In the Westland office, a week ago, we discussed the ‘words’ we often come across these days in manuscripts – IMHO, LOL, BTW, ASAP, BFF. A few of our titles have gone on to publish some of these, unedited, especially if the style of writing happens to be casual, or the context demands text-speak, or the market includes the young, college-going audience. Siddhartha Sarma’s East of the Sun is an example of a book where textese appears almost offhandedly. The same holds true for Parul Sharma’s By the Water Cooler.
There have been mixed reactions to the inclusion of text-speak in published books. On the one hand, John Humphrys says, ‘It is the relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS (Short Message Service) vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.’ On the other hand, Dennis Baron avers that technology, and the changes it brings with it, ‘is making us better writers and improving our ability to reach out to our fellow man.’
Even as the debate continues, the international publishing world keeps throwing surprises. In Japan, an author known as Yoshi was hugely successful with his novel composed of text-messages, Deep Love. In Finland, in 2007, Hannu Luntiala published The Last Messages, and the entire 332-page narrative consisted of SMSes. Earlier, in 2004, French novelist, Phil Marso, published a book written entirely in French SMS shorthand, Pas Sage a Taba vo SMS; the next year, he produced L, an SMS re-telling of French poetic classics. So the President of Goma Books, Masayoshi Yoshino, declared in a manifesto that he was determined ‘to establish this not simply as a fad, but as a new kind of culture.’
It is this culture that worries John Sutherland of University College London. He believes that the growing dominance of text-speak will lead to the degeneration of language. In his view, textese is ‘bleak, bald, sad shorthand. Drab shrinktalk. Linguistically it’s all pig’s ear; it masks dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness. Texting is penmanship for illiterates.’ Humphrys agrees when he points out, ‘The danger – for young people especially – is that [netspeak] will come to dominate. Our written language may end up as a series of ridiculous emoticons and everchanging abbreviations.’
It isn’t merely the slow decline of language that worries critics. Some suggest that granting text-speak legitimacy will dumb down society at large. Since text-speak relies on brevity, simple word choice and sentence fragments, critics believe it will adversely impact people’s intellectual endurance. Ruth Maenpaa says, ‘Text-speak offers immediate gratification, but learning is hard work. A generation that is content with five-minute research sessions on the Internet and communication based on sound bytes will definitely struggle with abstract concepts and commitment as they encounter more rigorous educational environments and the expectations of demanding employers.’ Barbara from Phreelance Writers agrees: ‘Complex language structures enable complex thought. An era of simplicity in thought […] leads to, quite frankly, stupidity. It is hard not to fear that text-speak […] contributes to the inability of people to concentrate over a reasonable length of time, or enjoy the privacy of their own complex thoughts.’
Then there’s the problem of ambiguity, when it comes to textese. Humphrys says sardonically, ‘With my vast knowledge of text language I had assumed LOL meant “lots of love”, but now I discover it means “laugh out loud”. Or at least it did the last time I asked. But how would you know? Instead of aiding communication it can be a barrier. I can work out BTW (by the way) but I was baffled by IMHO U R GR8. It means: “In my humble opinion you are great.” But, once again, how would you know?’
Yet for all this criticism, there are those who view the inclusion of textese in texts as nothing short of blessing. For one, they hold that English’s beauty is that it is infinitely adaptable, open to modification, to variations in spelling and syntax, so the purist’s resistance to change is a disservice to a living language.
For another, they point out that the inclusion of text-speak makes books accessible to a wide audience. Martin Baum certainly belongs to this school of thought. Baum has re-written Shakespeare’s plays in text-speak, and has now translated Dickens into ‘yoof-speak’, the language of the street. He says, ‘There are many people who love and understand great literature but many more who don’t. My book is the bait to draw them in and get them interested in some wonderful stories.’ Baum’s adaptation of Shakespeare, To Be or Not to Be, Innit, sold more than 1,0,000 copies. “I was criticised by some people for my last book on Shakespeare, but many more congratulated me, and a prison education officer said how useful it had been [… ] at breaking some of the barriers and making some of the text less intimidating while still retaining the beauty of the original stories.’
Furthermore, a few linguists argue, that far from being an over-simplification of speech, textese possesses unusual complexity. David Crystal says, ‘When we look at some texts, they are linguistically quite complex. […] Some of their juxtapositions create forms which have little precedent, apart from in puzzles. All conceivable types of feature can be juxtaposed – sequences of shortened and full words (hldmecls “hold me close”), logograms and shortened words (2bctnd “to be continued”), logograms and nonstandard spellings (cu2nite) and so on. There are no less than four processes combined in iowan2bwu “I only want to be with you” – full word + an initialism + a shortened word + two logograms + an initialism + a logogram. And some messages contain unusual processes: in iohis4u “I only have eyes for you”, we see the addition of a plural ending to a logogram. Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. But it is merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.’
Ironically, the use of abbreviation in literature isn’t new. Eric Partridge published his Dictionary of Abbreviations in 1942, which contained dozens of SMS-looking examples, such as agn “again”, mth “month”, and gd “good”– fifty years before texting was born. Indeed, people have been initialising common phrases for centuries. “Cos” has been found in books dating back to 1828, and “wot” in a text dated 1829. Of course, all of this has been severely criticized. As early as 1711, Joseph Addison complained about the way words were being ‘miserably curtailed’ – he mentioned pos (itive) and incog (nito). And Jonathan Swift thought that abbreviating words was a ‘barbarous custom.’
Such arguments are unlikely to die soon.
What we’d like to know is this:
Do you view text-speak as an assault on English? Or do you see it as a stage in the evolution of a language?
Does the inclusion of SMS-spelling in a book offend you? If yes, why?
Would you consider reading a book written entirely in text-speak? Give us your reasons!
We love hearing from you!