Imagine a world without text messaging. Would the office be a better place without the annoying beep of a text arriving on a colleague’s phone, and a night out with a friend be more enjoyable if they weren’t checking their handbag or pocket to see if they had any messages? And crucially, is texting harming people’s levels of literacy?
In a recent poll on the University of Wolverhampton’s website, 76% of people said they thought text speak was endangering literacy. More than 2,000 people voted in the poll, illustrating the strength of feeling about the issue.
For Tom Dickins, Course Leader for Linguistics in the School of Law, Social Sciences and Communications, the results are not surprising. In some quarters, it is a commonly held view that we should protect language and many people instinctively feel there is something sacrosanct about ‘correct’ forms of language.
But it can be seen that language is constantly evolving, and has been changing for centuries.
“In the 15th Century for example, there was a major vowel shift, and many of the long vowel sounds that people use now, especially in standard pronunciation, bear little resemblance to the vowels used in the 1400s. But some of the vowel sounds still found in the Midlands and in other regional dialects are a reflection of older forms of English.
“Every language is changing, all the time, particularly in terms of vocabulary. English currently seems fairly immune to the influences of other languages, except for areas such as food and martial arts, but other languages are borrowing huge numbers of terms from English at the moment,” Tom explains.
Linguistics experts such as David Crystal, author of Txting: the Gr8 Db8, argue that the overall effect of texting on language is pretty negligible.
Tom agrees: “The fact that people text is not going to adversely affect the development of English but there is some evidence that in order to text you need to be able to manipulate language. The process of engaging with the written word may actually contribute to an improvement in children’s cognitive abilities.
Their literacy skills and awareness of how language works may directly benefit as a result of their using the written language more often.
“Texting has quite significant creative possibilities. You can play with words, ideas and language, in a way which may help you to develop a deeper understanding of language.”
The main criticisms of text speak are that it is a lazy form of communication and children who use it do not acquire the skills necessary to develop more ‘sophisticated’ forms of expression. An additional negative levelled at text speak centres on the fact that children use too many abbreviations and this poses a threat to standard usage.
Text speak essentially involves using a mixture of single letters, numerals and symbols to represent words or parts of words, known as “rebuses”. An example would be “Gd 2 c u”.
But as Tom observes, abbreviations have been around for decades and are now widely accepted as part of the English language.
“Some people see abbreviations as harmful for the language but forget we use them all the time. Examples include initialisms such as CIA and USA and acronyms like NATO or AIDS, and even commonplace phrases like Man Utd and the telly. It is not as if this use of letters came in as a result of texting – DIY, RIP, RSVP and SOS have existed for years and have nothing to do with texting.
“Quite a lot of text speak is just short forms we use naturally and constitutes a more succinct means of getting a message across. It is easy to see it as a crude bastardisation of language, but if you can save money by using one text instead of two then you will.
The fact that people are using abbreviated forms is fine - as long as the person receiving the message understands, then that is not affecting communication.”
However there are potential problems in the form of punctuation use.
Tom says: “Overall, it is difficult to substantiate the claim that texting is adversely affecting children’s language development, although potential problems may exist in the use of punctuation. It could be argued that texting may be harming their ability to use apostrophes, capital letters, full stops and such, but it must be remembered that they are exposed to correct usage in a wide range of other forums.”
In a broader sense, knowledge of language can be used to solve crimes. Forensic linguistics has been used in high profile cases, for example in the form of voice analysis which can be used to establish where someone is from, their gender, age, social and geographical background and ethnicity.
And even the Queen’s English has changed over the last 30 years. Australian and German linguists have compared recordings of the Queen now with three decades ago and found that nowadays her vowels have become more similar to the norms of standard received pronunciation. Language is changing all the time - most obviously in the last 10 years due to technological advances and popular culture.
Tom argues that language tends to change in quite subtle ways that sometimes people do not necessarily notice.
Texting itself is changing. The new Apple iPhones have a ‘Qwerty’ keyboard format for texts, and Tom thinks it will be interesting to see how this affects people’s approach to messaging. It can also be seen that forms of writing and speaking are changing all the time.
For example, people use different registers and styles of writing for emails than they would in a formal letter.
As Tom says: “There is an assumption that language does not change and there are right and wrong forms of language. But there is no such thing as a single style of speaking. We all vary the way we speak and write constantly – the vocabulary, the pronunciation, the tone and use of colloquialisms.
“Most linguists would argue that, far from being a reflection of laziness, text speak is a practical and efficient solution to the constraints imposed by mobile phones.”
If you would like to learn more about studying linguistics at the University of Wolverhampton, visit: www.wlv.ac.uk/lssc