands sophisticated abilities in reading and writing. And if you do start to text, I would expect the additional experience of writing to be a help, rather than a hindrance.
The last series of studies suggest that children are aware that texting is different from standard English, and that they have some sense of when to use each. This is sophisticated linguistic knowledge, which can only help them in their linguistic development.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Crystal's many examples of funny and touching text messaging poetry. Here is one, written by an 86-year old woman:
O hart tht sorz
My luv adorz
He mAks me liv
He mAks me giv
Myself 2 him
As my luv porz
Additional: Milan Davidović drew my attention to an article about the effect of texting on literacy and about how teachers are using texting to teach about register and audience.


Stan said...

It's a fine defence of the form, and pitched in such a way as to appeal to almost anyone. I recently got a second copy to give as a gift.

(PS There's no 'i' in the title Txtng, unless you have a very different edition.)

goofy said...

You're right!

goofy said...

The next edition will be called "txtng: Ћ gr8 db8"

Stan said...

Ha! Would be fun if Ћ caught on, but I'm sceptical.

David Williams said...

Cassandra prophesied true things that no one believed. These people prophesy false things that almost everyone believes. To us they may be Henny Pennys, or Chicken Littles, but to the rest they're oracles.

JosephK said...

Of course, with smartphones that automatically give suggestions and correct a lot of your mistakes, some of that old texting gibberish might start to disappear. It's a bit like the old days when they said that Oriental scripts were at a severe disadvantage in the age of the typewriter.