Is “text speak” undermining the English language?


David Crystal – linguist, writer, lecturer and Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor – dials in on whether “text speak” and the language of online communication is really undermining the English language.

Once upon a time, before the Great Abbrevatron came among us, everything that we knew about language was much clearer. There was spoken language, there was written language, and everyone knew which was which. Then along came the Internet, and everything that we thought we knew about the way the English language worked in speech or in writing had to be reinterpreted. All of the old certainties about usage, frequency, context and style had to be rethought with the emergence of electronic communication. One big question that the Internet brought with it was, “is this an acceptable evolution of language or a bastardisation of it?” Many people had a kneejerk reaction and assumed the latter. Were they right? To really answer the question, we first need to consider how the language of online communication has evolved.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when people first started visiting chat rooms, texting and sending emails, they also started to abbreviate in ways that they hadn’t done before. Essentially, they began to use a written medium as a way of expressing themselves in speech. The informal, loosely constructed sentences and the colloquial vocabulary common in speech suddenly appeared as writing on the screen, and this looked rather odd to some people. As with many new things, it was technology geeks who started this trend, breaking the rules by writing things such as “c u l8ter” and other shortened forms of language.

Many new abbreviations were the result of practical constraints. Originally, electronic messages had to be very short. With the rise of mobile phone-based messaging in particular, the screen size created a serious space constraint in terms of how much you could write. Add to this a financial constraint (you often had to pay by 
the character), and the result was a system of communication where it made sense to abbreviate as much as possible. Although some of these constraints have gone away, others remain. Twitter, for example, still requires that you use no more than 140 characters in a tweet.

A more general reason for the rise of abbreviations is that they showed that someone was an internet insider and “one of the gang.” as a general rule, whether it’s a group of journalists, doctors, lawyers, students or internet enthusiasts, people tend to develop a specific style of communication, a “slang” that is unique to that group. In fact, there are differences in Internet slang across the various mediums – chat rooms, texting, blogs and social media – all have their own slang and unique (and constantly evolving) ways of framing communication. Blogs are particularly interesting in this regard because they actually have very few constraints and exhibit a more relaxed and “naked” use of language and personal style without much need for abbreviation of any kind.

Why the fuss?

Change is difficult for some people, and because language is such a pervasive and integral part of our lives, people with a conservative mindset often show a great reluctance to accept changes in this area. Despite the fact that some of the abbreviations used online have been in the language for centuries (the phrase “IOU”
has been around for 200 years!), some people found (and still find) their use difficult to swallow. Given how rapidly technology has changed the linguistic landscape, this is probably not a surprising reaction. However, the negative reaction goes beyond taking exception to spelling and abbreviations. Online communication seems to threaten all aspects of language, including vocabulary, punctuation, capitalisation and all of the other traditional and formal rules of grammar and diction. To listen to some of the prophets of doom, the very fabric of civilisation is at risk from the Most Terrible Abbrevatron!

Download our Fact or Fiction report to find out how David responds to the naysayers – plus much more about English language teaching!

David Crystal says: “Fact or Fiction is a hugely informative dossier of down-to-earth advice for English teachers everywhere, puncturing some of the most widely held myths about language and technology while offering realistic and practical guidance on the way forward in the classroom. It affirms the central role of the teacher, and offers reassurance, inspiration, and confidence to anyone unsure about how to cope with the rapid pace of technological change.”

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