Following up my last post: I've been impressed by the media coverage given to Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 over the past three weeks. The interest seems to have reached across the usual publishing divide. One day a full-page review appeared in The Daily Mail; the next day in The Times. This week there were reviews in the New Statesman, New Scientist, and Newsweek and - I kid you not - one column inch in Take A Break. Is this the first time the word linguistics has appeared in that publication? I imagine so!
But it's going to be difficult to dispel the urban myths about texting. Here’s an example of the problem. Txtng came out on 5th July. On the 6th there was a report in Scotland on Sunday headed ‘Professor spreads the word on joy of text’. That sounds good, and the report did summarize quite well the six main points.
- Text messages aren’t full of abbreviations - typically less than ten percent of the words use them.
- These abbreviations aren’t a new language - they’ve been around for decades.
- They aren’t just used by kids - adults of all ages and institutions are the leading texters these days.
- Pupils don’t routinely put them into their school-work or examinations.
- It isn’t a cause of bad spelling: you have to know how to spell before you can text.
- Texting actually improves your literacy, as it gives you more practice in reading and writing.
At the end, the reporter asked for a reaction from the Headteachers’ Association of Scotland. This is what the spokesman said: ‘Because of the rate in which text-speak is taking hold I shudder to think what letters will look like in 10 years’ time.’
The spokesman obviously hadn’t paid any attention at all to the report. The reaction I would hope to see is something along the lines of: ‘It’s reassuring to hear that things aren’t as bad as we thought they were’. Or even: ‘Well let’s explore ways in which we can utilize the potential of texting for improving literacy in our schools’. But no.
I struggle to find an analogy. It’s a bit like someone saying: ‘an aeroplane landed on a motorway a few years ago, and everyone worried about it happening again. It’s a real problem now, and it’s going to be even worse in 10 years’ time.’
To which the answer is: it isn’t a problem, actually. You’re imagining it. Look at the facts before you comment. It’s a risk, certainly, and we need to be alert. But there are no grounds for panicking.
A few years ago, it would have been difficult to say this about texting, because there were no facts. Things have changed now. The research is building up. My book went to press just a few months ago, and already since then I’ve come across further research findings which reaffirm its conclusions. For example, a recent article (in New Scientist for 15 May 2008) reported a study by Sali Tagliamonte and Derek Denis of the University of Toronto which confirmed that abbreviations are far less frequent in electronically mediated communication than people suppose. For every one instance of u, there are nine of you, they found. That’s exactly what I would expect.
It’ll take quite a while to get rid of the myths about texting. The trouble is that they are well established on the Internet. That hoax essay from 2003, in which a pupil was supposed to have bemused her teacher by writing an essay entirely in textisms, is still doing the rounds. Someone sent me a copy just the other day as ‘evidence’ of the terrible state we’re in. If it was a regular happening, or (more to the point) if teachers were letting this happen, we might have cause to worry. But it isn’t. They aren’t. And we shouldn’t.