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BOOK REVIEW

Texting isn't the latest word

September 14, 2008|Carolyn Kellogg

Reports of the demise of the English language have been gr8ly exaggerated, according to David Crystal. In his new book, "txtng: the gr8 db8" (Oxford: 240 pp., $19.95), the British linguist dismisses reports, widespread in England, that text messaging is bad for the brain, literacy, for the language itself. He taps history, technology and new research to create his counter-argument, a highly consumable work of pop linguistics.

Text messages are not the fearsome products of limber-thumbed, anti-literate teenagers but an extension of long traditions, Crystal argues. He connects logograms like "2day" with rebuses, which date back to ancient Rome. Initialisms like IMHO ("in my humble opinion") and JK ("just kidding") owe a debt to, of all things, IOU. Recorded in 1618, it's one of the earliest found in English. And while xtrctng vwls frm wrds may be unusual in English, it's not in Arabic and Hebrew.

The technical limits of texting -- a max of 160 characters per message, the awkward arrangement of letters -- has led users around the world to develop shortcuts. The book includes txt glossaries in a dozen languages, from Chinese to Welsh.

Crystal makes clear that even as these abbreviations evolve, technology may soon render texting less necessary. Nonetheless, he calls for more formal research in the field -- little exists, even though 2.3 trillion text messages will be sent worldwide this year.

All those messages are, for some companies, very profitable. But that doesn't mean they aren't also art. Crystal includes poems to show the diversity of possible txt texts. He also reminds us that all this language compression is creative play. Some Brits, using their phones' predictive feature, decided to assign "book," not "cool," to the sequence "2665."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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