Whenever a new cultural phenomenon like texting sweeps through suddenly, it can be very difficult to find a calm, data-based source of information. One that is neither prophesizing doom or saying that texting will change the fabric of the universe. The book Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 by David Crystal, the author of several linguistics books written for the non-specialist audience, fills in this gap for the texting (aka SMS) quite nicely.
As a linguist, any new communication medium is bound to be interesting, but the interest isn’t so much the new abbreviations as the behaviors surrounding texting, both from the texters and those who react negatively to texting. That’s not to say that Crystal overlooks abbreviations.
Crystal provides an in-depth guide to different texting abbreviation conventions in English and other languages, but he also points out that 1) the concept of abbreviation is nothing new and 2) one reasons they occur simply because the interface of a numeric keypad is so cumbersome. On the other hand, Crystal notes that there is little evidence that texters confuse texting with formal writing. In fact, he quotes several teens who scathingly dismiss the idea of using texting language on a school assignment as utter lunacy (“Duh”). Crystal also demonstrates that fears for the demise of English accompany every new communication technology from TV to e-mail.
In terms of behavior, the book provides a good summary of what we know. One of the chapters asks “Who texts?”, and the answer is quite a lot do it, especially outside the United States. In fact, he remarks that texting in the U.S. actually lagged behind other areas in Europe and Asia, particularly the Phillipines, where the service is relatively low cost in comparison to voice. (Note: The same is not true in the U.S. Here texting is a huge profit center for phone carriers, one reason I have never texted, although I respect those who do).
In terms of WHAT is tbeing exted, Crystal acknowledges that most of the data is anecdotal because few people are willing to allow researchers open access to their personal texts. Data is collected either via survey or from random quotes. One interesting pattern that does emerge is that text messages both concise but self contained. That is, an effective message needs to convey the full meaning in one text chunk. Unlike chat, a sender cannot assume a recipient will reply. According to one study, SMS messages are actually longer than chat lines even though there is a 160 character limit.
As you might expect, there was much discussion of the impact of texting upon literacy, but Crystal regards texting as having a mostly positive impact. First some educators have noted that texting does provide another outlet for writing. Although most messages seem off the cuff, the reality is that the sender does have to consider length and how it will be read by the recipient.
And new literary genres are being born such as SMS poetry and the offshoot Twitterature in which Hamlet tweets “2bornot2b”. I myself have always been amazed at how quickly Darth Vader and Batman adopt new communication channels.
Are there any adverse consequences to texting? Of course. One is the danger of repetitive motion injury (aka “Blackberry thumb”), and another is texting/phoning while driving (or driving a train in Boston). The third is that people do text in (ahem) inappropriate situations including religious services and apparently at least one funeral. One the main motivations for texting is boredom as well as conveying information. Sometimes popular culture gets it right.
What really surprised me? Believe it or not, the non-English abbreviations. There are nativized abbrevations such as Spanish dnd for ¿dónde? “where” and 100pre for siempre “always” (or cien+pre).
But, I was shocked at how many English conventions had been adopted whole sale, up an including the use of 2 for the syllable /tu/. For instance, a Spanish texter might write ers2 for ¿Eres tú…? “Are you…?” Even English “k” is being introduced to replace “qu” in both Spanish and Italian texting (although just “q” may also be used).
Finally, there’s the phonological information you can gather whenever writers switch to an informal phonetic based spelling. Abbreviations such as aora for ahora “now” show that there is a silent h and iwal for igual /igwal/ > [iɣwal] show that some /g/ are either silent or near silent. I guess those abbreviations are more interesting than I first thought.
Postscript: Other Sources
One researcher Crystal draws heavily on is Naomi Baron. She also has a book called Always On about social computing. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it will also be on my list. And I always recommend danah boyd (all lowercase) who has done ethnographic research on teens and the use of different communication tools.