A few weeks ago, I went to a birthday party for a younger cousin of mine at a family fun center that had a bowling alley, a rock climbing wall, laser tag, and a full video arcade. While the kids who looked like they were in elementary school were tearing around the various attractions, having a blast, I looked around and noticed something odd about the teenagers and the adults. When I was a teenager, we would all have been hogging the video games or running through game after game of laser tag (bowling was a little low-key, in our opinion). That wasn’t the case for the teens here, though. They were sitting at booths, on stools, on the floor, in different places throughout the center. Rather than listening to the blaring music or looking for interesting people to talk to, they had their eyes focused on the small devices that they were holding in their hands, pressing buttons furiously with their thumbs. Yes, they were spending their time at the fun center texting instead of playing the games there. This isn’t a phenomenon isolated to the young, either: if you take a look at the drivers around you when you’re traveling down a city street, you’ll see their eyes moving from the road down to their hand, where it’s likely that they are reading a text (or a Facebook posting) or thinking about what to write in a text message of their own. Texting has taken on a syntax all its own, and while there are those who say that the linguistic process of writing a text message is eroding the English language as a whole, there are also those who say that texting in various forms has always been around. By comparing modern texting with communication formats in earlier time periods, it becomes clear that the impulse to text has always been with us, and the fact that we have the technology to communicate this way is the only reason why this form is so prevalent.
Just what is a text message? It takes on a number of forms, but all of them are types messages that travel through the SMS system that works through most cell phones and smart phones, as well as Internet browsers. Nowadays, these messages can include pictures and videos, but the messaging itself continues to be the most popular feature (Thurlow and Poff, 1). Because the general limit is 160 characters, what one can say in a text message is fairly limited in length. Also, the desire to communicate quickly leads many to use the QWERTY keyboard (or, in the case of the “ flip” phones, rattling a letter at a time through the older phone dial, where each key can stand for up to four letters.
Texting has taken on a number of social meanings, depending on the culture in which you find yourself. In Hong Kong, for example, the people who text the most are male college students who come from wealthy homes (Leung, 2007), but in Japan, those who text more than talk tend to be those with lower social skills (Ishii, 2006). In terms of linguistics, there are just as many variations when it comes to the ways that texters alter standard language to suit the shorter format of texting. French-language texters will remove vowels or use rebuses in order to communicate (such as the use of “ b4” for “ before), while German texters will use more traditional methods of abbreviation. In Sweden, texters tend to skip capitalization, while ending marks (periods, question marks, exclamation points) tend to be left out in text messages sent by speakers of American English. Emoticons, which are a staple of instant messaging and text messaging in the United States, are extremely rare in just about every other country except Sweden (Thurlow and Poff, 4).
Interestingly, some of the linguistic trends that have been found to be true in other settings are reflected in the realities of text messaging. A study of text messages from Norwegian teens showed that 52 percent of females sent texts that had grammatical complexity (more than one clause in the same message), while only 15 percent of males do the same. In Finland, boys were found to send text messages of one sentence or less more often, while girls sent messages that were longer and more complex (Kasesniemi, 2003). Overall, researchers found that texters have three goals when arranging messages: speed, paralinguistic restitution, and phonetic approximation (Thurlow and Poff, 10). In other words, texters want to communicate quickly, fill as many gaps in the language that they can without sacrificing that speed, and making their messages resemble the phonetic representation of their words as closely as possible.
The intent behind text messaging, as with any form of communication, tends to vary with the agenda behind that communication. Most text messages tend to be relational in their agenda and topic, whether the message is a greeting, an attempt to make plans, or a stab at keeping in touch with a friend – or an attempt to communicate with one’s romantic partner. This sort of banter is one of the ways in which adolescents tend to find their social selves. So it seems that the purpose of texting is to optimize the amount of social interaction that they have (Thurlow and Poff, 9). However, this socialization differs somewhat from other forms of interaction, as texters have an affective distance that protects the sender from seeing or hearing the recipient’s reaction to the text message. This means that the normative rules of etiquette need to be altered for situations addressed by texting. For example, conversations of a highly emotional nature should not take place via text messaging. As Rita Gonzales, professor of communication at Pasadena City College, puts it, “ many people are using text messages to create emotional distance. It’s easier to say mean things when you’re not speaking face to facethey are breaking emotional barriers in an ineffective way”(Shimomura, 2009). Conversations that involve considerable controversy, such as ending relationships or confronting past disagreements, should take place over the phone or in person, where the vocal inflection and other forms of nonverbal language can also pass from sender to recipient.
Interpersonal relationships are not the only area in which texting is creating some etiquette violations. Pastors and professors alike are noticing that the people in their audience often tune out their entire sermon or lecture, instead sitting and texting during the entire service or class. Predictably, students do not always feel that there is an etiquette breach going on; as Pasadena City College Katie Hernandez puts it, “ I feel that as long as you are not doing it constantly and you are still able to take notes then it is acceptable (Shimomura, 2009). Texting in social situations becomes a bit murkier in terms of etiquette, though, because many people will sit and text while they are out with friends, which means that they are not fully engaged in the social situation that they are occupying. If someone from 1800 wandered through that same family fun center, he or she might well wonder why none of the teens or adults were involved in their social situation, instead pounding out message after message.
Writing in an abbreviated format is nothing new for practitioners of the English language. Indeed, the very first attempts to turn sounds into words involved capturing those sounds with a phonetic abbreviation and written signifier. When the astronomer William Dawes set up his observational hut in Sydney, Australia, in the late 1700’s, he was there to follow the path of a comet, but he is more well known for the written records that he kept of the aboriginal language in Australia. He wrote down samples from conversations that showed the various cultural hierarchies that were in place. However, for the purposes of this paper, our interest is not in his observations of the aborigines, but instead the way in which he recorded those observations. His writings. His use of abbreviation was typical of 18th century English, and it shows just as many changes to standard English as any study of the abbreviations in text messages would reveal. Such archaic abbreviations (“&c” for “ et cetera” being just one of many) filled his journals that they have proven a challenge for modern historians to read and understand. He also abbreviated many words in a nonstandard way, making the text even more of an adventure to understand (Nathan, 2009).
Abbreviations also provided assistance in generating accurate records of meetings in the age before digital recorders. What would become the unique set of characters in shorthand began as a set of decisions that recorders would make when writing down key letters from each word in a speech they were listening to. For example, Thomas Lloyd, the founder of the Congressional Record, used an elaborate system to record the early sessions. He rendered, “ I join with the gentlemen who are disposed to lower the duties, although I feel the necessity we are under of raising the revenue as much as any other gentleman possibly can, yet I think we ought to deliberate fully upon the means before we adopt them” as “ jn n lwring fl s mc f ncsty f rsing rvn and vry frt gt t b t tt b wn the mns gt t tk sm t sbvrt thmslvs consdr bfr w dpt”(Smith, 1994). Imagine getting that text message in your inbox.
This is where the similarities end between texting and the older practice of abbreviating pragmatically. Social interaction had a higher priority in the eighteenth century, for the simple reason that it was so much rarer outside the family circle: in the absence of telephones and the Internet, much more communication took place in writing. While some breakups naturally occurred by letter, it was not the process of abbreviation that made the etiquette violation – it was the use of writing in the first place. The rarity of interaction made it much more of an occasion than it is in our own time; if anything, we have limitless capacity to communicate with one another verbally, which means that texting may serve as a way to avoid that intimacy – a commodity which was in much shorter supply in the centuries before the telephone.
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