As an undergraduate, one of my lecturers once said that language is a tug-of-war between laziness and comprehensibility. Laziness, and our desire to communicate with as little effort as possible will make language change, but our need for comprehension will temper how much it changes.
Text-language is a perfect example of this – we want to fit as much information as possible into as small a space as possible by pressing the fewest buttons, but it still needs to be understood by its recipient.
And people HATE it. Texting is ruining language. U no wen its all shrt & theres no pnctation lol. Isn’t it awful! Does it annoy you? Does it? Does it get your goat? (Actually, I’m drafting this in Word and it certainly gets Word’s goat – there’s so much red and green under that sentence it’s like Christmas.)
Actual linguists don’t hate texting. But then, our purpose is to describe language objectively, not to say whether it’s good or bad, right or wrong. That being said, ever since I got my first mobile way back when, I’ve been incapable of using any of the abbreviations; I’d always rather cut a clause or phrase than shorten a word!
Instead, most of the people who hate texting are the general public (and the Daily Mail. But I think we can take it for granted that if a thing is, the Daily Mail hates it).
The OUTRAGE when the OED introduced text-abbreviations this year! OMG. WTF. W.T.A.F. (never mind the fact that a dictionary’s role isn’t to say whether a word is good, or right, just to say that yes – this is a thing that is being used as a word and is in print enough for us to acknowledge it).
To quote the always excellent David Crystal:
‘The popular belief is that texting has evolved as a twenty-first-century phenomenon – as a highly distinctive graphic style, full of abbreviations and deviant uses of language, used by a young generation that doesn’t care about standards’*
But the fact is, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Writing is always dictated by the tools we use. Runes developed because straight lines are so much easier to carve in stone or onto bone. Roman inscriptions are all in big CAPITALS because they’re easier to carve. When quills and ink were developed, writing got curlier, but it was still slow because, as anyone who’s written with a fountain pen will know, you can’t go up without the ink splattering, so letters were formed carefully, using a series of strokes, rather than in one long scrawl (like my writing with a biro, which is possible because of the flexibility afforded by the ballpoint).
In 1890, telegraph operators’ language was dictated by the tools they used to transmit it. This lovely article shows operators abbreviating every word, taking out not just vowels but a lot of the consonants, too.
And then you have medieval scribes, my area of expertise. They abbreviated everything they could get their hands on.
Modern English has the ampersand, which comes from the Latin et, meaning ‘and’, which elided and morphed to become a single symbol.
That was, of course, for writing Latin. Old English had its own equivalent, the Tironian Nota: ‘7’ (pleasingly, on a modern English keyboard it’s the same key as the ampersand, and I don’t know if that’s intentional or not). And, just as the ampersand has been used to represent ‘et’ in longer words (such as ‘&c.’ for ‘etcetera’), so too was the tironian nota used for ‘and’ in longer words such as ‘andlang’, meaning ‘along’.
Some other common abbreviations can be seen here:
The symbol in the middle of the lower red square is an abbreviated form of ‘þæt’, pronounced ‘that’ (the first letter is a rune called thorn pronounced ‘th’), meaning ‘that’ (see how little our language has changed in over a thousand years!). This little symbol is seen everywhere, all over Old English manuscripts, and is no different from the modern texting @ for ‘at’, or U, or 4, or 2.
The top red box is another beastie entirely. The line over the top of the ‘u’ (and now you’re officially reading an Anglo-Saxon manuscript) means that either an ‘n’ or and ‘m’ has been removed from the end of the word. It’s even more common than ‘that’. Sometimes it’s used as a space-saving device – near the end of a line to squish a whole word in – but really, it’s used everywhere. It’s used in every genre of text: poetry, legal texts, record keeping, annals, histories, narratives. It’s used on fancy illuminated pages and in biblical texts, it’s not restricted to informal discourse like texting abbreviations are.
There are, in fact, so many abbreviations in medieval manuscripts that there’s a dictionary just for the abbreviation marks. It’s been put online (start clicking on letters to view it page-by-page). This is, frankly, far more extensive than anything we’ve yet to come up with through texting, and this is in Latin, the language we hold above all others and upon which we base our insane grammatical rules! And in Old English, the oldest and therefore BEST form of our language! At least, this is how they’re used in arguments by people scared about language changing and ‘corrupting’, when actually, language is language. It’s inextricably human and the ways we use it are the same whether we’re writing on parchment or texting on a phone.
I initially intended to write this blog post just to highlight the fact that abbreviation has been around, basically, as long as writing has, and it’s not new technology that’s causing a shift in the way we write. But, as I was researching it, a friend sent me a link to a BBC news article linking texting to literacy in children, which throws in a whole new line of conversation – not only is texting not corrupting language, it could actually be improving it. How d’you like that then, critics?
The article says:
‘when pupils replace or remove sounds, letters or syllables – such as “l8r” for “later” or “hmwrk” for “homework” – it requires an understanding of what the original word should be’
‘The use of text language “was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children”’
So, the process of creating a text-speak abbreviation involves being able to identify the various parts of a word and then being able to take bits out or to substitute them. Innovations with language like this require a relatively robust understanding of the language in the first place and the knowledge to be able to manipulate it meaningfully.
So, not only is texting not a terrible new scourge on our language, not only is it not showing a dumbing-down of the younger generation, but it’s actually helping them! Who knew?
Of course, I am a linguist and as such have to be totally descriptivist about this and not say that text-language is the WORST THING EVER because it’s just, demonstrably, not (this is also my get-out clause when I make mistakes in my writing – I’m a linguist, I believe there are no rights and wrongs in language, STOP BEING SO PRESCRIPTIVIST AT ME. What are you, THE MAN?). Its users are not, as John Humphrys so vividly puts it, ‘doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary’. They are, instead, continuing a millennia-old tradition of abbreviation and linguistic innovation, and improving their language skills, and all you prescriptivist grumps can put that in your pipes and smoke it!
* David Crystal, Txting: The Gr8 Db8 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 7.
** As is always the way when you try to find an example to illustrate a point, you can never find any of the buggers anywhere. Such was my search for pictures of abbreviation in manuscripts that weren’t copyright. I’d love to show you endless manuscript images with all sorts of abbreviations, but the law gets in my way. Instead, here is the first page of Beowulf, the most famous Anglo-Saxon manuscript image there is.
Some further reading:
- This isn’t a new topic. It’s not widely talked about, but there’s enough that I’m not going to say anything groundbreaking or new here. This article by David Crystal tells you pretty much everything you need to know about text language, and if there’s more you want to know, read Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 which is the full version of that article.
- There was a nice article in the Independent this week about new abbreviations appearing in specialized spheres, and, pleasingly, my current role model and linguistically innovative hero got a shout-out:
‘Since acronyms are designed to create brevity and clarity in language, it is intriguing when they become words in themselves which are then expanded and conjugated for fun. In years to come, the OED may cite Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman as the first official use of “rofling”, from the online shorthand ROFL, meaning Rolling On Floor Laughing.’
- Lynne Truss, everyone’s favourite prescriptivist, doesn’t comment on the linguistic issues here, other than to say that she doesn’t do abbreviating herself, and Will Self is fantastic about language change.
- A paper on the history of abbreviation, if you can get it:
Félix Rodriguez and Garland Cannon, ‘Remarks on the Origin and Evolution of Abbreviations and Acronyms’, in F. Fernández, et al., eds., English Historical Linguistics 1992: Papers from the 7th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, Valencia, 22-26 September, 1992 (Amsterdam, 1994), pp. 262-272 (at 266).