It says something about the phenomenon analyzed in David Crystal’s new book Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (Oxford University Press) that the very title will tend to divide readers into two camps. One will be amused. The other will be disgusted.

The visceral reaction is more interesting to think about, in some ways – for disgust suggests that some boundary has been breached, some norm transgressed. We hear fewer warnings than we once did about texting and instant messaging – how they are destroying the English language, turning young people into semi-literate barbarians, and otherwise hastening the decline of civilization. But that doesn’t mean the sentiment itself is gone. It’s just difficult to come up with new ways to express curmudgeonliness.

And anyway, the cause is lost. According to one estimate cited by Crystal, some 158 billion text messages were sent in the United States in 2006 – almost twice as many as the previous year. As of the middle of this decade, roughly one trillion such messages per year are being sent worldwide. Text messaging has emerged as a growth industry, at one point generating more than three times the revenue of all Hollywood box office receipts. That rate of expansion is bound to decline. But it has established an array of abbreviations, contractions, emoticons and orthographic mutations – all made useful, if not inescapable, by the need to stay succinct while texting, given the size of the screen. IMHO. omg! LOL!

It can’t be helped. And as for Crystal – an honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales at Bangor and editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, among other works – he does not complain. In his latest book, he makes the argument that the idiolect of texting is not just a response to the limitations of the medium but the product of basic, ordinary processes found in other forms of communication.

The most obvious case is initialism – with AWOL, ASAP, and SNAFU, for example, having long since become so commonplaces that practically replace the phrases they condense. E-mail revitalized the practice with expressions such as IMHO (in my humble opinion) and ROTFL (“rolling on the floor laughing”). Since then, texting and instant-messaging have turned initialism into a kind of competitive sport – with someone coining ROTFLMAOWTIME (“rolling on the floor laughing my ass off with tears in my eyes”).

Also familiar from pre-digital times is the habit of shortening words. Crystal cites a dictionary of common abbreviations from 1942 listing such text-message-like usages as amt (amount), agn (again), and wd (would). Mashing together letters and numbers to create phonetic shorthand (“before” as b4) is an example of the logogram, related to conjunctions of characters found in languages such as Chinese. It is also akin to the old puzzle form known as the rebus.

Beyond its utilitarian value of permitting users to say as much as they can in as few keystrokes as possible (which also means saving money) the language of texting is a manifestation of “the human ludic temperament,” as Crystal puts it. That is, it is a form of play: something closely associated with the process of learning to use language itself. Pace the alarms occasionally raised about how texting undermines literacy, Crystal cites recent studies showing that pre-teen students who text had standard language skills equal to or better than those of non-texters.

“Teenage texters are not stupid,” says Crystal. But what they lack is a sense of “the consequences of what they are doing, in the eyes of society as a whole…. They need to know when textisms are effective and when they are not. They need to appreciate the range of social reactions which texting, in its various forms, can elicit. This knowledge is slowly acquired from parents, peers, text etiquette websites, and (in the narrow sense) teachers. Teenagers have to learn to manage tis new behavior, as indeed do we all. For one thing is certain: texting is not going to go away in the foreseeable future.”

It is also, at this point, a cross-cultural phenomenon. Crystal includes a set of tables showing the textisms used in a dozen languages. Chances are this will not be the last book on the subject by a linguist. As long as none of them is actually written in txt-ese, I guess I can live with that thought.

Scott McLemee
Inside Higher Ed