Are we on message?

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Mobilephone text messaging is developing its own language conventions. Nothing will stop it, says Iain MacDonald, and why should anyone try?

It was only a matter of time. Nothing so exciting, so sexy and above all so adult-proof as texting - the sending of shorthand text messages over mobile phone or computer networks - could last for long before those same adults raised querulous voices of protest. Ken Lodge, an academic from the University of East Anglia, is voicing serious concerns that all the work being done to raise standards of literacy is in danger of being unravelled by the teenage communication junkies. The root of the problem is their irresponsible tendency to abbreviate words, omit vowels and even substitute numbers for letters - a sort of reverse algebra by which "see you later" becomes "CUL8R".

What is the responsible English teacher to make of all this? The statistics, certainly, should give us pause. UK mobile owners - of which 10 to 11-year-olds apparently represent the fastest growing sector - send 700 million text messages a month, not one of which would meet the spelling and punctuation requirements of level 4. Such a swelling tide of the Wrong Sort of English must surely represent a serious threat to our best efforts to teach the Right Sort. No doubt, no doubt. My professional antennae are as sensitive as the next pedant's to the grocer's apostrophe or the unrelated participle. And yet there is something rather thrilling about seeing language developing before one's eyes - rather as a biologist might feel if they catch by chance one of the great moments of evolution.

It is a paradox of our job as English teachers that we who ae best versed in the esoteric codes of Standard English are also the ones who realise that the term itself is misleading. We know that language is organic and dynamic, that while its development sometimes proceeds with glacial slowness, it also proceeds with glacial inevitability.

The standard we seek for good and practical reasons to uphold is a summary of what the powerful of a previous generation regarded as correct - a snapshot that dates as quickly as any in your family album. Dickens made wide use of the comma splice. There is still a clear distinction between the correct contexts for "less" and "fewer", but you will not hear a politician on the Today programme who understands it. The bullet point has yet to gain DFEE approval but its hour will surely come, and those who read the linguistic tea-leaves are already writing the apostrophe's obituary.

As teachers we already spend a great deal of time reinforcing what students by and large understand quite well, that the version of the language used in formal written work of any sort is not that used in the playground. Such discrimination of register will not be made any easier by the verbal shorthand of texting, but it already takes place against the far more numerous and pervasive constructions associated with spoken English and the media.

Oh, and texting has one advantage for teachers - it is silent. My teaching used to be regularly interrupted by Colonel Bogey issuing in digital falsetto from some child's blazer pocket, but it has all gone quiet lately. That is worth a bit of red ink, surely.

Iain MacDonald is head of English Bishop at Vesey's Grammar School, Sutton Coldfield


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