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OMG – textese is killing language


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

As long as most of us can remember children have been taught to dexterously curve their letters with an appropriate flourish, but when school reopens in the state of Indiana in the US next month, children will no longer be required to learn cursive script. The Indiana department of education culled the script of the US constitution, Dickens and countless others from the primary school curriculum and replaced it instead with something ostensibly more useful - typing lessons. Luddites, sound the alarm.

Education officials in Indiana believe proficiency in typing is more relevant to life in the modern world than an ancient script that seems to serve no other purpose – except people used to think it looked better than a scrawl. The decision by the Indiana authorities has, however, not gone without raising eyebrows and ire. Across the ocean in Germany, a similar debate has erupted, pitting teachers against language purists. One such purist, Hans Kaufmann of the Society for German Language believes, should German teachers succeed in their recently launched campaign to supplant the teaching of the classic “Schreibschrift” cursive with the simpler “Grundschrift”, it will not be just the handwriting of children that will suffer, but also their cognitive abilities.  Not alone is handwriting simplified by opting out of cursive handwriting, believes Kaufmann, but also “an apparently easier script also simplifies thoughts”.

He joins the chorus of language purists who believe the ever increasing upsurge of electronically mediated communication (EMC) is not impacting on handwriting skills of young children alone. It is also seen to adversely influence human communication. 

“SMS language mangles school English” was the cry from The Citizen way back in 2006 when teachers across South Africa decried the effects of text messaging on young children’s nascent writing abilities. Teachers, seemed unanimously to agree that the written language text messaging had spawned hampers the development of literacy in children. “textese,” as this dialect is known in some parts cleverly subverts letters and numbers to produce concise abbreviations that facilitate the immediacy of the medium. But it’s not just young children that use “textese”. People are universally communicating more and faster than ever, often relying on the economy of textese to get their message across.

Research overwhelmingly trounces popular belief of the pervasiveness of “textese” is EMC. On average only 10% of text messages have been found to contain these abbreviations, coinages and other such grievous offences.  Self-appointed gatekeepers of language worry that as “textese” drops consonants, vowels and punctuation and fails to make a distinction between letters and numbers, people will no longer be able to use language to communicate effectively. With the rate of literacy in South Africa already shockingly low, text messaging is seen by detractors to be defeating its intended purpose of easing communication and contributing instead to the scourge of illiteracy.

Already “textese” abbreviations for “laughing out loud,” or LOL, “best friends forever,” or BFF, “in my humble opinion,” or IMHO and “oh my God,” or OMG, were included in the Oxford English Dictionary earlier this year, raising the hackles of purists who believe language is best left the way we found it, unsullied by the vagaries of real life. The inclusion of these terms into the vaunted Oxford lexicon does, however, demonstrate the influence texting now wields on contemporary language usage.

Linguists in Mexico and Philippines have recently been astounded to find that the same blood-thirsty kids accused of killing language have actually breathed fresh life into endangered languages, rescuing them from the brink of extinction. Of course, these teens had no noble intentions to preserve the world’s linguistic diversity. They simply think it’s “cool” to send text messages in the languages endangered in their region. So too kids (and adults) who pepper their text messages, instant messaging conversations and “tweets” with “textese” in the English language do not intentionally seek to be unintelligible to the rest of humanity. It’s just the cool thing to do. This newfangled mode of written communication is often nothing more than a marker of street credibility.

With street cred in check, these kids are also not as illiterate as we’ve been made to believe. Belying popular opinion, recent research indicates that the more kids text, the better their literacy scores are. Texting requires a level of sophistication in reading and writing and literacy, let’s not forget it improves with practice, so it makes sense for texting to actually improve the literacy of children.

What remains, however, is the ability to appropriate these varieties of written language to social context. Linguists measure a speaker’s proficiency in language by their ability to appropriate various styles of language to social settings.  Floyd Shivambu for one may not have passed a language competency test this week. Instead of telling Jacques Dommisse “Fuck you man”, he may have instead dug deeper into his linguistic arsenal to find a more creative way to appropriate his language to his social setting. “Now Sir, no more of that, you’re harassing me,” may not have earned as many headlines, but it would have at least proved Floyd was aware of his context as a spokesman speaking to a reporter.

Textese, however shiny and new it may be, is highly unlikely to supersede our current variety of Standard English as the written standard of choice. Some of its most popular words like OMG and the ubiquitous LOL have already been admitted to Standard English.  At the same time, textese also exists independent of written language as we traditionally understand it. For the first time since the telegraph, there exists more than one style of written language in a single language. And it doesn’t take cursive to master it.

It may well be argued that it is time to exorcise cursive handwriting from the school curriculum, just as well as it may be argued that there lies great wisdom in the cursive script. Yet others will argue that an American educational system hardly befits imitation. But what is essential to the school curriculum is an increased awareness of a plurality of written varieties of language. Typing classes are all good and well, but children need to be taught about how to use both the standard variety of written language as well as “textese” effectively. DM


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