Thumbspeak: The Phenomenon of “Texting” and What it Means for Communication

Good piece from the New Yorker just published in this week’s edition.  Entitled “Thumbspeak” and written by Louis Menand, the short article covers a new book by David Crystal, Txting: The Gr8 Db8.  Here are some quick hits from the interesting piece:

The Anatomy of Texting (for those not in the know): “Most of the shortcuts used in texting are either self-evident (@ for “at” and “b” for “be”) or new initialisms on the model of the old “A.S.A.P.,” “R.S.V.P.,” and “B.Y.O.B.”: “imho” for “in my humble opinion,” and so on. More imaginatively, there are the elaborated emoticons, such as 7:-) for baseball cap, and pictograms, such as @(—— for a rose and ~(_8^(|) for Homer Simpson. These are for thumb-happy aficionados, though, not the ordinary texter notifying her partner that the flight is late. There is a dialect that is used mainly by kids: “prw” for “parents are watching”; “F?” for “Are we friends again?” But Crystal thinks that texting is not the equivalent of a new language. “People were playing with language in this way long before mobile phones were invented,” he points out. “Texting may be using a new technology, but its linguistic processes are centuries old.” Acronyms, contractions, abbreviations, and shortened words (“phone” for “telephone,” and so forth) are just part of the language. Even back in the days when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and men wrote with typewriters, the language of the office memo was studded with abbreviations: “re:,” “cc.,” “F.Y.I.” “Luv” for “love” dates from 1898; “thanx” was first used in 1936. “Wassup,” Crystal notes, originally appeared in a Budweiser commercial. @(—— is something that E. E. Cummings might have come up with.”

The “Englishing” of Texting (just how many Inuit texts go out each day, anyway?): “But the lists also suggest that texting has accelerated a tendency toward the Englishing of world languages. Under the constraints of the numeric-keypad technology, English has some advantages. The average English word has only five letters; the average Inuit word, for example, has fourteen. English has relatively few characters; Ethiopian has three hundred and forty-five symbols, which do not fit on most keypads. English rarely uses diacritical marks, and it is not heavily inflected. Languages with diacritical marks, such as Czech, almost always drop them in text messages. Portuguese texters often substitute “m” for the tilde. Some Chinese texters use Pinyin—that is, the practice of writing Chinese words using the Roman alphabet.”

The appeal of texting: “The obvious appeal of texting is its speed. There is, as it happens, a Ten Commandments of texting, as laid down by one Norman Silver, the author of “Laugh Out Loud :-D ”). The Fourth of these commandments reads, “u shall b prepard @ all times 2 tXt & 2 recv.” This is the new decorum in communication: you can be sloppy and you can be blunt, but you have to be fast. To delay is to disrespect. In fact, delay is the only disrespect. Any other misunderstanding can be cleared up by a few more exchanges.”

The future of texting according to Crystal: “Once the numeric keypad is replaced by the QWERTY keyboard on most mobile messaging devices, and once the capacity of those devices increases, we are likely to see far fewer initialisms and pictograms. Discourse will migrate back up toward the level of e-mail. But it will still be important to reach out and touch someone.”

A thought-provoking piece, particularly on the subject of how the proliferation of this medium of communication will affect the linguistic patterns and approaches of our children.  Just what does texting do to coherent, thoughtful communication, anyway?  Does anyone really know?  I find it interesting that Crystal theorizes that communication will actually increase in complexity in the future.  That seems difficult to fathom in our tenaciously reductionistic society.  To see something return to a prior level of complexity–this would be a strange, if welcome, occurrence.  One can hope that this is so, and that complex communication will indeed survive incoherent Facebook status updates, garbled text messages, and thoughtless email writing.  But who has time to figure this out, in the end?  G2G.

(That’s “got to go” for those of you scoring at home.)


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