The sky is not falling in

Good, well-grounded article by language legend David Crystal in The Guardian this weekend, on texting.  Countering doom-mongers like John Humphrys, who claimed (in the Daily Mail!) to hate texters:

They are destroying [our language]: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.

David Crystal explains that the distinctive SMS orthography (‘txtspk’) found in SMS messages is not new, not restricted to the young, is a small fraction of the text found in SMS messages, and alludes to evidence that it helps rather than hinders language development.

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.

It’s great stuff.  I couldn’t help thinking, though, that his argument would have been much stronger without this section:

Sending a message on a mobile phone is not the most natural of ways to communicate. The keypad isn’t linguistically sensible. No one took letter-frequency considerations into account when designing it. For example, key 7 on my mobile contains four symbols, pqrs. It takes four key-presses to access the letter s, and yet s is one of the most frequently occurring letters in English. It is twice as easy to input q, which is one of the least frequently occurring letters.

… which makes me worry he’s never encountered one-tap/predictive text systems (like T9 and iTap), which have been standard on mobile phones for … what, five years or more?  I’d certainly expect that the introduction of predictive text dramatically reduced the usage of the distinctive SMS orthography.

(Edit: Stephen Downes points to it too, linking to a longer discussion by Graham Attwell at Pontydysgu.)

Author: dougclow

Experienced project leader, data scientist, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in the education field and beyond.

4 thoughts on “The sky is not falling in”

  1. JH isn’t all bad; he defends the English language equally stoutly from pedants (like me) and actually loves Buffy-speak (see his last book on English). If there’s a place for Lynne Truss in the popular debate, there’s a place for JH, too.

    And let’s be honest, txtspk = h8ful. Especially as, just as you say, proper words are easier.

    Though if we did all understand txtspk, and could read graphemes crushed together to make morphemes happen in our heads, wouldn’t subtitling live programmes be better? And courts wouldn’t need trained stenographers.

    Hansard wud b bettr 2.

  2. I love the idea of a txtspk Hansard – I’m sure it would enrich Parliamentary discussion:

    Mbrs: ER, ER!
    Spkr: Rdr, rdr!
    PM: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to present to the House a detailed statement regarding certain monetary and fiscal policy complexities-
    Mbrs: Rsgn! Rsgn!

    I do like John Humphrys in lots of ways, and share his distaste for pedantry (even if I have tendencies that way myself). But I do think he’s fundamentally wrong-headed to seek to defend the English language. It’s not something that needs or benefits from being defended. Of course I wouldn’t want to rule him out of the debate – he certainly enriches public discourse. I simply disagree with prescriptivists of whatever stripe.

    (Which, to be perfectly clear, doesn’t mean I believe that grammar rules should be ignored. I’m a pragmatist and take Gowers’ line: certain audiences expect attention to certain rules of language, and if you flout their expectations, you run the risk that your grammar will attract more attention than your argument.)

  3. Good lord – could there possibly be someone else who has a mobile without predictive text? I thought I was the only one – I’m becoming infamous for carting around a museum piece. And you know you’re privileged if you get a text from me under those circumstances …

  4. I think I agree with Professor Wells who was reported in the Times ( as being of the view that detailed knowledge of punctuation and spelling in the English language is very difficult. As a result, correct use (or should it be usage?!) of spelling and punctuation is a way (means?!) of marking yourself (oneself?!) out as being edgeukayted. Or, put another way, we can tell who the oiks are by the fact that they put their apostrophes in the wrong place.

    As I get older, I find myself reading textbooks about grammar and punctuation. It was only after reading the above article that I realise that I am motivated not just by a love for language, but also by pride – the desire to be thought of as well educated by my peers.

    Is this a legitimate reason for having detailed and strict linguistic rules? Probably not. Professor Wells suggests that we revert to phonetic spellings to help relieve the burden on our children of learning all of the irregular spellings we have in our language. An alternative would be for us all to speak Welsh…

Comments are closed.