Thursday, 22 March 2012

Text Speak is NOT Killing the English Language

I know, I know. This has been debated to death. But people are STILL harping on about it. And as a linguist I feel the need to put in my twopennyworth (is that the right word?). This is what this blog is for after all...

I met someone the other week, someone who works in education, who works specifically in the field of literacy, who cannot bear text speak. This person believes that text speak is responsible for some children's inability to spell. That text speak is responsible for some children's poor grammar, poor punctuation, poor English.

I disagree.

And so does one of my heroes, David Crystal. Here is a picture of him looking pensive:

He is marvellous and I love him. He makes the very salient point that in order to play around with the rules, as text speak does, one first has to understand the rules. You can't deliberately mess something up without an understanding of what it should look like before you start messing about with it. Or words to that effect. He puts it much better than me. Obviously.

And to add weight to my argument, I cite this award-winning poem by Hetty Hughes:

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

What I love about this poem is the fact that the poet is so self-aware. She openly mocks her own culture, the culture of the grammar-purists, the culture of contemporary 'yoot' (er, youth), and all through the traditional medium of poetry. That high art to which, traditionally, all writers would aspire.

If we denounce text speak as being responsible for the perceived low levels of literacy in the UK (I say 'perceived' because I don't believe this is necessarily the case) then we are missing the point.

Creative play on language is an inherently human thing to do. Very young children play with language, creating rhymes and nonsense words to entertain themselves and others. At the other end of the scale, academics use fairly impenetrable Latin abbreviations to communicate in shorthand. Surely this is no different to people (young and old I hasten to add) coming up with creative ways to abbreviate certain words to facilitate the speed of text messaging, or indeed to send messages in secret code (as a parent, I am determined to keep on top of all my daughters' slang so that they cannot hide anything from me. An impossible task I know but I have to convince myself it will be possible!).

We need to accept that the English language is not a fixed entity. It evolves. It has properties that enable us to play with it, extend and create new meanings, introduce new words, new characters even, and it is precisely this that keeps me coming back for more.

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