Unconventional forms of text messaging are often looked down upon, satirized and mocked by popular media. The medium is portrayed as encouraging incorrect grammar and spellings, and degrading the English language for our youth. It is assumed that these practices will leak into school papers and make us illiterate.
As one who frequently texts, I feel that this conception is false and that the way I spell in text messages doesn’t reflect my literacy skills. Contrary to popular belief, unconventional practices found in text messaging aren’t the creation of our generation — they have been found in dated sources, from telegrams to Victorian letters.
The stigma of text messaging exists today because it is highly misunderstood and lacks research. The medium is much more complex than portrayed; it allows us to communicate in ways that diverge from regular speaking practices such as using respelled forms (“u” for you and “ur” for your), emoticons, wordplay, repetition and discourse markers (oh, like, well).
To dispel these misguided notions about the degradation of linguistic purity, I conducted an independent project that analyzed 589 text message patterns from 16 students on the Binghamton University campus and found that text messaging is a meaningful and creative practice.
Text messaging is complex and creative in many different ways, but the most obvious characteristic of text messaging is respelled and unconventional forms. Usually we save time by texting “u” for you, “2” for to, and “rn” for right now. But is brevity the only function? I classified the respellings I found in my study to show that there are other pragmatic functions, and that respellings are not random but principled and meaningful.
The headword “‘yes” in my study produced the following respelled forms and frequencies: “yeah” (40 times) “yup” (4 times) “yahh” (2 times) “ya” (3 times) “yee” (1 time) “yep” (1 time) “yaaaaas” (1 time) and “yassssss” (1 time).
We have many different options when choosing to respell “yes,” whether it’s an “a” appellation (“yaaaaas”) or an “a” substitution (“ya”). Why would we add more letters or have different respellings if it requires more time and effort?
It’s because how we choose to respell portrays a certain identity to the person we are texting. Respelling a word doesn’t mean you don’t know how to spell the word correctly. Rather, you need to have an understanding of the original form before you can manipulate it in a meaningful way.
Texting can also seem informal by its use of discourse markers such as “oh,” “like” and “aww.” Yet, these speech-like forms also have meaningful functions. Since we lack paralinguistic cues — e.g., facial expressions — in text messaging, discourse markers like “oh” allow us to express our feelings and emotions, similar to emoji use.
Since texting is asynchronous and doesn’t happen in real time, the use of “oh” helps us to compensate for lack of context or timing. We can bring attention to certain topics, as in “oh by the way” or “oh did you hear” and to express suddenly remembered information or highlight novel information with “oh really?” and “oh and dont forget 2 take out the trash 2day.”
Because we can look back on previous text messages, we can more easily bounce off of each other’s ideas and repeat what other people said to serve an evaluative function. One can say “I deserve Chipotle” and another can reply “u do deserve Chipotle!” Repetition in this case is used to agree with a statement, creating new meaning and showing listenership within the conversation.
What was interesting is that the BU students didn’t even respell most of the time, which shows that they know how to spell conventional forms. When they did respell, it often reflected regional dialect and speaker identity.
These results are consistent across the pond as well — when comparing Binghamton students to other groups of people who text from a study done in the United Kingdom, most of the practices were the same except for the regionally determined respellings and differences in dialect.
Text messaging and private communication is an unexplored linguistic goldmine. It can add nuance to language in ways that other forms of communication cannot. The medium is not harming the English language because there is nothing incorrect about it. Instead of criticizing and deriding it, we should be embracing this modern form of communication as another way for human beings to express themselves and relate to one another.
Mitchell Abrams is a senior majoring in linguistics.