“Saucy ‘escort cards’ were a way to flirt in the Victorian era”. It was the headline which caused me to click on the link to the article, but once there, it was the image which caught my eye: “May I. C. U. home?”
“Well, what do you know! Victorian Englishmen used textspeak!” I thought.
So much for textspeak spelling the end of the English language as we know it. Obviously the quality of written communication hasn’t noticeably declined over the past three centuries, so what are we worried about?
I text a great deal and chat online through various IM (instant messaging) providers, and even I, the English teacher, frequently use popular acronyms like ‘lol’ (laughing out loud) and ‘idk’ (I don’t know). I’m weird about abbreviations, though. I have no compunction about using ‘ppl’ for people, ‘abt’ for about, or ‘msg’ for message, but I usually avoid ‘u’ and ‘r’, and I almost never shorten to to ‘2’. There’s just something about replacing a word with a similar-sounding letter or number that makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s because I expect to see something entirely different, like when people mix up homonyms and I see ‘bare’ instead of ‘bear’. Things like that bug me.
But do I worry that the use of textspeak is going to adversely affect young people’s writing skills? Not really. Just as we speak informally with friends but are able to speak formally with a business client, we write informally in SMS and online chats but are able to write formally when the occasion demands it. In his 14-minute TED Talk, Linguist John McWhorter suggests that for young people, texting is “evidence of a balancing act”, because they’re using this new way of writing “alongside their ordinary writing skills”.
Assuming that writing “How r u?” means the writer doesn’t know how to spell or will forget how to spell those words correctly is kind of silly… although it’s true that some people may have difficulty judging when it would be appropriate to use textspeak, and when not. Still, in an academic context, students know that textspeak is not acceptable, and adjust accordingly. I’ve seen students slip up and write ‘u’ in their essays, but it’s extremely rare. There’s also been the occasional ‘gonna’, which comes from informal speech, not textspeak. Last I looked, our unpolished, casual ways of speaking haven’t yet caused the English language to decline. It’s probable that textspeak won’t, either.