Monday 4 August 2008

On txtng reactions

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.


Philip Hall said...

Good that you made a splash, but...

these magazines and newspapers obviously don't know much about the history of spelling reform, do they.

Did you read Ian Banks book, Feersum Enjdin, David? That was a forerunner of texting.

By the way, what was the name of the father who John Bradbourne worked with. Can you tell me a little about him. I want to do a little Guardian blog in response to Grayling and the religion baiters.

Perhaps you should, if you have the time.

Phil Hall

The Ridger, FCD said...

It's like Canute...

I remember an article by a woman complaining bitterly about how her daughter's generation "refuses to be bound by the centuries-old rules of grammar to which the rest of the country is firmly tied."

Except that her examples were - none of them - grammar. Just spelling.

"’s up, peeps.nuttin much wit me just wanted to say hey cus im bored. btw did u c julies new haircut CUUUUTTTE!
k…im done L8R"

Not ungrammatical in the least. Just spelled differently and punctuated a bit loosely. Okay, an elided subject or two, but something tells me that

"What's up, people? Nothing much with me, just wanted to say hey 'cause I'm bored. By the way, did you see Julie's new haircut? CUTE! OK, I'm done. Later"

wouldn't have drawn a rant about abandoning grammar...

DC said...

No I don't know it. Sounds interesting.

Fr John Dove wrote the biography of Bradburne, 'Strange Vagabond of God', available from the John Bradburne Memorial Society. He served with JB in the Gurkhas in WW2, then entered the Jesuits, becoming based in a Zimbabwe mission where JB eventually ended up. I met him in Zim in 1998, when he took me round the Mtemwa leprosy settlement, where JB was warden. Old age is unfortunately taking its toll on him these days, and I'm told he isn't really able to correspond any more.

I'm focusing solely on getting the poetry website finished, and then plan to write up some of the findings. That's a more useful use of time, I think. But all power to you.

DC said...

Absolutely. I make the same point in the book. Note, by the way, that despite the overall impression of spelling deviance, half the words in the example are spelled in standard English.

Andjam said...

Canute didn't think he could stop the tide.

DC said...

He should have blogged about it.

anoopa said...

I recently stumbled on your book when I was researching for a paper. I would like to add that lately I do notice people taking the effort to write full words without shortening them to 'r u goin 4 de movie?' and such. i feel the qwerty keypads and touch screen are helping them write full words. but there is no way of getting rid of the abbreviations and i wouldn't want to either. i am happy to find OED accepting LOL, FYI and OMG into their list of abbreviations.