Writing: Is SMS changing our language? Our brains? Our Identities?

identity and technology
identity and technology

There’s the story about the teenager in Scotland who needed treatment for his text messaging addiction. He sent 700 text messages per week and 8000 emails per month, almost all to one person—his girlfriend. They have since broken up.

In New York, a current trial rests on the interpretation of a text message: was the defendant serious or just joking when he threatened to kill the victim? I love the one about the mobile phone firm that has launched a hand set designed specifically for the motor skills of four-year-olds—with text messages built in. The firm’s promotional materials announce that it targets parents who want to know where their four-year-old is at all times. (They say this casually, as if there are parents of four-year-olds who don’t.) And believe it or not, the Chinese are now allowing text messaging in Tibetan.

What is this fascination—this addiction—we have to text messages?

I watch my teenage daughter across the room. She has collapsed into an armchair, one leg slung over the side. She holds her mobile phone in two hands, adeptly pressing buttons with her thumbs (the texting method she prefers). When I ask what she’s doing, she replies, “I’m just re-reading my text messages from the last few weeks. I’ve sent 76 and …” she presses a few more buttons, “and I’ve received 76 too!” She looks up beaming. I peer over her shoulder and read: “meet aftr skl 2moz ill tll u da hole stry”.

This reminds me of those ads when I was a teenager: “If u cn rd ths ad, we cn gv u a jb.” Not ever wanting the job they were offering, I used to pretend I had no idea what it said. But now I feel discouraged. That coded ad is much easier to parse than my daughter’s message. And I have this feeling that more than a job rests on being able to do so. It’s the future.

Mobile phones carry social capital in and of themselves. What kind of phone do you carry? How expensive is it? How sophisticated are its features? Does it have a camera? What kind of keypad? What kind of case? What plan are you on? For those who know, these questions are answered the moment someone pulls a phone from a pocket. It’s a big business and growing. Ring tones alone are a $3.5 billion dollar industry. But it’s more than that. The very act of texting has cachet and communicates something about the sender. I’m told by my daughter that I look ‘uncool’ when I write my text messages. Apparently, I squint and frown a lot. And then, I peck at the keypad with an index finger. “Very uncool,” says my husband, who uses the one-thumb method.

Text messaging is irresistible among teens and young adults. Termed ‘Generation Text’ for their zealous take-up of new technologies, they tend to form close knit ‘text circles’ that connect small groups of friends in perpetual contact. My daughter claims she can tell who’s writing simply by the style of the message and the abbreviations used. It’s a type of ‘visual signature’. “Everyone has their own way of texting,” she says. “It’s individual.”

It’s also instant, location independent and personal. The use of non-standard orthography is a powerful but also a playful means for young people to affirm their identities, to differentiate from adults and align themselves with each other. In one study, 90% of teens claimed they used text messaging more than they talked on the phone. The same group admits to feeling ‘anxious’ if they forget or lose their phone.

This applies to adults as well as to teens. My husband forgets his phone on a day when he ‘really’ needs it. Passing by a phone shop, he enters with a question about an upgrade and walks out with a new phone identical to the one forgotten. He has also signed up for a new plan with great savings (which made the phone free), and, because of a holiday promotion, he’s received (also for free!) a Playstation Portable (PSP).

A few days later, my daughter loses her phone. At the local pool, she thinks. It is just before the holidays, so we don’t have a chance to hunt for it before the break. When we return from our annual camping trip, we find the phone among the sofa cushions (not at the pool after all). Her face floods with relief: “I feel like I got back a part of myself.”

Marc Prensky, a guru of digital game-based learning, tells a story about a young Japanese student who said, “When you lose your mobile phone, you lose part of your brain.” It’s this type of identification that goes straight to the heart of the matter. How healthy is our reliance on new technologies? What is it doing to our sense of self? How is it affecting our literacy? And what does this mean for the future of education?

People tend to fall neatly into one of two camps. There are the alarmists, those who fear for the state of Standard English and even more for the minds of our young. And then, there are others who embrace the use of such new technologies as innovative and who feel that playful shifts in language are inevitable.

Professor Patrick O’Donnell is of the first group. A psychologist from Glasgow University, he asserts that “new technology brings dangers which could signal the beginning of worrying trends.” Remembering the young man and his 700-a-day text habit, his claim has some validity. And many English teachers complain that the widespread use of SMS has led to language erosion, poor grammar and spelling, and loss of concentration. They worry that literacy will be lost, that English is being bastardized, that books will disappear. Books disappear?

I ponder all of this. As children, didn’t we all used to speak together in Pig Latin? In most cases, this had no detrimental effects on our schoolwork. We very easily switched back into Standard English when required. Then, in high school, we were assigned ee cummings, and that didn’t hurt us much either. Writers, poets and even ordinary speakers—that’s us—have always played around with language.

The notion of standardization in written language is itself a convention. Writing has always been an abstraction away from spoken language. Ironically, many of the typographic practices of text messaging offer more ‘correct’ or more ‘authentic’ representations of speech. When you think about it, there has always been a complex relationship between the spoken and the written word, and it tends to cause a lot of confusion. A fiction writer who is trying to show the emotions of characters in conversation doesn’t necessarily write speech that might actually occur. The trick is to capture the essence of spoken language in a written form. It must seem natural and authentic and true to life, even though it is something quite different. However, while writing ‘speech’ can be a constraining endeavour, writing in general has served as a liberating force. As an example, think of the complex oral tradition of the ancient poets. In order to remember scenes, sequences and long passages, they devise richly detailed conventions around versifying. Once the words were preserved in writing, all those choliambics, galliambics, and glyconic strophes could be relaxed. I can imagine that more than a few people felt that something was lost when the stories were written down. And while it might have been essentially liberating, and while we know that it led to a variety of new ways of organizing thoughts and words, it must have sounded strange to the ear initially.

Human beings are fundamentally creative. It’s hardwired into us. And while language gives us the ability to arrange knowledge in ways that lead to innovation, innovation in turn puts demands on the language. Of course, language will shift and change. It always has—and often for less compelling reasons than today’s revolution in mobile technology. All of it comes from our creative nature. Out of this new technology, we’ve devised another playful and inventive use of language. It merely adds to our abilities. Text language shouldn’t be feared or discouraged. It should simply be thought of as one more tool for communicating, which is what all language is when you get right down to it.

I read an article in the newspaper about the 2006 Shakespeare Festival, which will be held later this year in Brisbane. High school teachers have been invited to involve their students in updating Shakespeare’s plays. In other words, get ready for rap and SMS versions of Twelfth Night. I recall that at recent writers festivals there have been sessions dedicated to the forms and uses of text language. And ACID, a groovy, innovative Brisbane-based R&D company, is developing content for ‘mobile learning’, an interesting area that specifically utilizes the social capital that’s created by the use of SMS among young people.

It seems that everyone is on board. SMS and text language are being made use of in the most unexpected ways. As early as the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, performers put on a play, Static, that invited people who watched the show on stage to subscribe to daily SMS messages from the play’s characters. And last year in the U.K., The Guardian (not exactly an avant garde publication) held a poetry contest for the best poem written in text language. The winning entry*, written by Hetty Hughes, a 22-year-old undergraduate, was selected from over 7500 entries by two of Britain’s foremost poets. I have even found online ‘text’ translations of the EU Constitution and the Bible.

And what of the fate of books? Are they really threatened? The idea has me worried until one day lately with time to kill, I step into a used book store in Brisbane’s West End. Browsing, I come across an old copy of The Aneaid. Lifting the book to my face, I inhale the scent of leather and dust and mildewed paper, the familiar and comforting odor of an old book. I read a few lines. In the blink of an eye, I am transported to a day a long time ago in New York. It was autumn, and I was walking along Central Park West fresh from the first day of a literature class at Columbia University. We were assigned The Aneaid, and I had just had my first glimpse of a new world. I paused, sat on a park bench to eat my lunch—an apple—and thumbed through it. The hour was golden. The vibrant reds and oranges of the turning trees cast a spell over the city. All my senses were engaged: the crisp smell of falling leaves, the vivid colours of the day, the rhythmic ebb and flow of traffic, the taste of the apple. That moment from the past returned in all its sensual detail, tumbling across years and oceans.

Books have the power to do this. We shouldn’t worry. Books aren’t going anywhere. The Aneaid has been around a long, long time. But we shouldn’t forget that books are made up of words, and it’s the words that are powerful, not just the container that holds them or the form they are put to. It’s not about the choliambics or the galliambics. It’s not only about the genre: poem, play, or novel. It’s not even about that fascinating contraption we all carry in our handbags and our pockets: the mobile phone. It’s about the play of the words, the creative, witty, innovative play of words. Who are we to decide now that masterpieces will never emerge from text language?

Is SMS a threat, a danger, a worry, a mess? Nah!


*The Guardian’s winning poem:
txtin iz messin,
mi headn’me englis,
try2rite essays,
they all come out txtis.
gran not plsed w/letters shes getn,
swears i wrote better
b4 comin2uni.
&she’s African
Hetty Hughes, 2005

Article first published in Arts Hub in 2006.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s