txtng: the gr8 db8

Crystal, David (2008). txtng: the gr8 db8. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Linguist David Crystal is one of the most prolific writers about language for general audiences. You’ll see several of his books listed on these pages. In txtng, Crystal takes on the question of what effects text messaging is having on literacy. Will texting destroy a generation’s ability to write a coherent English sentence? Crystal’s answer is a resounding “no” and along the way debunks much of the conventional wisdom about texting.

One of the major gripes about texting is its use of non-standard spelling, as exemplified in the book’s title. Language purists are up in arms about this weird orthography. But Crystal points to studies of logs of actual text messages that show that non-standard spellings in actual text messages (as opposed to the faux examples that appear in newspaper articles about texting) are rare (we tend to remember the weird spellings and forget the normal ones and few real texters string together the long sequences of abbreviations that newspaper reporters do in their articles), they are obvious (did any of you have trouble understanding the title of Crystal’s book?), tend to form a standard lexicon within the realm of texting (the same abbreviations keep cropping up again and again), and are nothing new—the playful abbreviations in texting are simply the latest incarnation of centuries-old language play.

Going beyond spelling, the grammar of text messages is remarkable in its adherence to standards. Even adherence to the rules regarding apostrophes, which can usually be omitted without loss of intelligibility and which is difficult to key on most phones, are scrupulously followed by most texters.

Crystal also points out that context is vital to comprehension. Most newspaper articles and dictionaries about the language of texting remove the novel terms from their context. But texting usually is a dialogue between two people who already know one another. What may appear cryptic to someone outside that conversation is probably perfectly intelligible to those within it. And most texters exhibit code-switching; they’ll use novel forms and abbreviations among their friends and switch to more standard English when texting parents, teachers, or institutions.

Finally, Crystal refers to studies that show no link between texting and poor writing in other media. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. To be a good texter requires facility with the language, a knowledge and comfort level that allows one to play with the language. If anything, texting is a boon to literacy.

There is a lot more in txtng: the gr8 db8 and anyone who is interested in the subject is well advised to pick up a copy. But perhaps the most important service the book provides is more fundamental. The real lesson is not to be distracted by the flashy and novel, but before pronouncing an opinion on a subject, one should examine it thoroughly. First impressions are often wrong and only be carefully examining exactly how, why, and in what contexts people use the language can we draw conclusions.

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