Teenagers have suddenly become incorrigibly talkative. But what are they saying, and what would Shakespeare have made of it all? James Bennett tries to crack the code.
Here's a question for you: ne1 4 txt spk? I'll say that again for the benefit of those too old or out of touch to understand. Anyone (ne1) for (4) text speak? Clearly, the answer to the question is a resounding "Yes". Though this abbreviated language is still unfamiliar on the printed page, millions of youngsters all over the world are now using it in emails and mobile phone text messages. Text messaging is growing by 1,800 per cent a year, says BT Cellnet; two out of three 14 to 16-year-olds own mobile phones, and each month around 20 billion text messages are sent worldwide. SMS (short messaging service) messages costs about 12p to send - cheaper than a phone call, and Virgin Mobile says heavy users send up to 100 messages a day.
What effect is all of this having on the evolution of the English language? What would Shakespeare think of it? Where does Mr Blunkett stand? And how about the head of English at your school? Not to mention the natives of txt spk land - the hordes of newly empowered chatterers in the classroom and playground. Can we really tolerate the use of "4" for "for" and "U" for "you", especially when, as they surely will, they leap from mobile phone and email to the written and printed page? As Shakespeare said (but never quite wrote): 2B or not 2B?
Not 2B if we can possibly help it, says Ken Lodge, an academic at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. "It could restrict people's abilities to communicate," warns Dr Lodge. "The quantity of communication is increasing but the quality is rapidly decreasing." He has already noticed a drop in standards of grammar and spelling among his own students, and blames texting, which he says causes confusion over spelling and style. "It's a weird way to communicate," he concludes. "Inevitably it will affect the way people talk to each other. There are already problems with university students' ability to write English. The more people use it, the less they'll be aware of different styles of communicating."
Perhaps we should look to our creative, literary minds for guidance. Jeanette Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Sexing the Cherry and The PowerBook, who once proclaimed herself Britain's finest living writer, says: "We are in a time of transition, where culture, values, language, identity, are all changing. This is exciting and scary, and it's natural for people to want to cling to the past. It is easier to invent the past than to invent the future. We talk about a past that never existed, but it feels like home."
She continues, in traditional English: "I love new technology. I don't want to stand on the sidelines and criticise, I want to be a player. I want to change things and I want to be part of change; language won't be destroyed. Language will change. Creative people have nothing to fear."
Bully 4 her. But maybe we should ask a poet too. Michael Rosen is one of those, as well as a broadcaster, father of five and veteran of many a classroom visit. If anything, he's more enthusiastic than Ms Winterson. "Language never stands still," he says. "Language belongs to living people. The best thing to do is join in with whatever is happening now."
But what about our gr8 literary heritage? "It's there in books," says Michael Rosen. "If people want to go and find it, enjoy it, figure out what it might mean, that's fine. It's interesting that few people lament the passing of, say, the language of 17th-century Puritan preachers. Just because it's in the past doesn't mean it's good, or should in some mysterious way be sustained. Some aspects of Shakespearean language can't be sustained because those aspects of society have also changed."
Isn't economy of expression supposed to be a virtue? And shouldn't we encourage kids to be inventive? "Yes," says Michael Rosen, "though they'll be inventive whether we encourage them or not. It wasn't teachers, or for that matter people usually described as writers, who developed modern-day teenage slang, or teenage text and email lingo. I know this irritates the language police, who think language can be controlled and channelled."
Michael Rosen has no doubt that the new language will have an impact on English. "Some of the words, codes and phrases will certainly break out of the teen-emailing-texting community, partly because parents are standing over teens' shoulders and wishing they were taking part, and partly because teens become adults, switch communities and take their lingos with them. That's how some, but not all, Sixties slang made its way into newspapers and 'acceptable' writing."
So how should teachers react? Should pupils be penalised if textspeak turns up in, say, a school SA? "I would hope teachers could use it as a great opportunity to point out how language actually works - that it belongs to everyone, and anyone can use it how they like with the agreement of the people around them," says Rosen. "I see children's work being penalised all the time. We are back in the era when children's experience of teachers looking at their writing is one of getting work back covered in red scrawls.
"I've seen great bits of writing responded to not as bits of writing but as mistake-full pages of text. Ludicrously, the Government has introduced a programme for key stage 2 that will increase this obsession with accuracy and decrease the interest with what writing is for and about." He concludes: "I am excited by the idea that there can now be a vibrant written language that the correctness and suitability police can't get hold of. In the history of language I can't think of another example as important as this."
But perhaps things are different at the education chalkface. Bethan Marshall, a teacher trainer at King's College, London, is cautious. "It is an interesting area of study in that it makes pupils aware of how language changes and what is and isn't essential to communication. It teaches them aspects of grammar, because to communicate effectively you have to break sentences down into their constituent parts. Asking children how they do this - what rules apply - is a way of getting them to think about language. It's also getting them to think about the forms and conventions that govern language and spelling rules - the combination of phonics and look. You have to read these messages in a particular way, and increasingly the variations are being standardised."
But don't be too ready to jump on the bandwagon, warns Bethan Marshall. "There is, as ever, the worry that we are just attaching ourselves to fads and fashions, along with the idea that we are appropriating for the classroom something which should remain beyond its reach. The point about text messages is that they are designed to be transgressive to an extent in the hands of an adolescent. Studying them in school kind of misses the point. We are analysing to death something designed to be about leisure and essentially trivial and, far from seeming relevant, it could seem like an unwelcome adult encroachment or a rather sad attempt to be 'cool'."
Being cool comes naturally when you're 22, though. Jill Sparks, a trainee teacher from Lancashire, says: "I have mixed views on this one. I'm an English specialist - I love literature - but I'm also 22, a girl-about-town and I am beginning to think I was born with a mobile phone surgically attached. So in a way I suppose I have the best of both worlds. I've learned all my 'proper' English, and now I can manipulate that to do all the mobileinternet language.
"I don't think this new 'hi-tech' language is really killing off the language of Shakespeare. That still exists in the textbooks and in the minds of the English teachers and lecturers - you know, the ones with the 'comfy' shoes."
But Ms Sparks is now trying on those grown-up shoes - she's on placement at a school in Rossendale, Lancashire, teaching 38 Year 3 children - and must consider how to react to the language of her own pupils. "A big focus of the national literacy strategy is considering audience and responding appropriately," she says. "So would it be incorrect if a child writing a letter to a friend (in a test) used textspeak? If it was a child in my class - and I'm probably going to get my hands slapped big-time for saying this - I wouldn't penalise them. But I would check that the child knew an alternative that could be used in a more formal situation."
Such as "UTLKIN2ME Miss", perhaps?
* Txt is gd 4U
Learning a new language takes time, with many mistakes along the way. I've been studying this newest of languages and already made an embarrassing mistake. In email contact with a young teacher, a complete stranger, I've been flattered, even a little alarmed, to see that she signs off with "lots of love" or "lol" for short. Browsing through a dictionary of this new language I've since discovered that "lol" has a second meaning - "laughing out loud" - and my teacher had appended this phrase to her closing comments to indicate they were jokes. She loves me not, it seems.
Though it's still evolving, there are already books which tell you how to avoid such mistakes. Ltle bk of txt msgs (Michael O'Mara Books, pound;1.99) has spent many weeks among the top 10 bestsellers.
Basically, there are three types of short-cut. First there are the straightforward abbreviations, hundreds of them, including: AFAIK (as far as I know), BTW (by the way), HAND (have a nice day), and - a particularly useful put-down - YYSSW (yeah, yeah, sure, sure, whatever).
Then come words and phrases incorporating figures and the alphabetical and phonetic sounds of letters. These include B4 (before), CUL8R (see you later), RUOK (are you okay?) 2day, 2moro and 2nite.
Finally there are "emoticons", formed from punctuation, mostly designed to be read sideways on. The most basic is the smiley face :-), which can mean I'm joking or I'm happy, and there are hundreds more.
When you've finally worked out what your correspondent is trying to say, a useful way of expressing enlightenment is: OIC.