By Abby Kaplan author of Women Talk More Than Men and Other Myths about Language Explained
For years now, observers have been alert to a growing social menace. Like Harold Hill, they warn that there’s trouble in River City — with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Phone.
Mobile phones are a multifaceted scourge; they’ve been blamed for everything from poor social skills to short attention spans. As a linguist, I’m intrigued by one particular claim: that texting makes people illiterate. Not only are text messages short (and thus unsuited for complex ideas), they’re riddled with near-uninterpretable abbreviations: idk, pls, gr8. Young people are especially vulnerable to these altered forms; critics frequently raise the specter of future students studying a Hamlet who texts 2B or not 2B.
The puzzling thing is that none of these abominable abbreviations are unique to text messaging, or even to electronic communication more generally. There’s nothing inherently wrong with acronyms and initialisms like idk; similar abbreviations like RSVP are perfectly acceptable, even in formal writing. The only difference is that idk, lol, and other ‘textisms’ don’t happen to be on the list of abbreviations that are widely accepted in formal contexts. Non-acronym shortenings like pls for please are similarly unremarkable; they’re no different in kind from appt for appointment.
Less obvious is the status of abbreviations like gr8, which use the rebus principle: 8 is supposed to be read, not as the number between 7 and 9, but as the sound of the English word that it stands for. The conventions for formal written English don’t have anything similar. But just because a technique isn’t used in formal English writing doesn’t mean that technique is linguistically suspect; in fact, there are other written traditions that use exactly this principle. In Ancient Egyptian, for example, the following hieroglyph was used to represent the word ḥr ‘face’:
It’s not a coincidence, of course, that the symbol for the word meaning ‘face’ looks like a face. But the same symbol could also be used to represent the sound of that word embedded inside a larger word. For example, the word ḥryt ‘terror’ could be written as follows:
Here, the symbol has nothing to do with faces, just as the 8 in gr8 has nothing to do with numbers. The rebus principle was an important part of hieroglpyhic writing, and I’ve never heard anyone argue that this practice led to the downfall of ancient Egyptian civilization. So why do we think textisms are so dangerous?
Even if there’s nothing wrong with these abbreviations in principle, it could still be that using them interferes with your ability to read and write the standard language. If you see idk and pls on a daily basis, maybe you’ll have a hard time remembering that they’re informal (as opposed to RSVP and appt). But on the other hand, all these abbreviations require considerable linguistic sophistication — maybe texting actually improves your literacy by encouraging you to play with language. We all command a range of styles in spoken language, from formal to informal, and we’re very good at adjusting our speech to the situation; why couldn’t we do the same thing in writing?
At the end of the day, the only way to find out what texting really does is to go out and study it in the real world. And that’s exactly what research teams in the UK, the US, and Australia have done. The research in this area has found no consistent negative effect of texting; in fact, a few studies have even suggested that texting might have a modest benefit. It seems that all the weeping and gnashing of teeth about the end of literacy as we know it was premature: the apocalypse is not nigh.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should all spend every spare minute texting. (I’m a reluctant texter myself, and I have zero interest in related services like Twitter.) There are plenty of reasons to be thoughtful about how we use any technology, mobile phones included. What we’ve seen here is just that the linguistic argument against texting doesn’t hold water.
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