Text-pocalypse Now? Text-pocalypse Now?

Text-pocalypse Now?

by Mark Peters

January 26, 2009

Is text messaging destroying our language?

Texting is pretty awful, isn't it? Every "sentence" is OMG icu lolcat WTF. Ninety percent of texting is done by teens. Not only are kids turning in term papers full of abbreviations, but they're ruining the English language for the rest of us. And we might have to use that thing someday!Fortunately, the paragraph you have just read is major league, grade A, weapons-grade crap. If you agreed with it, you can take comfort in that fact that you have a lot of company. Unfortunately, that company is wrong as a cat in a Halloween costume when it comes to the subject of texting.The truth?  Even though the increasing popularity of text-messaging since 2001 has spawned frequent, doomy pronouncements about illiterate teens, desecrated language, overused abbreviations, and crumbling civilization, there's no evidence at all to back up these the-end-is-near-ish views about texting. When you look at the facts, they often say something positive about texting: that frequent texters actually do better in school, or that texting is associated with good things like creativity and political activism. Also, some of the supposedly text-specific features-like abbreviations-are older than dirt and not even that common in texting.For more myth-dispelling, I went to David Crystal, a prolific writer, editor, and linguist who investigated the subject in Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 after growing "increasingly fed up with the way people were bad-mouthing the genre without having the foggiest idea of what it was really like." Below is an edited version of our email interview.Mark Peters: For people who haven't read the book yet, please elaborate on these two myths: That text is abbreviation-ville and that texting is spilling over negatively into schoolwork. What are the realities?David Crystal: People believe that a text message is "full" of abbreviations, as in the classic c u l8r. In fact, when you collect a corpus of messages and analyze them, the average number of words per message that are abbreviated is around 10 per cent. That means that most words are in standard spelling. This is especially true of messages between adults, now constituting about 80 per cent of all text messages. Organizations such as the stock exchange, colleges, broadcasting stations and political parties (not least, Barack Obama) now routinely text as a means of informing people about things. Some actually ban abbreviations, because of their possible unfamiliarity or ambiguity. Anyone who believes that texting is just for kids is totally out of date.Hardly any of these abbreviations are new. Several are hundreds of years old. Those adults who object to initialisms such as bbl ('be back later') forget that, once upon a time, they did the same sort of thing themselves - only without a cell phone. Remember SWALK on the back of an envelope? Or the rebus puzzles in magazines and Christmas annuals such as Y Y U R, Y Y U B...?
There was a hoax school essay produced in 2003 which was entirely written in texting abbreviations. Unfortunately, millions were taken in by it. Such things simply don't happen. I work a lot with schools, and I often ask teachers to show me examples of textisms in schoolwork. They never can. I think I've been shown one example over the past two years, and that was a single instance of rushed writing. I ask the kids themselves would they ever use textisms in their writing. They look at me as if I'm nuts. "Why would you ever want to do that?" said one to me. "That would be stupid." Quite so. You'd have to be pretty dumb to not see the difference between texting style and essay style. Or, putting this another way, teachers who let kids think the difference doesn't matter wouldn't be doing their job. And the same point applies to examinations. I've asked many examiners whether they have seen textisms in exam answers. The answer is always no. But ask joe public if kids use textisms in schoolwork and exams, and there is an almost universal yes. It's extraordinary how these myths take hold of the public imagination.A further myth is that texting is harming children's literacy. Well of course, once you see the reality, this myth disappears. What is interesting is the recent research which is showing that the more kids text, the better their literacy scores. This shouldn't surprise anyone. Reading and writing improve with practice. Texting provides that practice.MP: I thought that was one of the most interesting revelations in the book: that heavy texters are better writers too. Of course, it makes so much sense when you think about it, but it flies against this perfect storm of language illusions and myths.Why do you think this topic is so myth-heavy? Is it a combo of fear of the new, kids-these-days griping, and the general tendency of the media to under or mis-report language issues?DC: Well, new communicative technologies always bring out the prophets of doom. Printing was the invention of the devil. The telephone heralded a breakdown in society (no-one would talk face-to-face any more). Broadcasting would lead to brainwashing. The internet is "a major risk for humanity" (that one from Jaques Chirac). So it's not surprising that mobile communications have attracted suspicion. But I'm nonetheless amazed at the extent of the antagonism, and can't really explain it.Equally, I'm impressed by the speed at which the antagonism disappears, once the facts are pointed out. When Txtng first appeared, three of the reviewers admitted to a change of heart after reading the book. That's not the sort of thing reviewers normally do, and certainly it's never happened to me before! But when the facts are so clear-cut, it's difficult to maintain a scenario of linguistic doom. And indeed, one of the pundits who I quote in the book as being so anti-texting (John Sutherland) has recently written to me to say that he no longer holds such views.I can't explain, but I can speculate. An important point is not to see texting as separate from other contemporary issues to do with language. The same issues raised by texting turn up in other internet situations, such as instant messaging and social networking. Indeed, many of the texting abbreviations started off life in chatroom environments. There is a general concern that the internet is lowering standards, so for many texting was seen as the "last straw". And all that, in turn, is part of a general perception among older people that standards are falling among young people. This takes us well beyond language, of course.Yes, I think the media does on the whole deal poorly with language issues. I get interviewed quite a lot for the press, and it's unusual to find the interviewer being language-aware or the write-up accurate. And language figures rarely in things like book round-ups at Christmas. Part of the problem is that it doesn't fit into the usual genres-biography, history, reference, and so on. Trying to alter that climate of language unawareness has been my main literary aim, over the past forty years.


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Text-pocalypse Now?