Are Texting and Tweeting Destroying the English Language?

In his book A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers and the Digital Revolution, Dennis Baron poses the intriguing question of whether new writing technologies such as texting, email, and instant messaging are debasing the English language and doing major damage to society as a whole.

He proceeds to dismiss these notions as overreactions, a point with which I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, by taking a historical view on the issues, it becomes evident that today’s situation is hardly new.

First, the argument that texting and emailing are ruining the English language certainly does seem to be plausible. Non-standard grammar, lack of capitalization and an overload of abbreviations are just a few features of these emerging types of writing that could pose a threat to traditional English as we know it.

For kids and teenagers who grow up texting their friends and posting instant messages on Facebook and Twitter, this abbreviation-laden language starts to feel most natural and can soon become their primary form of writing.

I recall reading a number of dire news headlines about students using “textspeak” in school papers or other important assignments that should require standard or academic English.

According to other critics, texting is harmful to children’s literacy by making it harder for them to learn how to spell correctly and read longer passages. If students are no longer writing properly, then, is the English language doomed? And is new technology the culprit?

I found Baron’s response to his question particularly significant. He refers to these harbingers of the English language apocalypse as “alarmists who don’t trust digital texts,” and suggests that instead of warning against a real danger, they are desperately trying to find something wrong with emerging technologies they do not fully understand.

Perhaps, then, these abbreviations and shortcuts are not really that bad, and perhaps their reported pervasiveness is somewhat of an exaggeration.

David Crystal, another linguistic expert, has researched these issues extensively and supports this idea. He rejects the claim of new writing technologies as a danger to our language, calling it a myth propagated by the same “alarmists” Baron describes.

Crystal reminds us that “new communicative technologies always bring out the prophets of doom” and that even “printing was the invention of the devil” in its early days.

To further explore this idea that the distrust towards texting and instant messaging is not a new fear, we must backtrack several centuries.

Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote that the advent of the printing press was an “epoch-making event” that enabled the dissemination of ideas and printed materials on an unprecedented scale. Because it was such a revolutionary force for Western culture, the printing press naturally had its alarmists, similar to today’s debate over texting and emails.

In 1545, Conrad Gesner warned about the dangers of a “confusing and harmful abundance of books” and about a century later, Adrien Baillet made an even more dire prediction when he said that the overload would “make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire” and advocated the mass destruction of unworthy texts. [1]

To trace these inevitable “prophets of doom” all the way back to Ancient Greece, even Plato feared the invention of writing itself as an untrustworthy, artificial representation of truth and a crutch for memory that would spell the end of wisdom as it was known.

And yet, despite these dire predictions, we never plunged back into the Dark Ages, and wisdom hasn’t disappeared. In both the early years of the printing press and in Ancient Greece, once the benefits of new writing technologies became evident, the alarmists faded into the background and were forced to adapt.

Similarly, texting and Twitter are not going to spell the end of Western civilization nor the English language. Written abbreviations and shortcuts go back generations, from telegrams to shorthand in personal letters to the writing style of emblematic poetry which was used by the Victorian Poets and features a combination of letters, numbers and abbreviations that is eerily reminiscent of modern day texting.

Crystal reminds us of a number of other situations in the pre-computer age in which similar abbreviations were used, including “SWALK on the back of an envelope” and “the rebus puzzles in magazines and Christmas annuals such as Y Y U R, Y Y U B…”

As far as the prevalence of “textspeak” in youth, Crystal also shares some important statistics.

In response to the anecdotal claims and sensationalized media reports about “textspeak,” he has found that in examining a large corpus of text messages, “the average number of words per message that are abbreviated is around 10 per cent,” significantly lower than is usually reported on and believed by the public.

Also, to address the argument that texting is harmful to literacy, research has found instead that children who use texting abbreviations have higher reading levels and more developed phonological awareness than those who do not.[2] Texting, email, and instant messaging are not going away, and although the media may want to drum up a doomsday scenario for increased readership, the question posed at the beginning of Baron’s chapter is not the most important.

Instead, we should be asking how the English language will continue to evolve to incorporate these new technologies. And what exciting new genres of writing will be formed and how will people express and share their ideas?

andrew walshAndrew Walsh is the owner and editor of Social Web Q and A. He is a freelance writer, academic librarian and web entrepreneur. Check out his book Savvy for the Social Web.

[1] Blair, Ann. “Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload.” Journal of the History of Ideas 64.1 (2003) 11-28.

[2] Plester, Beverly, and Clare Wood. “Exploring Relationships Between Traditional And New Media Literacies: British Preteen Texters At School.” Journal Of Computer-Mediated Communication 14.4 (2009): 1108-1129.

 

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Comments

  1. Well, not only the english in been destroyed. Almost every language. But that is a minor problem for me. What about people in meeting, each one texting in their BBs and no conversation between them. Last night i went to a restaurant with my wife. Beside us was a young couple the spend almost 30 minutes texting without talking to each other. I thought they were brothers, but not.

  2. Andrew Walsh says:

    There are definitely potent social consequences to the addictions we’re developing to our gadgets and smartphones. But I think it’s important not to put all the blame on the tools themselves: it’s up to us to learn how to foster a culture in which we use these technologies more mindfully. That’s a big part of what I’m trying to do with this blog.

  3. “And yet, despite these dire predictions, we never plunged back into the Dark Ages, and wisdom hasn’t disappeared.”

    Really? Have you met the Tea Party?

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