Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Texting Style: Not So Different

Text messages border on gibberish.

That’s what I’ve heard, anyway. And it is not just said by people who have never seen a text message. But as linguist David Crystal has pointed out, it’s not really true. To see what text messages actually look like, you can go to that text-message home on the web, Twitter. Search at Twitter for a current trending topic, such as Super Bowl, and you see that text messages are formed from the same words as everything else. Even if you have never read text messages before, you will find that, for the most part, you can read them. To be sure, a few new abbreviations have been introduced and some old ones reintroduced for text messages (and a few just for Twitter), but these are not nearly as big as people make them out to be. They are about 1 word out of 20 in the actual text of text messages, which is to say, the average text message doesn't have even one abbreviation in it. My English dictionary from 1975 lists at least 100,000 abbreviations. Compared to that, the 50 or so abbreviations you need to learn to be fluent in texting are a pretty small set, and besides, about half of them are in that 1975 dictionary. It’s not so easy to fit a complete sentence in a text message, but the sentence fragments you see are just like the ones you see everywhere else: in headlines, advertisements, and lists.

The way people sometimes recoil at the new style of text messages isn’t so different from the culture shock people have at visiting another country, even a country that isn’t really so strange. Someone goes to France and comes back saying, “They don’t know how to slice bread over there!” We focus on slight, superficial differences just because they catch us by surprise. Once we get past that, it’s easier to see the many things that are the same, and after a while, we have to ask, “What did we think was so different about that?”