The hype about texting
Here are eight headlines taken from a single page of research reports found on the Web in 2007.
Texting fogs your brain like cannabis
Texting does not influence literacy skills
Texting replaces speech for communication among teenagers
Texting deprives children of sleep
Texting linked positively with literacy achievements
Texting helps shy teenagers communicate
Teenagers to get free mobiles to improve literacy standards
Mobiles prove effective in getting NEETs back into learning
NEETs? Those 'not currently engaged in employment, education, or training' — an acronym introduced following a UK government report in 2000.
We seem to have a problem. Has there ever been a linguistic phenomenon which has aroused such curiosity, suspicion, fear, confusion, antagonism, fascination, excitement, and enthusiasm, all at once? And in such a short space of time. Less than a decade ago, hardly anyone had heard of it.
The idea of a point-to-point short message service (or SMS) began to be discussed as part of the development of the Global System for Mobile Communications (or GSM) network in the mid-1980s, but it wasn't until the early 90s that phone companies started to develop the commercial possibilities. Texts communicated by pagers were replaced by text messages, at first only twenty characters in length. And although the first experimental messages were sent (in Finland) in 1992-3, it took five years or more before numbers of users started to build up. The average number of texts per GSMcustomer in 1995 was 0.4 per month; by the end of 2000 it was still only 35.
The slow start, it seems, was because the companies had trouble working out reliable ways of charging for the new service. But once procedures were in place, texting rocketed. In the UK, in 2001, 12.2 billion (i.e. thousand million) text messages were sent. This had doubled by 2004, and was forecast to be 45 billion in 2007. On Christmas Day alone in 2006, over 205 million text messages went out. And that's just one country. World figures went from 17 billion in 2000 to 250 billion in 2001. They passed a trillion (million million) in 2005. Gartner, the industry analysts, predict the total will reach 2.4 trillion by 2010. Given the lucrative nature of the business, a slowdown is inconceivable. Gartner reported that text messaging generated around 70 billion dollars of revenue in 2005. That was over three times as much as all Hollywood box office sales that year.
The growth in usage has been a natural consequence of the phenomenal growth in penetration of the mobile phone (as it is known in British English — mobile for short), or cellphone (in American English — cell, for short). Although rates of diffusion vary greatly around the world, the common pattern is one of extraordinarily rapid growth. By 2003, Europe, Oceania, and North America each had more than one mobile subscription for every two people, and by 2007 several countries (such as Hong Kong, the UK, Sweden, and Italy) had passed saturation point, with the number of subscriptions equalling or exceeding the total population (due to many people taking out more than one subscription). China became the country with most subscriptions, passing 500 million in mid — 2007. Africa was the fastest growing area in 2007, moving from 6 per cent to 21 per cent use within the population in the four years since 2003, and passing 200 million subscriptions mid-ear. The accumulated estimates indicated that over 3 billion people, half the world's population, would have a mobile phone subscription by 2008.
The technical properties of SMS define its communicative possibilities. One SMS message can contain up to 140 bytes (1,120 bits) of data. If characters (letters, punctuation marks, etc.) are encoded with 7 bits, as is usual for the Latin alphabet, then the maximum size of the message is 160 characters. If more complex symbols are to be represented (as in Chinese or Japanese writing), then a 16-bit Unicode encoding has to be used, and that reduces the size of the message to 70 characters. Besides text, an enhanced SMS system can also carry other kinds of data, such as ringtones, logos, and animations. It is even possible to send longer messages, using a system called 'concatenated SMS', which breaks a long message down into smaller chunks, sending them in sequence, though not all wireless devices support it. MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) offers more ambitious options, including the transmission of photographs, sound files, video, and graphics, as well as longer messages.
Short messaging, short mail, SMSing, person-to-person messaging, mobile messaging, wireless messaging, text messaging, texting, txtng . . . whatever we call it, it is evidently here to stay. It is available on other systems, too, such as the Japanese DoCoMo i-mode service and the iPhone. So if it is causing problems, we need to be able to manage them. And if it is providing benefits, we need to know how to build on them. The surprising thing, for such a global phenomenon, is that so little reliable information about the language of texting has become public knowledge. Psychologists, sociologists, health specialists, journalists, and educators have had plenty to say; but hardly any reports provide details of what exactly happens to language when people create texts. As a result, a huge popular mythology has grown up, in which exaggerated and distorted accounts of what youngsters are believed to do when they text has fuelled prophecies of impending linguistic disaster.
The popular belief is that texting has evolved as a twenty-first century phenomenon — as a highly distinctive graphic style, full of abbreviations and deviant uses of language, used by a young generation that doesn't care about standards. There is a widely voiced concern that the practice is fostering a decline in literacy. And some even think it is harming language as a whole. 'Text messages destroying our language', headed a report in a Washington paper in May 2007, and the writer goes on:
I knew this was coming. From the first time one of my friends sent me the message 'I've got 2 go, talk to U later,' I knew the end was near. The English language as we once knew it is out the window, and replacing it is this hip and cool slang-induced language, obsessed with taking the vowels out of words and spelling fonetikally.
Crispin Thurlow, a linguist at the University of Washington, has collected dozens of such reports, which cumulatively have generated a sense of 'moral panic' in the population. There is now a widespread folk belief that, whatever texting is, it must be a bad thing.
It isn't just the USA that is panicking. In the UK, also in 2007, broadcaster John Humphrys exploded in the Daily Mail. In an article headed 'I h8 txt msgs: How texting is wrecking our language', he uses some of the most apocalyptic language I have ever read to condemn it. Texters are:
vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.
The end is nigh! If I had a pound for every time I have heard of someone predicting a language disaster because of a new technological development, I should be a very rich man. My bank balance would have started to grow with the arrival in the Middle Ages of printing, thought by many to be the invention of the devil because it would put all kinds of false opinions into people's minds. It would have increased with the arrival of the telegraph, telephone, and broadcasting, each of which generated short-lived fears that the fabric of society was under threat. And I would have been able to retire on the profits from text messaging, the latest innovation to bring out the prophets of doom.
All the popular beliefs about texting are wrong, or at least debatable. Its graphic distinctiveness is not a totally new phenomenon. Nor is its use restricted to the young generation. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy. And only a very tiny part of the language uses its distinctive orthography. A trillion text messages may seem a lot, but when we set these alongside the multi-trillion instances of standard orthography in everyday life, they appear as no more than a few ripples on the surface of the sea of language. Texting has added a new dimension to language use, indeed, but its long-term impact on the already existing varieties of language is likely to be negligible. It is not a bad thing.
That is my flag nailed to the mast. All these issues need a thoroughgoing exploration. And I begin with the basic question: What actually takes place, linguistically speaking, when people text each other? The answer contains a few surprises.
Excerpted from Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 by David Crystal. Copyright © 2008 by David Crystal. Excerpted by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.