SMS & Its Negative Effects on Language

by Laurel Storm

One problem with text messaging was brilliantly illustrated in a 2007 Cingular commercial in which a mother is berating her daughter for a rising phone bill: "Who are you texting 50 times a day?" "IDK," shrugs the girl, "my BFF, Jill." Subtitles helpfully translate it as "I don't know, my best friend forever, Jill," but the issue remains -- texting is changing our language, and not necessarily for the better.

Origins of Text Messaging Slang

At the root of most, if not all, differences between normal English and text messaging slang -- affectionately or mockingly known as "txt spk" -- lies a desire to use as few characters as possible. SMS originally allowed a maximum of 160 characters, including spaces and punctuation: shortening words was often the only way to fit everything you wanted to say into the message.

Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Pictogram

A great part of the vocabulary of text messaging is made up of abbreviations, acronyms, and pictograms. Abbreviations are words that are shortened one way or another, such as "l8r" for "later," "u" for "you," and "sec" for "second"; acronyms are letter sequences that stand for a longer phrase, such as "IDK" for "I don't know," "OMG" for "oh my God," and "AFAIR" for "as far as I remember"; pictograms are strings of characters that represent a feeling or concept, such as ":)" for a smile and "<3" for "love."

Vocabulary

People who send a lot of text messages may end up using abbreviations, acronyms, and pictograms in other contexts by sheer habit, even though it may be inappropriate. This can happen both in writing and in speech: in his book "Txtng: The Gr8 Db8," the linguist David Crystal notes that he has heard teenagers and adults alike use abbreviations rather than the corresponding sentence when speaking out loud.

Phonetic Spelling and Deteriorating Grammar

In order to shorten words, people writing text messages may resort to phonetic spelling, such as "skool" for "school" and "thru" for "through." Similarly, in order to save characters, writers may skip punctuation or spaces, or omit non-essential parts of sentences, such as articles. Finally, any and all capitalization may be skipped in order to increase the speed of typing. These habits may persist even outside of texting, leading to a slow deterioration of spelling and grammar skills.

Sentence Length

Because text messages focus so much on short sentences, people who frequently write text messages may adopt the same style in any kind of written communication. This can lead to written works full of sentence fragments with only a thin thread of logic flow linking them.

Learning the Language

For people who are just beginning to learn a language, encountering text messaging slang can be extremely confusing. Native speakers are usually aware that the way they are writing goes against the established rules of the language; learners who encounter this kind of slang regularly, however, may end up genuinely believing it to be the correct way of spelling and writing.

About the Author

Laurel Storm has been writing since 2001, and helping people with technology for far longer than that. Some of her articles have been published in "Messaggero dei Ragazzi", an Italian magazine for teenagers. She holds a Master of Arts in writing for television and new media from the University of Turin.

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