Texting as the new language

By Kate Smith

They make unlikely revolutionaries, teenagers, heads stooped over mobile phones, thumbs rapidly whizzing around keypads. While older generations may lament the passing of a passion for the formal written word, some academics believe SMS messaging, “texting” to you and me, is creating a renaissance in the English language.

It is a language of youth. One where the humble vowel is in jeopardy, where acronyms rule and the written word is phonetically reduced to the point where few over the age of 40 will understand. Omg means “oh my God”, lol is “laugh out loud”, l8r is later, gd means good, y is why and kl is cool. Words are phonetically spelled to create wot and wanna.

While parents and teachers fret at this apparent semantic barbarism, academics at the University of Toronto say instant messaging in fact represents “an expansive new linguistic renaissance”. They believe that students are caught between disapproval from elders for using slang, and scorn from friends for being too formal. Texting allows them to “deploy a robust mix” of colloquialisms and formal language that is good for their communication skills.

Teenagers and children use their mobile phones primarily as messaging devices rather than telephones. The Canadian survey of 72 teenagers revealed they sent a combined one million texts over 12 months.

The really radical aspect of this is that content is changing the form of the language. While the passing generations of youth have always had their own jive talk, this is different and much more drastic because it is radicalising the actual form of language.

Rather than subject-verb-object, we’re getting verb and object, all expressed with great sparsity of letters and symbols. Words are written as numbers and letters. It is the language of haste and, once you learn it, it seems so efficient. Some academics have argued that texting is a separate language. Perhaps it was, but now it is synthesising with conventional English.

The strictures of SMS language have evolved from the limits and opportunities of mobile phone technology. Like most things in life, it has proved that necessity is the mother of invention.

Indeed, journalists, secretaries and plain masochists who have taken shorthand recognise immediately the shortcuts that naturally flow from the imperative to simplify. Goodbye vowels, adios words that rhyme with numbers and cheerio to superfluous letters pointlessly doubled up. Why bother with the pleasant preambles in life that take too much time to write (“I am sorry to bother you “) when you could just get straight to the point?

The behaviour of teenagers is also changing. Dating now consists of asking someone out by text, or on MSN, or social networking sites such as Bebo or Facebook and the relationships continue to be virtual. They might never meet up, or go on a date. Cynics point out this cyber-cupidity might be good for Britain’s high rate of unplanned teenage pregnancy.

For all its modernity, this linguistic tussle is not a new fight. This is a battle royal between traditionalists who seek the purity of the written and spoken traditions and those who believe we should rejoice in the fluidity of language.

In Scotland, we are used to the language of teaching being more formal than our everyday language and accents. The bard Robert Burns was adept at Scots and formal English. Our children learn the language of the playground and the BBC. Grannies all over put on their best telephone voices. We often formalise our language when speaking in public, including a different set of nouns. In essence, many of us are diglossic already, with two accents or dialects. This parallels what young people experience with texting and formal use of language.

It is inevitable that language becomes abbreviated and casualised since this is the historical dynamic of language – to become more efficient. The evolution of language is its simplification. Purists were livid at Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Chaucer at the time for taking linguistic licenses, using dialects and slang vocabulary. The flip side is that youngsters do still need to learn the rules of formal language, and any educator will tell you of the creep of texting language into written work. Celebrity philologist Stephen Fry confirms that once you know the fundamental rules, then you can have fun.

As a first-year university student I remember interrupting a lecturer who assuredly told the lecture hall in his beautiful Queen’s English that you could not construct a sentence using only vowels. I raised my hand and shouted out with delight: “Professor, you can: a e i o’ ,” I told him, pronouncing them phonetically – “ah eh ih oh”. He looked perplexed and asked me to repeat it in English, which I duly did to gales of laughter from my fellow students; “I ate it all”. I knew that spoken Scottish doesn’t always need consonants but I didn’t know faces could go such a deep shade of purple. An ingénue can challenge convention just by being young, exuberant or in my case, idiotic.

Some revolutions are hapless by-products of inevitable change where those century-old conventions just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Formal language will continue to be the medium of education but let’s not look down at texting and instant messaging and see it as the end of our language.

The older generations shouldn’t feel concerned at the sedition of it all.

English is not made of glass. C u l8r, K8.