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Texting versus textbook

GEETA PADMANABHAN
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SMS and txt-talk are fast becoming the language of the digital era. But does mangled spelling and grammar infect or liberate the English language, asks GEETA PADMANABHAN

QUICK AND CONVENIENT Txting and SMSes are popular ways of communicating among Gen-Next Photo: AP
QUICK AND CONVENIENT Txting and SMSes are popular ways of communicating among Gen-Next Photo: AP

I t starts like this: kid has to prepare for a spelling test. But won't. “Mom, my iPod and computer have spellcheck, so why do I need to learn spelling?” Then teen argues: “Digital communication is less about spelling and all about understanding each other clearly. We communicate and plan our lives without stressing about spelling. Writing in longhand? LOL.”

When a shocked Scottish school teacher asked a 13-year-old why she wrote her essay in SMS-ish, she said it was easier than standard English. Her essay went, “My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, & hs 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc.” (“My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, and his three screaming kids face to face. I love New York. It's a great place.”).

The new language

While twitter, e-mail, chat and texting are reducing spelling to an unimportant, even wasteful skill, SMS-ish or Textese (or text-speak, chatspeak, txtspk, txtk, txto, txt-lingo, txt-talk) is spinning into the language of the digital age. Abbreviated words and sentences are now communication protocol. Pictures, letters and numbers are its components (“i <3 u” is a pictogram of a heart for love + letter “u”). They save time which is money in mobile phones. They save grammar, about which we are never sure.

So ask: does “mangled” spelling infect or liberate the English language? Is texting mightier than the word?

Arguments fly on both sides of the digital divide. Teachers blame text-messaging, e-mail and computer spell-checks for Gen-Next's inability to spell. Employers see in college students' written English a “degree of crisis”. Educators say text-language is arbitrary and contextual, digi-spelling has no standardisation, the words aren't found in grammar/spelling books or dictionaries. No language academy monitors it, no coaching centre teaches it. It may take less time/space to punch, but needs more time to read.

It's a rare professor who will respond to “hi prof how are u culd u tell me my xm grade – xxx.” Teachers still circle ‘b4,' ‘b/c' and ‘ culd' in essays. Will an essay that quotes “2 b r nt 2 b” and “2maro, 2maro, 2maro” get credits? Will editors accept a movie review that begins, “I wudn't say the movie is gud–but there r lotsaa msges if observed v.crflly.” Digi-spelt novels [for teens?] are not likely to grace our bookstores unless publishers are looking for slang. And what about the confusion between informal and formal writing?

An art form?

Ah, but some, such as creative director Prathap Suthan, see an art form in smsese. They see distilled information without the pretence of capital letters, punctuation and “proper” spelling. SMS-ish sharpens students' ability to sculpt thought, they say. Abbreviations, numbers, graphics and emoticons make language-use fluid, writing expressive. It's rejection of the written word, emergence of a new lexicon. Dr. Nanagh Kemp of University of Tasmania believes the evolution of ‘textese' is “inherently coupled to a strong grasp of grammar and phonetics”. Editor of redthebook.com (website for teen writings/authors) believes talk of the death of spelling/grammar in the new media “is a lot of fuss. Teens know the rules and apply them when they need to… Wish I could be a little freer like that.”

Facebook addicts, twitter junkies and non-stop txt-mssgrs may have found smart ways to condense words, but they still have to confront formal English academically and professionally. The BBC story (August 3) is categorical on this count. Do not mangle spellings or mix letters with numbers on digital channels, it warns. Keep spellings clean in e-mails/web pages that customers read. Just one spelling error on your website will cause online sales to drop by as much as 50 per cent. Spelling mistakes in e-marketing campaign may be the reason you're not reaching the targeted click-through rate. You dash off a “typo”-infested digital message to a customer and he'll probably dismiss it as a phishing attempt. It's spam, to be filtered off. Your brand will lose respect, and you, credibility.

Having created an opportunity to downgrade spelling, technology has risen to its rescue. Google sternly suggests better spelling. Computers sport predictive text input, smartphones feature full QWERTY keyboards. T9, a mobile-phone app automatically predicts what you're writing. You start typing, T9 will complete it. Spelling apps are everywhere: Try My Spell Test, SpellDown Spelling Bee, Build A Word, Miss Spell's Class, iSpell 123, Word Fall, Spelling Drills, Bee Spelled.

That's digital culture, 2011.



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