Under my byline

‘O hart tht sorz…’

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 29 January 2009

The last word in the debate over texting

The Gr8 Db8Txtng: The Gr8 Db8
David Crystal
pp x + 240

Introduce a social scientist to a novel practice and his mind will immediately whirr off in search of context. After giving it some thought — and months of research, if he sees the germ of a paper or book — he will joyously retort: “But that’s not new! It has precedent! Without precedent it wouldn’t make sense!” Then he will go on to show how the same sort of thing is mentioned or implied in Suetonius, Shakespeare and the Old Testament, the Puranas, Pataliputra and the Padshahnama.

Now that’s unfairly exaggerated. After all, picking up these historical echoes improves knowledge and discourse. And anything that casts doubt on unfounded certainties is valuable. It’s in this spirit that the noted and prolific British linguist David Crystal has written this book, in which he debunks the widely held notions that texting, or SMSing, is novel, or in any measurable way a sign of decay in our use of language or of creeping illiteracy in our culture. Even if the message looks like this: “c u in 5 min x”, or “what tim does th trn gt in?”, and even if an estimated 2.3 trillion messages were exchanged in 2008.

It has to be said that Crystal largely makes his case. Early on, he lists the headlines of eight research reports published on a single webpage in 2007. They are not unanimous. “Texting fogs your brain like cannabis” reads one, but “Texting helps shy teenagers communicate” reads another. A third says “Texting deprives children of sleep”, yet a fourth says “Texting linked positively with literacy achievements”.

So, apoplexy in the comment sections of Western newspapers notwithstanding, there’s no scholarly consensus. Crystal goes on to show that, if anything, researchers lean toward a favourable view, convinced that texting is either neutral or modestly beneficial.

But before he comes to that conclusion, Crystal thoroughly explores, using all the raw material he can lay his hands on — would you share your own SMSes with a stranger, even for the purposes of science? — the phenomenon of texting, particularly but not solely in the Western and English-speaking world. He asks whether texting really is as weird as the critics say it is, and shows that the most exotic forms of “textese” are quite rare. The fact that even in an SMS one has to be understood is a natural defence, he points out, against orthographic unorthodoxy.

Crystal quotes from wonderful little poems written for various text poetry competitions, including the very first one, organised by the UK Guardian in 2002, early in the SMS era. The winning verses reveal how un-revolutionary texting is. Either the words are all complete and arranged according to the rules of conventional grammar, or what deviance there is is either superficial or, upon investigation, shown to be functionally minimal. One remarkable runner-up reads:

O hart tht sorz
My luv adorz
He mAks me liv
He mAks me giv
Myslf 2 him
As my luv porz

That was written by a 68-year-old grandmother. The winner was written conventionally, by a much younger man. Which goes to show that sometimes it’s the young who are old-fashioned.

And then there are history and human nature, the two chief threads of Crystal’s argument against novelty. He confidently connects logograms, pictograms, initialisms, omitted letters, non-standard spellings and abbreviations, and combinations thereof — novel in the daily context of texting — with such historical peculiarities as the rebus (from the Latin non verbis sed rebus, “not with words but with things”), a kind of word game in which one guesses a sentence from pictures or characters. For example, “YY U R YY U B I C U R YY 4 ME”, to be read as “Too wise you are…”. Then there’s our old habit of using acronyms like GDP, FYI, Nato, BBC. And so on.

As for human nature: we like shortcuts. Even so, some abbreviations and non-standard forms are more painstaking to type out on phones than conventional words. So why use them? Well, Crystal reminds us of “the human ludic temperament” — i.e., it’s fun. He also writes about the social context of texting — what is communicated, and how etiquette and usage vary by culture and subculture.

It’s a comprehensive and entertaining book, perhaps the last word on the subject for the moment. Crystal concludes that there’s nothing to worry about. The reader will probably agree — insofar as texting is concerned. The real cause for concern, however, ought to be that, writing so much ephemeral stuff (text, e-mail, school, office), we don’t write anything to last.


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