The gr8 db8
Some people say that text messaging is destroying the English language. David Crystal,
an eminent professor of language, argues that it is not.
Recently, a newspaper article headed “I h8 txt msgs: how texting is wrecking our
language” argued that texters are “vandals who are doing to our language what
Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging
our punctuation; savaging our sentences.”
As a new variety of language, texting has been condemned as “textese”, “slanguage”,
a “digital virus”, “bleak, bald, sad shorthand”, “drab shrinktalk which masks
dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness”.
Ever since the arrival of printing—thought to be the invention of the devil because it
would put false opinions into people’s minds—people have been arguing that new
technology would have disastrous consequences for language. Scares accompanied
the introduction of the telegraph, the telephone, and broadcasting. But has there ever
been a linguistic phenomenon that has aroused such curiosity, suspicion, fear,
confusion, antagonism, fascination, excitement and enthusiasm all at once as texting?
And in such a short space of time. Less than a decade ago, hardly anyone had heard
People think that the written language seen on mobile phone screens is new and alien,
but all the popular beliefs about texting are wrong. Its distinctiveness is not a new
phenomenon, nor is its use restricted to the young. There is increasing evidence that
it helps rather than hinders literacy. Texting has added a new dimension to language
use, but its long-term impact is negligible. It is not a disaster.
Research has made it clear that the early media hysteria about the novelty (and thus
the dangers) of text messaging was misplaced. People seem to have swallowed whole
the stories that youngsters use nothing else but abbreviations when they text, such as
the reports that a teenager had written an essay so full of textspeak that her teacher
was unable to understand it. An extract was posted online, and quoted incessantly,
but, as no one was ever able to track down the entire essay, it was probably a hoax.
There are several distinctive features of the way texts are written that combine to give
the impression of novelty, but people have been initialising common phrases for ages.
IOU is known from 1618. There is no real difference between a modern kid’s “lol”
(“laughing out loud”) and an earlier generation’s “SWALK” (“sealed with a loving
English has had abbreviated words ever since it began to be written down. Words
such as exam, vet, fridge and bus are so familiar that they have effectively become
new words. When some of these abbreviated forms first came into use, they also
attracted criticism. In 1711, for example, Joseph Addison complained about the way
words were being “miserably curtailed”—he mentioned pos (itive) and incog (nito).
Texters use deviant spellings—and they know they are deviant. But they are by no
means the first to use such nonstandard forms as “cos” for “because” or “wot” for
“what”. Several of these are so much part of English literary tradition that they have
been given entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. “Cos” is there from 1828 and
“wot” from 1829. Many can be found in the way dialect is written by such writers as
Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Walter Scott and D.H. Lawrence.
Sending a message on a mobile phone is not the most natural of ways to
communicate. The keypad isn’t linguistically sensible. 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.
Abbreviations were used as a natural, intuitive response to a technological problem.
And they appeared in next to no time. Texters simply transferred (and then
embellished) what they had encountered in other settings. We have all left notes in
which we have replaced “and” with “&”, “three” with “3”, and so on.
But the need to save time and energy is by no means the whole story of texting.
When we look at some texts, they are linguistically quite complex. There are an
extraordinary number of ways in which people play with language—creating riddles,
solving crosswords, playing Scrabble, inventing new words. Professional writers do
the same—providing catchy copy for advertising slogans, thinking up puns in
newspaper headlines, and writing poems, novels and plays. Children quickly learn
that one of the most enjoyable things you can do with language is to play with its
sounds, words, grammar—and spelling.
An extraordinary number of doom-laden prophecies have been made about the
supposed linguistic evils unleashed by texting. Sadly, its creative potential has been
virtually ignored. But 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 behaviour is different, you must have already realised
that there is such a thing as a standard.
Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. But it is merely the latest
manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language
to suit the demands of diverse settings. There is no disaster pending. We will not see
a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language
as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language
Adapted from an article
by David Crystal in
Look at the opening paragraph (lines 1–4).
) Write down
expression from this paragraph which continues the idea
introduced by “wrecking”.
) Identify a feature of the expression “pillaging our punctuation; savaging our
sentences” which makes it effective.
The writer tells us that “texting has been condemned” (line 5).
Explain fully how any
of the expressions he quotes in the rest of this
paragraph conveys disapproval of text message language.
Why does the writer mention “the telegraph, the telephone, and broadcasting”
(line 11) at this point in his argument?
Look at the sentence “But . . . texting?” (lines 11–13).
) In this sentence, what point is the writer making about attitudes to texting?
) Show how the writer’s
word choice or structure
helps to reinforce this point.
The writer tells us (line 17) that “all the popular beliefs about texting are wrong”.
Look at the remainder of the paragraph (lines 17–20), and then explain
of these popular beliefs are.
How effective do you find the writer’s use of “hysteria” (line 21) as an
The expression “swallowed whole” (line 22) suggests that people were too ready to
believe what they had heard.
Show how the writer continues this idea of gullibility in the remainder of the
Why is the writer correct when he tells us that “there is no real difference” between
“lol” and “SWALK” (see lines 29–31)?
Re-read lines 32–36, and then explain
in your own words two
points the writer is
making about abbreviations.
Explain how effective you find the author’s inclusion of the names of Dickens,
Twain, Scott and Lawrence (line 42).
Re-read lines 43–50, and then explain
in your own words
in what ways “The
keypad isn’t linguistically sensible”.
Explain why the sentence “Abbreviations were used as a natural, intuitive response
to a technological problem” (line 51) is an appropriate link at this point in the
Explain fully why the writer’s use of “But” (line 55) is appropriate at this point in
the structure of his argument.
does the writer create by using the expression “supposed linguistic evils”
Look at lines 65– 70, and then explain briefly
and in your own words
writer means when he refers to “literacy awareness” (line 66).
Look at the final paragraph (lines 71– 76), and then explain how well you feel this
paragraph works as a conclusion to the passage as a whole.
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