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Texting: New Attitudes for New Technology

Last week in part one of our three-part interview with David Crystal about his new book, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, we discussed the myths about text messaging that he is seeking to dispel. In part two, we explore how the rapid spread of texting has led to changes in attitudes about electronic communication. Crystal also explains how the use of abbreviations in texting is driven by a sense of playfulness with the new medium, both in English and in other languages around the world that have developed texting conventions.

VT: You talk in the book about the changes in social expectations that come along with this new social phenomenon. Do you think there are recognizable changes in young people's feelings about formality and familiarity of communication that might lead them to use texting or other types of electronically mediated language in places where older people would feel that it's inappropriate?

DC: There's increasing evidence, at least anecdotally, that it's not what you text, but the audience to which you text it and the context in which you text it. There was a report a few weeks ago about people texting an interview board. After the people left the interview room, some of the interviewees sent a text message saying, "Thanks for interviewing me," which horrified the interview board. And somehow or other this got out and it became a small headline in at least some of the British papers. Now that's a good example, I think. The question of whether it is appropriate or inappropriate to do that is a social question rather than a linguistic one.

It's too soon to know whether in 10 or 20 years' time, interview panels all over the place would consider a text reaction to be a good thing or a bad thing. But certainly this particular panel felt it was a bad thing. And so therefore as far as school teaching would be concerned, I think it would be very incumbent on teachers to point out the context in which texting, and whether you use abbreviations or not, is an appropriate or inappropriate thing to do. Some of the texting etiquette guides do give some guidance about this, about not sending condolences by text and things of this kind.

It's interesting when you actually look at the etiquette guides, since they're all so new. They don't all agree. And it is quite confusing for anybody trying to work out what to do. You look at one guide and it says do this, and you look at another guide it says do that. There aren't many guides around and when you do look at them, they're totally confused, with the recency of the phenomenon.

VT: In the U.S., too, because it's so new, there are debates about the appropriateness of text messaging in different contexts. But we're seeing it used in many new ways, including in politics. Barack Obama announced his vice-presidential pick to supporters via text message before the official press release. He was able to drum up interest, especially among younger voters, by getting people to sign up in order to see the text message.

DC: Yes, I think that these are the uses that are growing, where there's a plain, functional issue: matters of convenience, matters of mass persuasion and so on. The example I find most persuasive was the debate that followed the Virginia Tech shootings. There's a lunatic on the loose with a gun, so we'll send e-mails around to everybody? Oh sure, they'll all read their e-mails, won't they? But if they had sent texts around to everybody, how different the outcome might have been.

I think that these examples, where texting has a clear function that no other medium can provide, are building up. The cases where there is a genuine choice between mediums, like between sending a text or sending a letter, is the area where one needs to focus these social worries. And I think that's becoming more well-defined as time goes by.

VT: Things are rapidly changing here in the US, in terms of people accepting text messaging as a valid form of communication.

DC: The US may be replicating what has already occurred in the UK. It was amazing what happened here in the UK between 2000 and 2004, as far as widespread use was concerned. It was just extraordinary. Nobody was texting, and then suddenly everybody was. And that includes institutions, not just individuals.

VT: Let's talk more about the use of abbreviations in texting. In general, you say that less than 10 percent of words in text messages use abbreviations, at least in one-on-one interaction rather than institutional texts. Even if abbreviations appear less frequently than people think, what do you think motivates their use? Is it primarily a kind of in-group code? Does it have to do with ease of use with the technology? Or is it mostly an outlet for playfulness and innovation?

DC: It's a combination of the latter two. The code argument, I don't think, counts very much at all. There might be a few instances where you could argue it, but the two main drivers are, without a doubt, efficiency and playfulness. But if you asked me to vote for one or the other, I would say the playful driver. The reason why people put these abbreviations in is far more often to identify themselves as belonging to a particular group. But "code," I think, is the wrong word because it suggests unintelligibility. There's a strong force behind kids, especially if they're having to pay for the messages, that their messages are intelligible.

And so very quickly you get a kind of "standard non-standardness" emerging in text messaging conversations, which on the whole is pretty intelligible to outsiders as well. And that's a big difference, I think, with some of the things that have happened in chat rooms a few years ago, where there was almost a conscious effort to be so different from everybody else, that outsiders wouldn't understand when you came in.

VT: And you found playfulness and creativity with the constraints of texting happening in other languages as well?

DC: It's true in every language I've looked at, including languages where the character constraint is even smaller because of the way the characters have to be encoded. It's not always 160 characters. In some of the Oriental languages, for instance, it's down to 80 or so because everything takes twice as much to encode. And there it's even more grounds for upping the ante, as it were, as far as being ingenious is concerned, and yet they're doing it. One of the interesting things for me, having done the book, was to see that exactly the same issues were coming up, language after language.

VT: It's also interesting to see the influence of English when people are texting in other languages. You explain in the book the reasons behind that, with English becoming a technological lingua franca, especially given that people speaking other languages already know about abbreviations from chat rooms and other online communication that preceded texting.

DC: It did depress me when I was starting the book, as I was trying to make it as cross-linguistic as possible. I remember being at a film festival in the Czech Republic a year or so back, and I was going around to people and saying, "What text messaging abbreviations do you use in Czech?" And they looked at me and said, "We don't use Czech abbreviations! We use English ones all the time." And I thought, "Oh no, I'm not going to get anywhere here." But eventually I realized that what they meant was that they used quite a large number of English abbreviations, but actually they did use some Czech ones too. It took a while to get it out of them that they did these things.

VT: What about local or ethnic varieties of English?

DC: This is the next step in research, really. I got very few examples as I was preparing my book of what you might call regional localization of English — in the States, for instance, distinctive Hispanic text abbreviations or distinctive black abbreviations. On the whole, everybody seemed to be using the same abbreviations, regardless of their ethnic background. Now, I bet if I had the opportunity of getting into some of the more street groups and so on, I'd find more of these mixed language abbreviations than I did. But I think that's for another day.

(Next week in the final part of our interview with David Crystal, we discuss how text messaging actually encourages literacy, and how teachers can harness this new literacy for educational purposes.)

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Part one of our interview with David Crystal.
Generation Text
David Crystal's recommended readings on the new language of electronic communication.
How the limitations of "micro-blogging" can help writers choose their words carefully.