8/5/09 - texting

In today's excerpt - texting and the effect of texting on contemporary writing:

"By 1848, the new electric telegraph was already being hailed as a modern marvel that would revolutionize commerce, journalism, and warfare. In that year, a prominent New York attorney and editor named Conrad Swackhamer wrote an article predicting that it would transform the language as well. After all, he noted, the telegraph required above all else that its users be brief and direct. As people got used to sending and receiving telegrams and reading the telegraphed dispatches in the newspapers, they would inevitably cast off the verbosity and complexity of the prevalent English style. The 'telegraphic style', as Swackhamer called it, would be 'terse, condensed, expressive, sparing of expletives, and utterly ignorant of synonyms' and would propel the English language toward a new standard of perfection.

"That was the first time anybody used the word telegraphic to describe a style of writing, with the implication that a new communications technology would naturally leave its mark on the language itself. It's an idea that has resurfaced with the appearance of every writing tool from the typewriter to the word processor. And now there's a resurgence of Swackhamerism as the keypad is passed to a new generation, and commentators ponder the deeper linguistic significance of the codes and shortcuts that have evolved around instant messaging and cell-phone texting. The topic got a lot of media play last month with the release of a study on teens and writing technology sponsored by the College Board and the Pew Research Center. According to the report, more than half of teens say they've sometimes used texting shortcuts in their school writing. The story was a natural for journalists. It combined three themes that have been a staple of feature writing for 150 years: 'the language is going to hell in a handbasket'; 'you'll never get me onto one of those newfangled things'; and 'kids today, I'm here to tell you ...'

"It wasn't hard to find critics who warned of apocalyptic consequences for the language. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, said that IM and texting were bringing about 'the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought, the sentence.' ...

"I've got a little prediction to make myself, a generation from now all this stuff is going to sound awfully silly. Did people really imagine that rules of written English sentence structure that go back to the Renaissance would suddenly crumble because teenagers took to texting each other over their cell phones instead of passing notes under their desks in class?

"In fact, apart from contributing some slang and jargon, new writing technologies rarely have much of an effect on the language. They can give rise to specialized codes, but those tend to flow alongside the broad channel of standard English without ever mixing with it. As Conrad Swackhamer predicted, the Victorians developed a breathlessly compressed style for sending telegrams, like the message Henry James had one of his characters cable in Portrait of a Lady: 'Tired America, hot weather awful, return England with niece, first steamer decent cabin.' But that telegraphic style didn't leave any traces on Victorian prose—when you think of James's own writing terse and condensed are not the words that come to mind. The linguistic features of the new media are sure to follow the same pattern. ...

"What happens in email stays in email? Kids catch on to this quickly. They may sometimes let texting shortcuts slip into their schoolwork, but they know there are different rules for formal writing and that you ignore them at your peril."


Geoffrey Nunberg


The Years of Talking Dangerously


Public Affairs a member of the Perseun Books Group


Copyright 2009 by Geoffrey Nunberg


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