There is uproar in the Irish Times newspaper (a journal easily uproared) over the declining standards of English in Ireland. Apparently, the Chief Examiner of Ireland’s Department of Education and Science (An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta) claimed last month that text messaging somehow represents a significant threat to writing standards in English.
Naturally, I wondered why he failed to comment on the impact of text messaging on Gaeilge (Irish), or do people only use text messaging in English even in the financially cosetted Gaeltacht?
Anyway. Languages and their presentation evolve, reacting to the needs of society, economics and technology.
Text messaging’s truncated, phonetic, semi-WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) style more of a response to the limitations of the device’s input mechanism and user interface display than the requirements of a “busy” society or illiteracy. Japanese computer users use an English keyboard with input method editor (IME) software, typing their words phonetically before they are entered correctly in Kanji characters. QWERTY keyboards exist because that layout originally solved a mechanical problem on early typewriters. Regardless, if text messaging helps people to communicate with each other, then what is wrong with that? Text speak is certainly more intelligible or recognizable than the “English” used in Finnegan’s Wake, so there can hardly be an objective standard of what constitutes “traditional conventions in writing” anyway.
The Chief Examiner’s claims are similar to those leveled against Ebonics in the United States of America. However, Ebonics (or African American Vernacular English) was recognized by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) in 1997 as being systematic and rule-governed “like all natural speech varieties.” They argued that to characterize Ebonics as “slang”, “mutant”, “lazy”, “defective”, “ungrammatical”, or “broken English” was incorrect and demeaning. So, why should text messaging be regarded in similarly unflattering terms?
Since the story broke, the Letters Page of the Irish Times has been inundated with opinions on the subject. One correspondent suggested that the solution to improving the quality of text messaging content (in terms of English) was a technical one, i.e., increase the maximum allowed character limit to more than 160 characters. This is nonsense, of course. If you want to go down that route, then I suggest that the minimum number of characters allowed in a text message be 160, thus forcing people to write like Laurence Sterne.