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Embracing language evolution

By Megan Page

Has texting changed the future of the English Language ?


There is no denying that “text language” has been one of the fastest growing forms of modern communication and has inevitably influenced the ways in which we use language. Many experts including Professor John Sutherland have accused text language of being responsible for the deterioration of primary school pupils’ English skills and have branded it a “mask for dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness.” But descriptivist linguist David Crystal claims that “it is merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings.” The debate over the influence of text language has been in dispute for several years and is likely to remain contentious for years to come. But what remains certain is that a realistic perspective of the influence of text language is needed and its future is something that definitely needs to be considered.


Let’s take a step back in time to get a clearer picture of how text language has evolved. Believe it or not, the first ever text message was sent in 1992 by 22-year-old engineer Neil Papworth, sent from a computer to an orbital 901 mobile phone reading “Merry Christmas”. Texting was not available as a commercial service until 1995 but only picked up properly in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s. It was estimated that the British public were collectively sending around one million text messages in a year, whereas today figures show that users worldwide send nearly one trillion messages a year.


Since the arrival of commercial texting, people have argued that the use of “text language” would have disastrous consequences for the quality of the English language. In the same way, however, people argued in the 15th century that the introduction of the printing press would destroy the sanctity of the written word. Either way, new technologies will consistently pose a threat to the progression of the language we read and write. But is it not expected that language will continually evolve and adapt to our communicative needs anyway? If, like traditionalists argue, we were to prevent our language from ever progressing into new forms, would we still be speaking the same words as Chaucer? Now in 2013, it does seem to be largely accepted that text messaging is no longer an alien concept but a common practice for most teenagers and adults in the western world.


The use of abbreviations such as “ATM” (at the moment), “LOL” (laugh out loud) and “L8R” (later) evolved for the primary reason that users were required to remain within a 140 character limit before being charged for a second text. It was therefore a necessity to contract as many words and phrases into the character limit in order to make credit last. To this day, many of the same abbreviations invented in the early 00s have remained in common use in technological communication, so much so that the term “LOL” has found a place in the Oxford English Dictionary.


However, although these abbreviations are still commonly used in everyday life, it does not mean to say that young children and teenagers are unable to comprehend the boundaries between formal and informal writing. In the early hysteria of text language, it was thought by many that text language was brainwashing children and that their English skills were declining because of it. The media printed stories containing essays produced by schoolchildren written entirely in abbreviations, however, the location of these children and their essays were never completely traced which questions the authenticity of such accounts. I, myself, teach English at a secondary school and have never experienced a student write any of their work in abbreviations or replicate text language that they would use outside of the classroom. In order to create new linguistic rules, such as abbreviations in texts, children already need to be fully aware of the standard they are imitating. Children and young adults have not only assisted in creating a new sub-field of the English language but they are also able to use their linguistic abilities to decode this new area of language, therefore demonstrating their interpretive skills as well as understanding the boundaries of formalities.


So where do we stand in 2013? The advancement in mobile phones now means that smartphones like the iPhone and Blackberry will automatically correct any text that is not considered as standard English, as well as the fact that most mobiles phone users are contracted to an unlimited amount of texts per month. The reasons for the use of abbreviations has regressed. We are no longer limited by characters and the appearance of QWERTY keyboards has made texting easier. Text language itself has acquired a stigma in adult communication as it could be viewed as being unintelligent by not conforming to standard English. Twitter has given people the ideal opportunity to resurrect text language by restricting its posts to a 140 character limit, however when I scroll through the feed, all text language is absent.


It can’t be denied that text language has had a huge impact on the English language with the creation of many new words and abbreviations. But the future of text language is in a perishable state. When was the last time you used the phrases “C U L8R” or “THAT WOZ GR8”? It seems the hysteria initially applied to the induction of text language was perhaps excessive as the wider effects of text language have not been so vast. We are witnessing language in evolution, and perhaps we should just embrace it.



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