Text messaging, the digital darling of Generation Y, is having a notable impact on the English language. Its prevailing use of shorthand and seeming disregard for common grammatical conventions has some linguists concerned that its impact is damaging the language. Other linguistic professionals, however, applaud text messaging, claiming this unique communication method both sustains and advances our use of language. As text messaging solidifies itself as a primary mode of communication and spans an ever-broadening range of users, the significance of its effects is amplified.
“They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped,” says author and journalist John Humphrys of the way he believes texters are defiling language. Limited space (text messages are typically restricted to 160 characters) and the difficulty of typing words on a numeric keypad have caused texters to adapt their messages. While QWERTY keypads—with letters arranged as they are on a computer keyboard, each key representing an individual letter—are an increasingly popular cell phone feature, initial phones came equipped with only a numeric keypad. David Crystal, writer and lecturer on the English language, explains in his 2008 article “2b or not 2b?” why numeric keypads hinder text messaging capabilities.
No one took letter-frequency considerations into account when designing it. For example, key 7 on my mobile contains four symbols, pqrs. It takes four key-presses to access the letter s, and yet s is one of the most frequently occurring letters in English. It is twice as easy to input q, which is one of the least frequently occurring letters. It should be the other way round. So any strategy that reduces the time and awkwardness of inputting graphic symbols is bound to be attractive.
Tricks of the Texting Trade
There are four primary modifications users employ to “reduce the time and awkwardness” of this otherwise confining medium: abbreviation, acronyming, initializing, and using rebuses—a word represented by a single letter or numeral.
Words are typically abbreviated by eliminating vowels (ex. “Hving the wrst wk evr! Frst the trck brk dwn, nw I got a prkng tckt!”). Even the words “text” and “message” are often shortened in this way, as “txt” and “msg”. The use of abbreviation in the “worst week ever” example above is largely exaggerated for illustration purposes—in fact, an American study found that only 20 percent of text messages included abbreviation, and of those 20 percent, an average of only three abbreviations were used per message.
Acronyming created the term O-M-G; the phrase meaning “Oh my God,” is now a staple of popular culture. Other well-known acronyms resulting from text message shorthand are: LOL (laugh out loud), IDK (I don’t know), and the colorful expression, WTF (what the f*ck?).
Initializing is another modification text-savvy folks use to simplify. This technique uses the first letter of a word to represent an entire word, such as Y for yes and N for no. The ambiguity of initializing can cause messages to be misinterpreted. For example, the letter Y can also represent the question “why?”
The fourth shortcut used for quicker and easier messaging is the use of rebuses—when a single letter is used as a word. Common text message rebuses are 4 (for), 2 (to/too), b (be), c (see).
Abbreviated Texts Predate Texting
Because these modifications are a predominant component of text message lingo, text message users often take the rap for dismantling the English language. But these shortcutting practices predate our modern medium. While many popular phrases originated during the Internet era of e-mails and chat rooms, the same methods for developing new shorthand words and phrases have existed for hundreds of years. Published in 1942, decades before the advent of texting, The Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations contained hundreds of text-worthy abridgements.
The expression IOU dates back to 1618, and the popular acronym amongst long-distance sweethearts, SWALK (sealed with a loving kiss), originated during WWII.
For years and years, people have used rebuses in their writing – replacing the word and with the symbol &, the word number with the symbol #, and even a short word like at is shortened with the character @.
Tests and Texts
Fear over new technologies corrupting the English vernacular is nothing new. Other communicative inventions like the telegraph and telephone were initially mistrusted by linguists. The primary concern linguists have with text messaging and its adaptation of the language, is the effect it may have on younger generations’ ability to use standard forms of the language. Recent studies, conducted by Coventry University, overwhelmingly show, however, that the opposite is true. One study determined that students who are frequent text-users had higher scores on English aptitude tests than their non-texting classmates. Moreover, texting students who used the aforementioned modifications more heavily (the study refers to this text message lingo as “textisms”) scored even higher than those who used them sparingly. The study also found that the younger participants were when they began texting, the better their scores.
The results of this study are a reminder that wordplay isn’t possible without an initial understanding of the language. Language expert David Crystal further explains:
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 behavior is different, you must have already intuited that there is such a thing as a standard.
The modern medium of text messaging, like the telegraph and telephone in their day, is reshaping our language in order to fit our evolving needs. With a 107 percent increase in text message use over the past year, it clearly cannot be ignored. Whether fan or foe of this new method of tech talk, linguists can agree on one thing: this digital messaging system is changing our language.
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