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Writers Talk About Writing

David Crystal on the Myth of Texting

David Crystal is one of the most well-respected writers on language and communication, having published an impressive array of books from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language to The Fight for English. His latest, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, tackles the facts and fictions of text messaging. In the first of our three-part interview, he explains how persistent myths about the dangers of texting, particularly in his native Great Britain, compelled him to write a book laying out the empirical realities of this novel form of communication.

VT: Let's talk about your motivation for writing the book. What piqued your interest in the subject of texting?

DC: It was a dawning realization about how universal the myth was about texting. Virtually everywhere I went, people would come up and talk to me about it. One of the recurring questions was what my opinion was about this new disaster that was affecting all our children. People were saying how kids were unable to spell and their literacy was going down. And it's all the fault of these mobile phones, these cell phones! So this was building up and building up, and eventually I thought I've just got to do something. So I sat down and started to research it. And as a result, the aim was to try and get through the urban myths about this and present some reality.

VT: Why do you think the reactions have been so intense about texting? There have been similar reactions to previous communication technologies, but it seems that the backlash against texting has been particularly extreme.

DC: I'm as amazed about this as anybody else. I can't quite understand why it's had such bad press, but I think I know why it reduced us all in the UK to panic. It all went back to a hoax message in 2003. An essay went up on the Web, purportedly written by a school kid in the UK, entirely in text messaging abbreviations. The teacher purportedly couldn't understand a word of it and complained. The story just became bigger and bigger, but the whole thing was undoubtedly a hoax.

VT: Was the entire story a hoax, or did something actually happen that was embellished?

DC: Some kid could have written something like that as a joke — as a game, really. The essay has never been found, nor has the teacher been found. Somebody posted this on the Web. Exactly who did it first, I haven't been able to find, but it spread within a matter of weeks. If you type an extract from it into Google, you'll find tens of thousands of repetitions of it everywhere. And it's still being referred to. Five years on, people are still saying, "But children are doing this all the time!" And you say, "Can you give me an example?" And they say, "Well, there's this essay about school holidays on the Web..." [See here for an early news report on the school essay.]

It doesn't take much sometimes to start a huge Internet myth. Before that, there were a number of people worrying about it, of course. But afterwards it just took off. To my mind, 2003 was the point where the myth really grew and grew. And then the examining boards got onto it. In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, everybody started to panic and say, "The kids are going to be using these in examinations all the time, so we better make sure they don't by putting in rules into our system to stop them doing it." And these are the things that get the headlines: "Exam board puts in rules saying no text messaging abbreviations." It's a bit like saying we better put notices up everywhere on motorways, saying, "Beware in case planes land on the motorway. Do take care." You know, they don't land on motorways very much.

VT: I think that the panic in the US has been delayed, since the US is about five years behind the UK in the popularization of text messaging.

DC: Exactly. In that sense, the publication of the book is more timely in the States than over here. Here, I'm fighting a rearguard action, as it were. In the States, I think the book could possibly be a bit climate-forming in that a lot of the panic hasn't reached that kind of institutional level yet.

VT: The "moral panic," as you call it, reminds me of other complaints about language that usually get made under the banner of "grammar," the types of things that Deborah Cameron talks about in her book Verbal Hygiene. One thing that's interesting about these complaints is that very often linguistic issues get used as kind of a proxy for other social issues. Do you think that's what's happening?

DC: There's a difference here, and it's a very important difference. All the usual stuff that people worry about with language, there's a basis for that because lots of people are actually doing those things. If somebody says, "Oh, I hate split infinitives and it's causing the language to go down the drain," the reason is that a lot of people do actually split infinitives and people have noticed it and reacted to it.

Now, in the case of the text messaging scenario, none of that has happened. It's people imagining the situation. They say, "Text messages are full of abbreviations." These are people who may never have texted in their lives, and who have certainly never done any research to find out. They believe that this is the case. And of course one of the first planks of research that I did was to look at large quantities of text messages, as well as the research that other people have done, to find that typically less than 10 percent of the words in text messages are actually abbreviated in any way.

So there's a kind of imagined stereotype here, rather than the realities that underlie the reactions that you were referring to. At the end of the day, there's a sort of parallel, but the initial starting point is very, very different.

VT: But the myths that you talk about do have a grain of truth. Text messages do use abbreviations, even if they're not using them as much as people think. Obviously the abbreviations are what people find salient about this form of communication.

DC: That's a fair point, but there are other aspects of the myth, apart from the frequency. The view that texting has abbreviations is always associated with the view that these abbreviations are novel, that they're a modern invention by these kids who are turning the language in fresh directions. "We adults would never do such a thing!" And this of course has to be attacked as well, because virtually every commonly used abbreviation you can find going back, in some cases, as far back as 100 years ago. Queen Victoria used to play games involving abbreviations very much like "c u l8r" ["see you later"].

And so the point to make to adults who are criticizing the situation is to say, "You actually did precisely the same thing when you were a kid, except of course you didn't have a mobile phone to do it on." There's the old example, "YY UR YY UB IC UR YY 4ME" ["Too wise you are, too wise you be, I see you are too wise for me"]. As soon as you mention it, adults will say, "Oh yes, of course," and it gives them a bit of a shock to realize that in fact most of the abbreviations aren't new at all.

Another point is that if we did a quantity survey of the amount of texting that is out there in cyberspace, the amount that is used by kids is probably about 10 percent, maybe 20 percent of all of the texts. Texts have become institutionalized over the past few years. Adults of all ages text now, and institutions text more than all individuals put together. By that I mean texts sent by the stock market, or universities, or radio and television programs saying, "After the program is over, text us." These are the majority of texts now. When one looks at the etiquette surrounding them, quite a large number of these organizations say, "We don't want abbreviations, thank you, don't use them," because they're worried that abbreviations might become unclear or ambiguous.

Once one has done some debunking of the empirical facts, you can actually start exploring the attitudes and reasoning of people who text. I do quite a bit of work in schools, giving talks and having clinics with the kids. Every now and then, text messaging comes up and I ask them for their views. And the reaction is unbelievable, in contrast with the myth. The kids say, "What are you saying? Are you saying that we would put these textisms into our schoolwork?" I say, "Yeah, people say you do that." And they look at me as if I was mad, you know? They say, "Well, you have to be absolutely stupid to do that. We don't do that!"

They tell me very clearly it would be idiotic to do that because you would get low grades. "We text 'cause it's cool outside school, and we don't want to mix it up with school." And the thought that they'd actually do it in the examinations is just inconceivable. I get this message over and over. In other words, you'd have to be pretty dumb to do this sort of thing. Now, there are dumb people out there, so occasionally the odd one does get through. But 99 percent of the kids I talked to were just horrified of the thought. So there's a mythology even about the motivation and the attitudes.

(Next week in part two of our interview with David Crystal, we'll talk about changes in social expectations as text messaging becomes more widespread.)

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