04 January 2009


Or, as language authority David Crystal titled his spirited defense in the Guardian, "2b or not 2b?" I may be of the generation that finds it hard to leave out apostrophes and use condensed forms like "c u," but I'm also weary of all the jeremiads against one more way in which English is evolving. Crystal points out that we've been abbreviating for a long time--exam, fridge, bus--and that rebuses were enjoyed ages before cellphones appeared: YY U R YY U B I C U R YY 4 ME (Too wise...). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "cos" and "wot" date from the 1820s. The playful use of language in texting can be seen as implying an engagement with and understanding of the relation between words and sounds. Recent studies have shown "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."

In a short companion piece, Will Self adds the (to me) FF that texting is actually a bit of commercial serendipity: "Nokia included it in its first mobile phones as a way for engineers to report problems."

While the texts of Nokia engineers may have been indistinguishable, the same is not true of the trillion-plus messages now sent each year, generating more than three times Hollywood's box office totals. You don't have to be T-Mobile's Txt Laureate to have a distinctive style. In a 2002 UK murder trial, an uncle was convicted of his niece's murder in part because forensic examination of texts she supposedly sent after her abduction were shown to have been composed by him. In the words of Dr. Tim Grant of the Forensic Section of the School of Psychology at University of Leicester:

"One feature of text messaging is that it is creative, there are very few rules that people try to obey.

"We don't try to be grammatical or follow ordinary spelling, because of that potential for creativity, there's more potential for variation.

"There's the possibility that one person uses predictive text functions and others use traditional texting abbreviations, so it is possible to spot these differences....

"What was argued in court by the forensic linguist was that the messages from the girl's phone were in the style of the uncle who was trying to text as a teenage girl but there were significant differences in the style and that was able to break his alibi."






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