There they all are, during their break, texting away to their hearts content. What are they writing? Who are they writing to? Why, why, why? I’m part of that last, fortunate generation that avoided this phenomenon. Through the good fortune of having been born in the 1970s, I can remember a time before cell phones and therefore don’t view them as being the one controlling force of my life. That’s not to say that I don’t ever text people, but aren’t these young ‘uns abusing the language with their ‘CUL8R’ and their ‘LOL’? One common fear amongst a community much wider than us mere language teachers is that text messaging is ‘destroying’ the English language. The use of text messaging, it is claimed, has changed the way that people talk and write essays, many believing it to be harmful to the language. As Amy O’Connor notes:
‘These types of messaging technologies are widely used among adolescents today. To cite just one personal example of this widespread usage, my friend’s daughter, who is now 11 and lives in Ireland, got a cell phone last year, and, according to my friend, ‘was the last person in her class to get one.’ This is quite an amazing change, given that ten years ago, instant messaging and text messaging were in their infancy, and cell phones were only readily available as tools for roadside assistance.’
One sign of the impending – if it was not already upon us – language catastrophe occurred in November, 2006 when the New Zealand Qualifications Authority approved the move that allowed students of secondary schools to use mobile phone text language in the end of the year exam papers. Indeed, the signs had been there as early as 2002, the dawn of time in terms of the texting era, when the use of ‘text’ language in school assignments started to become noticeable, causing many a doom monger to become concerned that the quality of English written communication was on the decline. It was also claimed that teachers and professors were beginning to have a hard time ‘controlling’ the outbreak, as though it were some uncontrollable, deadly virus.
However, the notion that text language is uncontrollably widespread and harmful is being ever increasingly refuted by research from linguistic experts, with the mighty David Crystal leading the way. Here’s what he had to say in an interview in the Guardian in September, 2008:
‘Almost every basic principle that people hold about texting turns out to be misconceived. Misspelling isn’t universal: analysis shows that only 10% of words used in texts are misspelt. Nor are most texts sent by kids: 80% are sent by businesses and adults. Likewise, there is no evidence that texting teaches people to spell badly: rather, research shows that those kids who text frequently are more likely to be the most literate and the best spellers, because you have to know how to manipulate language. If you can’t spell a word, then you don’t really know whether it’s cool to misspell it. Kids have a very precise idea of context – none of those I have spoken to would dream of using text abbreviations in their exams – they know they would be marked down for it.’
In his book, ‘Txtng: the Gr8 Db8’, Crystal notes that the use of pictograms and logograms in texts are not exclusively an English language issue, but are in fact present in every language. The shortening of words by using symbols to represent the word, or symbols whose name sounds like a syllable of the word such as in ‘2day’ or ‘b4’ are commonly used in other languages as well. Texters in other languages use ‘lol’, ‘u’ and ‘gr8’, all English-based shorthands. What this suggests, perhaps, is that if there is an impending linguistic disaster resulting from texting, it may be stemming from English rather than playing a part in its demise. Another common example of ‘borrowing’ from English is the use of the symbol @. Whenever it is used in texting its intended use is with the English pronunciation. Crystal gives the example of the Welsh use of @ in “@F” pronounced ‘ataf’ meaning ‘to me’ (although my colleague Michael, a Welsh speaker, questions this).
While any form of language use must surely help the user attain literacy, there is one caveat I’d like us to consider. Young adults who use more language-based textisms (shortcuts such as ‘LOL’, ‘2nite’, etc.) in their daily writing may well end up producing worse formal writing than those who use fewer linguistic textisms. This is not to say that they don’t recognize the difference between formal and informal writing (Crystal mentions school kids thinking him mad when he asked if they use textisms in their writing), it’s just that it isn’t helping them develop formal writing skills. Is this such a bad thing? Isn’t that what school is for, after all? Additionally, the exact opposite may be true for informal writing; conceivably the act of using textisms to shorten communication words is leading people to produce more informal writing (they’re getting more writing practice), which may in turn help them to be better informal writers. It is this notion, along with other myths such as young people not knowing the correct spellings of words, which Crystal attempts to dispel in the video clip below.
So, do you agree? Your thoughts on this are very much welcome in the comment section.