SMS language or textese (also known as txt-speak, txtese, chatspeak, txt, txtspk, txtk, txto, texting language, txt lingo, SMSish, txtslang, txt talk) or "texting language" is a term for the abbreviations and slang commonly used with mobile phone text messaging, but sometimes used with other Internet-based communication such as email and instant messaging.
Three features of early mobile phone messaging encouraged users to use abbreviations: (a) Text entry was difficult, requiring multiple key presses on a small keypad to generate each letter; (b) Messages were limited to 160 characters; and (c) it made texting faster.
Once it became popular it took on a life of its own and was often used outside of its original context. At its peak, it was the cause of vigorous debate about its potentially detrimental effect on literacy, but with the advent of alphabetic keyboards on smartphones its use, and the controversies surrounding it, have receded and died off.
SMS language is similar to that used by those sending telegraphs that charged by the word. It seeks to use the fewest number of letters to produce ultra-concise words and sentiments in dealing with space, time and cost constraints of text messaging. This follows from how early SMS permitted only 160 characters and some carriers charge messages by the number of characters sent.
It also shares some of these characteristics with Internet slang and Telex speak following from how its evolution is rather symbiotic to the evolution of use of shorthand in Internet chat rooms. Likewise, such a change sought to accommodate the small number of characters allowed per message, and to increase convenience for the time-consuming and often small keyboards on mobile phones. In addition, similarly elliptical styles of writing can be traced to the days of telegraphese 120 years back, where telegraph operators were reported to use abbreviations similar to those used in modern text when chatting amongst themselves in between sending of official messages. Faramerz Dabhoiwala wrote in The Guardian in 2016: "modern usages that horrify linguistic purists in fact have deep historical roots. 'OMG' was used by a septuagenarian naval hero, admiral of the fleet Lord Fisher, in 1917".
Nevertheless, the invention of mobile phone messaging is considered to be the source for the invention of SMS language. In general, SMS language thus permits the sender to type less and communicate more quickly than one could without such shortcuts. One example is the use of "tomoz" instead of "tomorrow". Nevertheless, there are no standard rules for the creation and use of SMS languages. Any word may be shortened (for example, "text" to "txt"). Words can also be combined with numbers to make them shorter (for example, "later" to "l8r"), using the numeral "8" for its homophonic quality.
SMS language as a multilingual entity
Some may view SMS language to be a nascent dialect of the English language, that is a dialect strongly if not completely derivative of the English language. This may not be so. Such generalization may have risen from the fact that mobile phones had only been able to support a limited number of default languages in the early stages of its conception and distribution.
A mobile operating system (OS) such as Symbian and language packs enable the linguistic localization of products that are equipped with such interfaces, where the current Symbian release (Symbian Belle) supports the scripts and orthographies of over 48 languages and dialects, though such provisions are by no means fully comprehensive as to the languages used by users all over the world. Researcher Mohammad Shirali-Shahreza (2007) further observes that mobile phone producers offer support "of local language of the country" within which their phone sets are to be distributed.
Nevertheless, various factors contribute as additional constraints to the use of non-English languages and scripts in SMS. This motivates the anglicization of such languages, especially those using non-Latin orthographies (i.e. not using Latin alphabets) following for instance, the even more limited message lengths involved when using for example, Cyrillic or Greek letters. On the flip side, researcher Gillian Perrett observes the de-anglicization of the English language following its use and incorporation into non-English linguistic contexts.
As such, on top of the measures taken to minimize space, time and cost constraints in SMS language, further constraints upon the varied nature and characteristics of languages worldwide add to the distinct properties and style of SMS language(s).
Linguistic properties and style
The primary motivation for the creation and use of SMS language was to convey a comprehensible message using the fewest number of characters possible. This was for two reasons; one, telecommunication companies limited the number of characters per SMS, and also charged the user per SMS sent. To keep costs down, users had to find a way of being concise while still communicating the desired message. Two, typing on a phone is normally slower than with a keyboard, and capitalization is even slower. As a result, punctuation, grammar, and capitalization are largely ignored. In many countries, people now have access to unlimited text options in their monthly plan, although this varies widely from country to country, and operator to operator. However, screens are still small and the input problem persists, so SMS language is still widely used for brevity.
Observations and classifications as to the linguistic and stylistic properties of SMS language have been made and proposed by Crispin Thurlow, López Rúa and David Crystal among many others. Although they are by no means exhaustive, some of these marked properties involve the use of:
- Initialisations (acronyms and abbreviations composed of initials)
- Reductions and shortenings, and omission of parts of speech
- Variations in spelling
- Punctuation, or lack thereof
There are many examples of words or phrases that share the same abbreviations (e.g., lol could mean laugh out loud, lots of love, or little old lady, and cryn could mean crayon or cryin(g)).
For words that have no common abbreviation, users most commonly remove the vowels from a word, and the reader is required to interpret a string of consonants by re-adding the vowels (e.g. dictionary becomes dctnry and keyboard becomes kybrd). Omission of words, especially function words (e.g.: determiners like "a" and "the") are also employed as part of the effort to overcome time and space constraints.
Pragmatics and context in interpretation of ambiguous shortenings
Recipients may have to interpret the abbreviated words depending on the context in which they are being used. For instance, should someone use ttyl, lol they may probably mean talk to you later, lots of love as opposed to talk to you later, laugh out loud. In another instance, if someone were to use omg, lol they may perhaps mean oh my god, laugh out loud as opposed to oh my god, lots of love.
Therefore, co-textual references and context are crucial when interpreting textese, and it is precisely this shortfall that critics cite as a reason not to use it (although the English language in general, like many other languages, has many words that have different meanings in different contexts).
The feature of 'reactive tokens' that is ubiquitous in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), is also commonly found in SMS language. Reactive tokens include phrases or words like ‘yeah I know’, which signifies a reaction to a previous message. In SMS language, however, the difference is that many words are shortened unlike in spoken speech.
Some tokens of the SMS language can be likened to a rebus, using pictures and single letters or numbers to represent whole words (e.g. "i <3 u", which uses the pictogram of a heart for love, and the letter u replaces you).
The dialect has a few hieroglyphs (codes comprehensible to initiates) and a range of face symbols.
Paralinguistic and prosodic features
Prosodic features in SMS language aim to provide added semantic and syntactic information and context from which recipients can use to deduce a more contextually relevant and accurate interpretation. These may aim to convey the textual equivalent of verbal prosodic features such as facial expression and tone of voice Indeed, even though SMS language exists in the format of written text, it closely resembles normal speech in that it does not have a complicated structure and that its meaning is greatly contextualised.
SMS messages with:
- No capitalization
- Capitalization of only the first word
- Full capitalization as appropriate that conforms to all grammatical rules
Most SMS messages have done away with capitalization. Use of capitalizations on the first word of a message may in fact, not be intentional, and may likely be due to the default capitalization setting of devices.
Asterisk emoting and emoticons
Just as body language and facial expressions can alter how speech is perceived, emoticons can alter the meaning of a text message, the difference being that the real tone of the SMS sender is less easily discerned merely by the emoticon. Using a smiling face can be perceived as being sarcastic rather than happy, thus the reader has to decide which it is by looking at the whole message.
Use of punctuation and capitalization to form emoticons distracts from the more traditional function of such features and symbols. Nevertheless, uses do differ across individuals and cultures. For example, overpunctuation may simply be used to communicate paralinguistic aspects of communication without the need to create an emotion from it like so: "Hello!!!!".
Punctuation, or lack thereof
While vowels and punctuation of words in SMS language are generally omitted, David Crystal observes that apostrophes occur unusually frequently. He cites an American study of 544 messages, where occurrence of apostrophes in SMS language is approximately 35 percent. This is unexpected, seeing that it is a hassle to input an apostrophe in a text message with the multiple steps involved. Interestingly, the use of apostrophes cannot be totally attributed to users attempting to disambiguate words that might otherwise be misunderstood without it.
There are not that many cases in English where leaving out the apostrophe causes misunderstanding of the message. For example, "we’re" without the apostrophe could be misread as "were". Even so, these are mostly understood correctly despite being ambiguous, as readers can rely on other cues such as part of sentence and context where the word appears to decide what the word should be. For many other words like "Im" and "Shes", there is no ambiguity. Since it is not imperative that users use apostrophes to ensure that their message is understood accurately, this phenomenon may in part be attributed to texters wanting to maintain clarity so that the message can be more easily understood in a shorter amount of time. The widespread mobile phone auto-correct feature contributes to the frequency of the apostrophe in SMS messages, since, even without user awareness, it will insert an apostrophe in many common words, such as "I′m", "I′ll", and "I′d".
Variations in spelling
Users may also use spellings that reflect their illocutionary force and intention rather than using the standard spelling. For example, the use of "haha" to signify "standard" laughter, and "muahaha" to encode perhaps more raucous or evil sound of laughter.
Conventionalised examples and vocabulary
SMS language has yet to be accepted as a conventional and stable form, dialect and language. As a result, (as much as it is also a consequence), notable lexicographical efforts and publications (e.g. dictionaries) dealing specifically with SMS language have yet to emerge. This is perhaps with the exception of the SMS dictionary that the service provider Vodacom, provides its clients with as a supplement to their cellphone purchase. However, as a result text message slang has aided many children's language. By constantly using this ungrammatical form of texting so frequently, it has become a part of their "normal language" .
Vodacom provides lists of abbreviations and acronyms with their meanings in its website. Elsewhere on the Internet, there has been effort to provide dictionaries of sorts for SMS language. Such websites usually have an alphabetical list of 'words' used in SMS language, together with their intended meanings. Text messages can also be 'translated' to standard language on certain websites as well, though the 'translations' are not always accurate.
Whole word or phrase abbreviation
A single letter or digit can replace a word, syllable, or phoneme
Entire sounds within words would often be replaced by a letter or digit that would produce a similar sound when read by itself:
|Word/Syllable/Phoneme||Letter/Digit||Example Usage As Part Of Word|
|see or sea||c|
|okay||k (or kk†)|
|and or en||n||enjoy becomes njoy and end becomes nd|
|won or one||1||anyone becomes any1 or ne1 and no one becomes no1|
|to, too or two||2||today becomes 2day and tune becomes 2ne|
|for or fore||4||forget becomes 4get and afford becomes a4d|
|ate||8||great becomes gr8 and hate becomes h8|
^† kk also signals the end of a conversation
Combinations can shorten single or multiple words:
|your and you're||ur|
|see you||cu or cya|
|tomorrow||2mro, 2mo or tmr|
Overall observations and criticisms
Frequency of use
In one American study, researchers found that less than 20% of messages used SMS language. Looking at his own texting history, the study's author, linguist David Crystal, noted just 10% of his messages used SMS language.
General effects on society
In SMS language, the original letters in words are typically replaced by phonetically similar letters or numbers. The word "to" is commonly replaced by "2" and the word "see" by the letter "c" and "for" is replaced with "4". As the trend of SMS language evolves and seeps into the daily lives of individuals and some parents are even giving their babies alternative spellings for names in a bid to be unique.
Effect on verbal language use and literacy
According to research done by Dr. Nenagh Kemp of University of Tasmania, the evolution of "textese" is inherently coupled to a strong grasp of grammar and phonetics.
David Crystal has countered the claims that SMS has a deleterious effect on language with numerous scholarly studies. The findings are summarized in his book Txtng: the Gr8 Db8. In his book, Crystal argues that:
- In a typical text message, words are not abbreviated as frequently as widely thought
- Abbreviating has been in use for a long time, and thus is not a novel phenomenon only found in SMS language. Furthermore, some words such as "sonar" and "laser" that are accepted as standard words in the dictionary are actually acronyms.
- Both children and adults use SMS language, so if adults do not display the errors seen in children's written work, they cannot be attributed to SMS language alone.
- Use of abbreviations in written work and examinations is not that prevalent among students
- A prerequisite to using SMS language is the knowledge of spelling, so use of SMS language does not necessarily imply low literacy
There are others who feel that the claims of SMS language being detrimental to English language proficiency are overrated. A study of the written work of 100 students by Freudenberg found that the actual amount of use of SMS language found in the written work was not very significant. Some features of SMS language such as the use of emoticons was not observed in any of the written work by the students. Of all the errors found, quite a substantial amount cannot be attributed to use of SMS language. These included errors that have already appeared even before the advent of SMS language.
There are also views that SMS language has little or no effect on grammar. Proponents of this view feel that SMS language is merely another language, and since learning a new language does not affect students' proficiency in English grammar, it cannot be said that SMS language can affect their grammar. With proper instruction, students should be able to distinguish between slang, SMS language and correct English and use them in their appropriate contexts.
Efficiency and economy
Effect on verbal language use and communication
Although various other research supports the use of SMS language, the popular notion that text messaging is damaging to the linguistic development of young people persists and many view it as a corruption of the standard form of language.
Welsh journalist and television reporter John Humphrys has criticized SMS language as "wrecking our language". The author cites ambiguity as one problem posed, illustrating with examples such as "lol", which may either be interpreted to mean "laughing out loud", "lots of love", and "little old lady" depending on the context in which it is being used. However, it should be noted that ambiguous words and statements have always been present within languages. In English for example, the word "duck" can have more than one meaning. It could be referring to either the bird or the action, and such words are usually disambiguated by looking at the context in which it was written.
The proliferation of SMS language has been criticized for causing the deterioration of English language proficiency and its rich heritage. Opponents of SMS language feel that it undermines the properties of the English language that have lasted throughout its long history. Furthermore, words within the SMS language that are very similar to their English-language counterparts can be confused by young users as the actual English spelling and can therefore increase the prevalence of spelling mistakes.
Indolence vs. efficiency
Humphrys describes emoticons and textese as "irritating" and essentially lazy behavior, and surmises that "sloppy" habits gained while using textese will result in students' growing ignorance of proper grammar and punctuation.
Use in school work, assignments and exams
Use of SMS language in schools tended to be seen as negative effects. There have been some reports in the media of children using SMS language for essays in school. For example:
- 16 August 2002: “Examiner's warning over exams culture”. BBC.
- 4 March 2003: “Is txt mightier than the word?”. BBC.
- November 2006: The New Zealand Qualifications Authority refuted press reports that they had authorized the use of text abbreviations in exam answers, with a spokesperson saying that "there had been no change to guidelines and there was no specific policy about text language."
However, SMS language can potentially be a useful teaching tool as it could pique students' interest in certain topics. If the topic of the lesson was about mobile phones or forms of communication, teachers could talk about SMS language to help engage their students during class. There exist websites that provide interesting worksheets on SMS language, like http://busyteacher.org.
SMS language and identity
According to Sean Ó Cadhain, abbreviations and acronyms elicits a sense of group identity as users must be familiar with the lingo of their group to be able to comprehend the SMS language used within the group. The ability to use and understand these language short forms that are unique to each group indicates that an individual is part of the group, forging a group identity that excludes outsiders. SMS language is thus thought to be the "secret code of the youth" by some. The fact that sometimes, shortened forms are used for reasons other than space constraints can be seen as interlocutors trying to establish solidarity with each other.
Differences between male and female use of SMS language
According to Norwegian researcher Richard Ling, there are differences in the SMS language of females and males. The lexical, morphological and syntactic choices between males and females SMS users suggested to Ling that women are more "adroit" and more "literary" texters. Richard Ling observes:
- Women's messages tend to be "longer"
- Women used more "complex structure" and grammar
- Men's messages tend to comprise "one-sentence", "one-clause" or "one-thought" constructions (the latter is markedly observable among male users within the ages 16 to 19)
- More greetings and words of parting were observed in women's messages
- Women had messages with emotional and practical (e.g. arranging a meeting) content unlike men, who mostly used SMS language for practical content only.
- Women and the younger users (across gender) tend to use more shortened forms and emoticons than men per se
- While women observed conventional rules more than men, the difference is marginal. This involves the use of correct spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc.
Use in advertisements
In recent years, advertisements have been increasingly influenced by SMS language. The longer the message in the advertisement, the less impression it will leave. Hence, short messages that are more catchy, cost and space saving are more commonly used. The visual effect elicited by SMS language also lends a feeling of novelty that helps to make the advertisement more memorable. For example, an advertisement of a book uses the SMS language: EAT RIGHT 4 YOUR TYPE.
Companies focusing on the teen market have the tendency to make use of SMS language in their advertising to capture the attention of their target audience. Since teenagers tend to be the ones using SMS language, they are able to relate to advertisements that use SMS language. Unilever's advertisement for their novel range of deodorant for teenage girls uses the phrase "OMG! Moments." David Lang, president of the team who created the advertisement commented that they desired to bring across the impression that they identify with youth culture and discourse.
Many other companies like McDonald's have also attempted to pursue the teenage market by using SMS language abbreviations in their commercials. McDonald's in Korea has an online video commercial which concludes with: "r u ready?".
- Newspeak (Fictional "impoverished" language featured in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four)
- Cupertino effect (Erroneous replacement of words by spellcheckers)
- English language spelling reform
- Tironian notes, scribal abbreviations and ligatures (Roman and medieval abbreviations used to save space in manuscripts and epigraphs)
- Internet slang
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- Use of "adroit" in the adjectival sense as opposed to psychological term. In Ling, (2005)
- "[Women's] messages are longer, have a more complex structure and retain more of the traditional conventions associated with other written forms than men...
- This competence is also extended to telephonic communication...
- The material here seems to suggest that women are also more adroit “texters.”
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