A Texter or Ghengis Khan?

Over the last couple of days, I have been thinking about the damage that people claim texting is doing to literacy. The broadcaster, journalist and lifelong defender of standard, carefully spelled and punctuated English, John Humphrys, thinks is doing a great deal of damage. Writing for The Daily Mail in September of last year,  he claimed that “relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS (Short Message Service) vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago”.

“They are destroying it” he went on to say “pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped”.

Many who felt that had a point may have felt that he’d gone a little over the top, but, in broad terms, there were the agreed to him or claimed that they agreed with him. I say “claimed to agree” because I wondered at the time, and still wonder, whether all of them practiced what they preached. I certainly, without having given it much thought, was agreeing with him principle, while at the same time I found myself falling  in practice of occasionally deviating from standardised style and usage.

Then, 48 hours ago, my daughter asked me whether or not I was interested in attending a talk one of my heroes, the linguist David Crystal is giving locally, and that got me wondering what (if any) his thoughts were on texting and text speak.

Contrary to expectation, he has turned no be quite as opposed to it as I thought (nay, hoped) he would be.

In a lengthy piece for The Guardian on the 5th of July 2008, Crystal insisted that the doom-mongers such were being unnecessarily  alarmist than that texters who resorted to shorthand and testspeak were not necessarily taking the English speaking world to hell in a handcart.

For one thing, says Crystal, the numbers messages sent by mobile phones is still a small proportion of the number of messages sent

People think that the written language seen on mobile phone screens is new and alien, but all the popular beliefs about texting are wrong. Its graphic distinctiveness is not a new phenomenon, nor is its use restricted to the young. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy. And only a very tiny part of it uses a distinctive orthography. A trillion text messages might 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, but its long-term impact is negligible. It is not a disaster.

For another, Crystal argues, the rules can only be bent so much. Everybody who aims to be understood has to work within some bounds.

 Although many texters enjoy breaking linguistic rules, they also know they need to be understood. There is no point in paying to send a message if it breaks so many rules that it ceases to be intelligible. When messages are longer, containing more information, the amount of standard orthography increases. Many texters alter just the grammatical words (such as “you” and “be”). As older and more conservative language users have begun to text, an even more standardised style has appeared. Some texters refuse to depart at all from traditional orthography. And conventional spelling and punctuation is the norm when institutions send out information messages, as in this university text to students: “Weather Alert! No classes today due to snow storm”, or in the texts which radio listeners are invited to send in to programmes. These institutional messages now form the majority of texts in cyberspace – and several organisations forbid the use of abbreviations, knowing that many readers will not understand them. Bad textiquette.

There is much food for thought in this essay by Crystal, and I’m likely to be chewing on it for a while.


2 Responses to “A Texter or Ghengis Khan?”

  1. A texter or Ghengis Khan? 2 « Kevin Cryan online Says:

    […] rounded off my original diary entry, A texter or Ghengis Khan? by saying that ‘there much food for thought in this essay by (David) Crystal, and I’m likely to […]

  2. A Texter or Ghengis Khan? 3 « Kevin Cryan online Says:

    […] A Texter or Ghengis Khan? […]

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