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By Dr Pieter Streicher, MD of BulkSMS.com
SMS language or ‘textspeak’ is taking a lot of flack for the general misuse of the English language today – both in spelling and grammar. But is it all negative? People are too quick to blame SMS technology for a rise in incorrect spelling and grammar use, and are failing to see the opportunities that can come from it.
Parents and teachers have been blaming cellphones and SMSes for a ‘degradation
in the English language’ for years now, and they feel this technology is
standing in the way of children learning proper English.
What many parents and teachers don’t take cognisance of, however, is that
‘textspeak’ serves a very definite purpose within the context of which it is
used and is rarely due to laziness, rebellion, or habit. The limited character
space offered by a single SMS has brought about a need for acronyms and clever
wordplay. The aim of the language is to fit as much information as possible
into the restricted space that a single SMS allows for. An SMS constitutes the
use of symbolic expression which is forced by the limitations of technology.
SMS language is generally only used when communicating with someone that the
sender is close to. This is confirmed by the fact that 65% of all abbreviations
in ‘textspeak’ is used to identify people, such as ‘u’, ‘bf’, and ‘ppl’. A
further 11% is used to identify possessive pronouns such as ‘ur’. Ten percent
is reserved for amusement or expressions, such as ‘lol’ and ‘haha’, further
confirming that the context here is very obviously friendly, intimate and
Just as children understand the difference between languages, so too do they
recognise that certain writing styles are appropriate in their intended
contexts only. Older children especially have no problems differentiating the
writing style and spelling needed for formalised documents (such as school
work) from the much more intimate and informal SMS language.
According to a study done by Kristy (née Freudenberg) Winzker as part of her
Master of Philosophy thesis at the University of Stellenbosch entitled
‘Investigating the impact of SMS speak on the written work of English first
language and English second language high-school learners’ (March 2009),
although Grade 11 learners reported using SMS more frequently than Grade 8
learners, they used significantly less SMS language elements in their written
work. The study covered the effect of ‘textspeak’ on written work in terms of
spelling errors, lack of punctuation, over-punctuation, leaving out function
words, use of abbreviations and acronyms, use of emoticons, rebus writing,
shortening of words, use of slang, and use of colloquialisms.
If children are letting this kind of language creep into their school work,
they only need be told it is not tolerated and it will not stand in the way of
their learning process. Only in situations where ‘textspeak’ is tolerated in a
formal context, or in instances where English is not a person’s first language,
can this become a real problem.
There have also been instances in the workplace (especially in use over e-mail)
where SMS slang is used, but as soon as management indicates that it is not
acceptable in a business setting, the ‘textspeak’ stops.
Generally, business avoids any acronyms or text slang when sending out SMSes to
their clients or subscribers. They might compromise on punctuation to optimise
SMS space, but the spelling is generally perfect. Words are not often
abbreviated unless the acronym is known by the receiver, such as in share
prices. In general, though, companies need to be very wary of ambiguity or
miscommunication between themselves and the client.
The use of SMS as a communication channel provides a means for anyone to
communicate. As ‘elitist’ as SMS language can be, the SMS channel itself does
not keep anyone out of the loop. It enables the hearing impaired to communicate
in ways that were not previously open to them. Alexander Graham Bell, the
inventor of the telephone, also initially intended to develop a hearing device
for the hearing impaired. Both his wife and mother were hearing impaired.
Ironically, the invention of the telephone only contributed to shutting out the
deaf from communicating even more.
It has only been since the design of the mobile phone – and more importantly
the SMS – that the hearing impaired can now communicate with both hearing and
hearing impaired individuals through a telephonic device.
The reality is that SMS language is here to stay, like it or not. As long as
there is a need for the SMS, there will be a need for ‘texting’. The answer
lies in teaching children from an early age to use language correctly and in
the right context. The solution is education.
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