Perhaps ironically, the language of text messaging is a rich and linguistically significant system. Though many criticize the language of texting for degrading linguistic competence, particularly among young people, its impact on language is interesting and complex, for better or worse.
The acronyms and abbreviated terms of SMS language are more nuanced than we tend to give credit for. While perhaps most commonly used are acronyms that stand in for whole phrases, such as "lol" for "laugh out loud" or "omg" for "oh my God," text speak consists of several types of abbreviations. In use are several abbreviations for words in which only the phonemes necessary for deciphering the identity of the word, usually consonants, remain. "Tmrw" for "tomorrow" is a common example. There are also even further abridged stand-ins for words, such as "tn" for "tonight," in which denoting only the beginning of each syllable carries the meaning of the original word.
Instead of simply eliminating whole phonemes, text speak also sometimes replaces entire monosyllabic words with a single letter or number. "U," "r," and "2" are well-known examples. This phenomenon occurs not only when texting monosyllabic words, but also to replace whole syllables in longer words-- "l8r" for "later" comes to mind. Text speak also uses pictograms, which can replace whole words; for example, "<3" commonly stands in for "love." While the differences may appear minor, a rich variety of linguistic transformations allow for SMS language to offer the abbreviated texting it makes possible.
Text speak arose originally out of necessity, and remains widespread in large part due to habit and convenience. At the birth of SMS, most mobile phone users were restricted not only by character limits per text message, but by pay-per-message plans. When saying with two messages what could be condensed into one would cost double, pressure arose to create an aggregated linguistic system. With the rise of texting's popularity, and consequently of unlimited texting plans, abbreviated text language has remained popular in part out of the convenience and speed of using acronyms and abbreviated words and phrases.
Many worry that the continued popularity of text speak is hurting literacy and encouraging sloppiness of writing and language. As we invest less time and effort in texting, some worry that we will do so in all of our communications, and become lazy writers. This could harm academic or career performance by damaging the quality or professionalism of our writing, or may even encourage more general academic laziness. Some also worry that younger text messagers, who may not have as strong of a grasp on the orthography of their native language, may internalize incorrect spellings for words.
While it is possible that these concerns ring true, many linguists argue against their validity. Nenagh Kemp of the University of Tasmania argues that SMS language entails a strong understanding of the grammar and phonetics of the native language; knowledge of these linguistic features, as well as orthography, are a sort of prerequisite to understanding and forming words and phrases in SMS language. Rather than harming or stunting linguistic proficiency, text speak relies on and is closely coupled with linguistic competence.
Further, scholar David Crystal has surmised from reviewing studies that abbreviations are not that commonly made in academic work--so text speak really is not impacting our academic writing as much as some think. Additionally, Crystal points out that errors in children and adolescents' writing cannot be attributed to SMS language, as adults also use SMS language but do not necessarily make the same mistakes as young people. He also asserts not only that abbreviations are nothing new to our language, but also not as frequently used in text messages as many think. These conclusions shed substantial doubt on the argument that text speak degrades literacy and language, though some may still frown on the "dialect" of sorts as lazy and unattractive.
SMS language has had many interesting cultural and linguistic consequences. Although text speak occurs cross-linguistically, different languages are suited differently to a text dialect. Languages with longer, constructed phrases as well as languages using non-Latin alphabets may feel a more pressing need for an abbreviated SMS dialect.
Interestingly, perhaps because of the entanglement of the English language with text speak and the early development of mobile devices, text messaging has pushed several such languages towards Anglicization. As a result of the prevalence of text messaging, some languages have adopted English letters, terms, abbreviations, and other linguistic features. In turn, on account of this feature of text speak, the English language has been described as being de-Anglicized due to its incorporation into contexts that are not natively English.
Text speak may also have cultural effects beyond its immediate linguistic impact. Because it is a sort of dialect, which requires certain knowledge in order to understand it, it is a cultural phenomenon that can serve to contribute to some kind of group identity. In particular, text speak can often contribute to the collective identity of adolescents, among whom abbreviated SMS language is most popular. Text speak affords adolescents something immediately in common with each other, and also a vehicle by which young people can converse without necessarily being understood by people outside their age group.
It is also possible that text speak is changing the way we approach some different, surprising domains. A writer for Thaindian News postulates that the unique, varied spellings that SMS language uses to create the same sounds as in native words is causing us to change the way we spell our children's names. Non-conventional spellings of fairly traditional names are on the rise, and it is very possible that our common phonetic play in text messages has inspired us to engage in similar phonetic play to generate more unique names for children.
Regardless of how we feel about it, the impact of SMS language is huge. Though we may take it for granted, or even belittle or question it, text speak is a linguistically complex and interesting phenomenon whose impact reaches not only the field of linguistics but our cultural identities and even our behavior.
About the Author -
Sharon Housley is the VP of Marketing for NotePage,
Inc. a software company for communication software solutions.