In my capacity as executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, I recently had the opportunity to interview David Crystal about his new book, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, a careful demolition of the myths surrounding text messaging. You can read the first part of my interview on the Visual Thesaurus website here, with parts two and three to follow in coming weeks. As Mark Liberman has noted, texting is only now achieving levels of popularity in the US that Europe and parts of Asia saw about five years ago. That also means that the US is also about five years behind the curve on the concomitant hysteria over how texting presages the death of the language.
Time and time again we've seen this strain of "hell in a handbasket" degenerationism pervading attitudes about contemporary language use (e.g., here, here, here, and here). But the furore over texting in the United Kingdom, which Crystal says began with a 2003 Internet myth about a school essay written entirely in textisms, takes this alarmism to new levels. Will the U.S. be whipped up into the same fervor, five years later? Geoff Nunberg gave some indications of this possibility in a "Fresh Air" commentary a few months ago about excessive reactions to a Pew Research Center study on texting. The publication of Crystal's book in the US is therefore remarkably well-timed, since it can serve as a useful antidote to this sort of overheated discourse.
In the first part of the interview, I asked Crystal to compare the texting backlash to other baleful lamentations about language (usually labeled as "grammar"), as chronicled by Deborah Cameron in her book Verbal Hygiene. (Crystal himself touches on these arguments in The Fight for English, his response to Lynne Truss's best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves). Crystal drew a distinction between the reactions against texting and other language gripes, however:
There's a difference here, and it's a very important difference. All the usual stuff that people worry about with language, there's a basis for that because lots of people are actually doing those things. If somebody says, "Oh, I hate split infinitives and it's causing the language to go down the drain," the reason is that a lot of people do actually split infinitives and people have noticed it and reacted to it.
Now, in the case of the text messaging scenario, none of that has happened. It's people imagining the situation. They say, "Text messages are full of abbreviations." These are people who may never have texted in their lives, and who have certainly never done any research to find out. They believe that this is the case. And of course one of the first planks of research that I did was to look at large quantities of text messages, as well as the research that other people have done, to find that typically less than 10 percent of the words in text messages are actually abbreviated in any way.
So there's a kind of imagined stereotype here, rather than the realities that underlie the reactions that you were referring to. At the end of the day, there's a sort of parallel, but the initial starting point is very, very different.
I wonder if the difference is really as stark as Crystal makes it. The texting complaints appear to fall prey to exactly the same observational illusions catalogued by Arnold Zwicky here:
- the Frequency Illusion: "once you notice a phenomenon, you believe that it happens a whole lot"
- the Recency Illusion: "if you've noticed something only recently, you believe that it in fact originated recently"
- the Adolescent Illusion: "the consequence of selective attention paid to the language of adolescents ('those kids') by adults"
Crystal does an excellent job exposing these illusions in Txtng, even if he doesn't designate them as such. And people seem to be listening. On his blog, Crystal notes that British media coverage has fairly addressed the book's six main points. The first three map precisely to the Zwickyan trifecta of illusions:
- Text messages aren’t full of abbreviations – typically less than ten percent of the words use them. [Frequency Illusion]
- These abbreviations aren't a new language – they’ve been around for decades. [Recency Illusion]
- They aren't just used by kids – adults of all ages and institutions are the leading texters these days. [Adolescent Illusion]
For completeness, here are Crystal's other main points about texting:
- Pupils don't routinely put them into their school-work or examinations.
- It isn't a cause of bad spelling: you have to know how to spell before you can text.
- Texting actually improves your literacy, as it gives you more practice in reading and writing.
It remains to be seen if American media outlets will be as responsive to Crystal's arguments. (The book was released in the UK in the beginning of July and in the US in the beginning of September.) Here's hoping they get the (text) message.