NAT: Texting Language
Texting, a language in very rapid evolutionChennai, December 10, 2009
Why did texting become so popular so quickly? Partly because texting was less expensive than voice on mobiles, reasons David Crystal in ‘Txtng: The Gr8 Db8’ (www.oup.com). Apart from the economic factors, it was the nature of the communicating medium itself that proved appealing, he continues.
“Among young people, in particular, texting quickly emerged as an index of belonging… I would also expect texting to become an index of prestige, within a group, as some members develop special kinds of expertise, such as texting speed or creative coinages.”
Then there are the communicative strengths of the medium, notes Crystal. “Texting is far more immediate, direct, and personal than alternative methods of electronic communication. It is more convenient than instant messaging, where both sender and receiver have to be sitting at their computers.”
He finds that there are many circumstances in which texting offers a novel opportunity for communication, a welcome alternative to speech in noisy environments such as bars and night-clubs. “In the street or on public transport, it permits a level of privacy which some cultures (such as the Japanese) highly value.”
Texting has added another dimension to multitasking, the author informs. “People text while doing something else, such as watching television, listening to a lecture, attending church, and driving. Teachers have frequently observed students texting in class while reading a book, writing an essay, or even carrying out a scientific experiment.”
He postulates that texting could be meeting a new communicative need in a society where pressures on time and short attention spans are increasingly the norm. The medium appeals to people who do not want to waste time engaging in the linguistic hand-shaking that is needed in traditional face-to-face or voice telephone conversations – what has sometimes been called ‘phatic communion’ in linguistics, explains Crystal. “Directness has become normal and everyday in English texting. You can send me a text which gets to the point immediately, and I won’t feel you have been impolite.”
Decrying the popular impression, created largely by the media, that the written language encountered on mobile phone screens is weird, the author looks back at some of the labels used in news stories and opinions about texting, thus: textese, slanguage, new hi-tech lingo, hybrid shorthand, digital virus, and outlandish.
He decodes that texters have evidently intuited a basic principle of information theory: that consonants carry much more information than vowels. “We are unused to vowelless writing in English, but it is a perfectly normal system in several languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew. And even in English there have been many demonstrations to show that a piece of text with vowels omitted is intelligible, whereas one with consonants omitted is not.” Texting may be using a new technology, but its linguistic processes are centuries old, concludes Crystal.
Fascinated by texting, he describes it as the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. It is an instance of a language in very rapid evolution, still to become codified, with no ‘house style’ as in newspapers or journals.
Texting is getting into speech, too. For example, a 2007 commercial called ‘My bff Jill’ for Cingular on US television, which achieved cult status, uses text abbreviations such as bff (best friend forever). “And the other day I heard an adult say imho ‘in my humble opinion.’ Most of these innovations will probably die away; but some may live on, and add new acronyms to the spoken language.”