I am teaching two classes this month, Literature of the Holocaust and Freshman Composition. It’s an interesting combination, since the Holocaust literature class focuses on the use of language to make art, and therefore a kind of beauty, out of content that is anything but conventionally beautiful and the freshman composition class is focused on helping students learn how to use language precisely and persuasively, without being focused on the mastery of a particular content. I’ve decided I want to spend some time this summer blogging about the readings I assign in these classes and the discussions we have about them.
The first essay I have asked my composition class to read is “2b or Not 2b?” by David Crystal, a defense of texting not just as a means of communication, but as “language in evolution.” Crystal starts out by quoting John Humphrys who, in an essay called “I h8 txt msgs: How texting is wrecking our language,” wrote that people who text are “vandals…doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbors 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.” Humphrys, of course, is not alone in feeling this way, though is expression of contempt may be a bit extreme. My colleagues and I complain often about how frequently the language of texting finds its way into the essays students write for us, substituting the letter u for you, the number 2 for to, two, or too, and I even had one student who, in a literary analysis, kept referring to “the txt of the poem.” Oddly enough, my students tend to be no less critical. During the pre-reading discussion we had today, more than a few of them suggested that people who use texting abbreviations do so because they are lazy; one woman admitted that she’d stopped using abbreviations in her texts because she started using them in formal writing without even realizing it; and we had a small debate about whether the language of texting is indeed “dumbing down the language,” to quote one of the men in the class.
Crystal points out, however, that texting is hardly the first technological advance to be accompanied by prophecies of doom for language: “Ever since the arrival of printing — thought to be the invention of the devil because it would put false opinions into people’s minds — people have been arguing the new technology would have disastrous consequences for language. [What turned out to be unfounded] scares accompanied the introduction of the telegraph, telephone, and broadcasting.” More, he points out that within the context of the “multi-trillion instances of standard orthography in everyday life [the] trillion text messages [that are sent] appear as no more than a few ripples on the surface of the sea of language.” Hardly something with the power to destroy the infrastructure of any of the world’s languages.
What I enjoyed the most about Crystal’s essay was his illustration of how the abbreviations people use in texting are nothing new, that they are, rather, a further development of linguistic “processes used in the past.” How different, for example, is lol or ttyl from the swak (sealed with a kiss) that the girls I went to high school with often wrote at the end of letters or notes? Nor is it true that we are the first generation to worry that abbreviations such as those used in texting are somehow indicative of lower-class sensibilities. In 1711, Crystal points out, Joseph Addison inveighed against the abbreviations of his time, pos for positive, for example, or incog for incognito. And Crystal quotes no less a canonical writer than Jonathan Swift, who though that abbreviating words was a “barbarous custom.”
The most fascinating paragraph in Crystal’s essay, however, is the one in which he talks about the growing body of evidence which suggests that texting helps rather than hinders literacy.
An extraordinary number of doom-laden prophecies had been made about the supposed linguistic evils unleashed by texting. Sadly, its creative potential has been virtually ignored. But five years of research has at last begun to dispel the myths. The most important finding is that texting does not erode children’s ability to read and write. On the contrary, literacy improves. The latest studies (from a team at Coventry University) have found strong positive links between the use of text language and the skills underlying success in standard English in pre-teenage children. The more abbreviations in their messages, the higher they scored on tests of reading and vocabulary. The children who were better at spelling and writing used the most textisms. And the younger they received their first phone, the higher their scores.
While this may at first seem counterintuitive, if you think about it, it makes sense — though you do first have to recognize that textisms are created through a systematic and rule-governed process and are not random changes wrought willy-nilly on language by people who don’t know any better. Once you recognize that — and I admit it is not self-evident; Crystal does a decent job of making it clear — it is not hard to understand, I think, that someone who is proficient in text language is also going to be someone who is comfortable with language in general, understands how it works, and why and when and where it is appropriate and necessary to deviate from the standard.
I am not fully persuaded by Crystal’s argument — I would need to read the studies he talks about, for example — but he has convinced me that texting is not the simplistic linguistic phenomenon I used to think it was, and I am interested to hear how my students react to the ways in which he takes on their own prejudices. I am also very aware that while his essay is a wonderful exploration of the linguistics of texting, he says next to nothing about its social and cultural implications beyond language. In our discussion today, for example, and in every discussion I have had with classes about texting for the last couple of semesters, students talked about knowing someone whose boyfriend or girlfriend — who was not far away at the time — broke up with them by text. To me, that phenomenon is troubling, but it is also the subject of a very different post.