When, a few years ago, a 13 year-old girl wrote her entire English essay in texting language, people were predicting the end of civilisation as we know it. Now it turns out that research seems to suggest that texting can actually aid literacy. So where does the truth lie?
Back in 2003, the young lady made the headlines by writing this in her English essay:
My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc.
Which means, of course:
My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York. It's a great place.
Her teacher said she couldn't understand a word of it. Chris Woodhead, erstwhile Chief Inspector of Schools and extremely conservative (he would probably describe himself as a staunch defender of "standards"), virtually had a nervous breakdown. My response at the time was that the girl showed incredible inventiveness, and should have been given some praise.
John Humphrys, a UK TV personality who has written a book about language and punctuation, thinks that texting is "wrecking our language". This was mentioned in the recent article in the Sunday Times citing the research I referred to a moment ago, and it elicited the marvellous comment from someone called Eric Campbell:
Prithee John de Homphrey, methinks thou hast thy pantalettes in muche twiste aboute y changinge of y wordes. Dost not knowe 'tis common. Aye sirrah, 'tis passing common. So shutte ye it and lette y childer be.
None of this is new, of course. An article in the Guardian back in 2004 cited research that purported to show that texting was good for you, whilst on the other hand many people, such as Fowler, have done their best to warn us against the sloppy use of the English language -- and continue to do so, quite rightly in my opinion.
Equally, others have spoken out against the stultifying effects of rigidity in the rules governing the use of English. Churchill, for example, famously said, in reference to the rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition:
This is the sort of English up with which I will not put. (ODQ)
It is ironic, I think, that at the same time as the Sunday Times article appeared, there was published an article in The Economist discussing the fact that text messaging language is causing concern in France. In the article, Sarkozy, the President of France, is quoted as saying that in a few years' time people won't be able to understand each other.
I have to say that in this regard I am more perturbed by the stance of the Economist. In the same article it says:
Text-messaging corrupts all languages.
The OED defines "corrupt" as follows:
To destroy the purity of (a language), the correctness or original form of (a written passage, a word, etc.); to alter (language) for the worse as judged by the standard of the original.
One might have hoped for a rather more balanced assessment from The Economist.
This debate is not restricted to texting, of course. The same arguments have taken place, and continue to take place, about the corrupt effect that email is having on the quality of our communications with each other.
I remember around 10 years ago, when I was an ICT advisor (someone who advises people who teach information and communications technology (ICT)) in a London borough telling a group of teachers, in the presence of the Literacy Advisor of the borough, that although they had mastered the technical aspects of email, they were paying far too much attention to spelling and grammar and other niceties.
I was teasing, of course, just to see the look of horror on the Literacy Advisor's face (I was not disappointed). But look at this cartoon from around that period, or this one, or this one, which I actually used on an ICT Co-ordinators' training day (with permission).
Joking aside, I think the problem with arguing that texting is good or bad is that the arguments lack context, on the whole, and are framed in black and white terms. For me, the important issues are as follows:
1. It is a fact that languages change over time. If you don't believe me, try reading Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in its original form. Shakespeare is more accessible, but not entirely problem-free. Yet despite these changes, English is still a rich, vibrant language -- probably the more so because it has gone through so many changes.
2. Language changes over geography too. Oscar Wilde said:
We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language. (ODQ)
But civilisation hasn't collapsed as a result, and the different English-speaking countries manage to understand each other reasonably well, by and large.
3. I have not done any research into this area, but I should have thought that technology, and economics, have always affected language. You only have to look at the abbreviations used in telex addresses, or in telegrams, to realise that.
I think points 1 to 3 provide a backdrop for any discussion on such matters as whether texting is a good thing or not as far as young people's literacy is concerned. But the key issues are these:
4. Are young people aware of other styles of communication? I can't believe the answer would be anything other than "of course".
5. Are they able to select the most appropriate style of communication for the audience and the circumstances?
On that last point, I don't think the solution is necessarily to teach youngsters the "obvious" things like:
Don't apply for a job using texting language.
After all, if you were going for a job that involved communicating with young people by mobile phone, I'd suggest that writing a letter of application in texting language would stand you in pretty good stead. I believe that the important thing is that people need to be aware of the different styles of language and their varying levels of formality, and to be able to make an informed and appropriate choice about which one to use.
Going back to the 13 year-old describing her summer vacation, given that the real audience for such a mundane piece of work would probably be her friends, writing it in texting language seems to me to be completely appropriate from that point of view. Where she "failed" was in not recognising that, in order to demonstrate her writing ability to her teacher, she needed to use a form of expression that her teacher would understand.
As for the title of this piece, it means:
See? I told you so, didn't I? Texting isn't so bad after all, unless you are French.
I used the texting translator to help me compose it.
And here's a lighthearted guide to texting language:
This article was originally published on 26th May 2008. It has recently been cited in Shannon Gladieux’s excellent article, How will the next generation read and write?, which looks at how texting developed, and the cultural value of such adaptations.