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Is ‘text speak’ really so bad?

Linguistic doom-mongers frequently lament the demise of the English language, complaining that standards are just not what they used to be, that kids these days simply don’t have a grasp of how to use language correctly, lack creativity, etc., etc. Human nature appears to have a natural tendency to assume that things gradually get worse, rather than better, but I don’t actually subscribe to that theory, especially where language is concerned. Language evolves, and trying to pin it down and prevent it from evolving is in my opinion a regressive, not to mention futile, gesture.

True enough, there are many examples of poor grammar and spelling around, enough for many eagle-eyed writers to write entire books about them. I enjoy spotting these mistakes and chuckling about them as much as the next person; I am a massive fan of Lynne Truss and have read and re-read her books like old friends, and I applaud anyone who heightens awareness of language and grammar amongst the general public. As Truss demonstrates in the title of her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a wrongly placed comma can completely mislead a reader. This is amusing for native speakers, but a major comprehension problem for a non-native reader of English, and it is of course something translators must always be careful to avoid.

However, there is a difference between the language we use in official publications and translations, and the language we use to communicate via instant, informal methods such as text messages, social networking sites and emails. Think about it: in speaking on the phone to friends and relatives, only the proudest people would claim to be able to hold conversations free from mistakes in word order, use of the possessive, tense etc., every single time they pick up the phone.  We must all accept that we are human, that instant communication methods require us to think on our feet; our brains simply don’t have time to focus on the message of what we’re saying and the grammar within it. We have moved far beyond the era of telegrams and communicating solely by posted letter and we have adapted accordingly, as humans are so adept at doing.

Whilst in spoken language we have recourse to intonation, volume and tone, to ensure the clarity of our message in place of grammar, you might argue that is what we’re attempting to do in emails and text messages as well. We use emoticons, capital letters, italics, amongst other tools, to try to express what it is we’re saying when we don’t have a lot of time in which to do it. I happen to think that this is not a bad thing; we are unable to claw back much time these days, we’re all terribly busy, that’s a given, so we are adapting to that with time-saving methods.

My favourite linguist, David Crystal, recently wrote a fascinating article for The Guardian on text speak, in which he argues that it actually represents a highly creative use of an evolving language. Moreover, he makes the important point that writers such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Walter Scott, DH Lawrence all used ‘deviant’ spelling in their novels, so it’s not something entirely new. A bit of trivia for you: ‘cos’ was first entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1828, and ‘wot’ in 1829.

Doom-mongers will be horrified to learn that there is now even a ‘text laureate’, but perhaps surprised that last year’s winner was in fact in her late 60s.

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4 Responses and Counting...

  1. oberone

    July 15, 2008

    Linguistic doom-mongers frequently lament d demise of d eng lngwij, complaining dat stdz R jst not wot dey Usd 2 b, dat kds dEz dAz simply don’t hav a grasp of how 2 uz lngwij coReclE, lack creativity, etc., etc.

  2. Tom

    July 15, 2008

    I agree that language must be allowed to evolve, but if you look at the very examples you give it has been nearly 200 years since the recognition of ‘cos’ and ‘wot’, yet they are still considered improper by many.
    The problem is our language seems to be evolving at a rate which is beginning to leave generations behind. Many teenagers today speak a kind of bastardised patois, which sounds incomprehensible to many, including myself.
    It has always been the way that youths will have certain slang terms almost purposefully designed to distinguish themselves from their parents, but I feel we are now facing an entire generational language which leads only to further alienation.
    Great blog by the way.

  3. philippa

    July 15, 2008

    Thanks for raising this important point, Tom (and very well argued, I might add!).

    It’s indisputable that ‘cos’ and ‘wot’ are not accepted as ‘proper’ English, but as I said in my post there is a difference between what people use in informal and formal communication.

    In my opinion the issue surrounding any sense of alienation as a result of generational language change is slightly different to the issue I was discussing. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting phenomenon in the field of social linguistics – not a new one though.

    I agree that it can feel alienating to hear language that we find hard to understand, but by that token should we be banning all foreign languages from public areas in an effort to avoid excluding anyone? Do we need to understand everything that is said around us?

    Depending on your point of view, different languages and dialects (to include patois and invented speak such as ‘text speak’) can either threaten established traditions of communication, thereby creating a sense of fragmentation and division, or instead contribute to a rich mix of intercultural communication that finds a way to work in harmony.

    I’m pretty sure that different social and age groups have been, to some extent, speaking with their own ‘languages’ since time began. My point in my post (I think) was that things are same as they ever were, rather than worse. Still, I think Prof. David Crystal and I might be in a fairly sparsely populated camp in terms of which side we favour!

    I’ve been asked to publish an extended version of this article in the ITI Bulletin next month, so linguists look out for it and by all means send me feedback!

  4. Gregor

    July 15, 2008

    Hmmm, the scolarly answers may leave me looking a little unlearned I’m afraid.
    I tend to agree though, that the ‘older’ generations are being left behind with the evolution of the language. In my opinion, this is fair enough, you had the Bodgies and Widgies, terms from my parents generation, and I am sure my grandparents had no clue as to what those terms meant. I agree, that each generation, to an extent, will adapt the english language. The use of incorrect pronunciation to distinguish a neighbourhood, almost as an accent, to prove what ‘hood’ you are from, the slang of gangs and groups. These things all seem accaptable if you are tolerant, but complete butchery of the language is something that needs to stop. I use phrases from TV, ‘fo shizzle ma nizzle’ being one of a few, but this is spelled phonetically, and text speak, is just plain laziness. If it is so hard to spell correctly, use the phone and call the person!!!

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