Texting is a language so why not study it?

6th June 2003 at 01:00
I was outraged to read recently about a projected course in text messaging at a community centre in Great Barr, Birmingham. I was also interested in the outrage it provoked in Nick Seaton of the intriguing Campaign for Real Education, and former Tory minister Andrew Mitchell, who accused the Learning and Skills Council of spending taxpayers' money with "gay abandon".

Quite what the former Tory minister means is unclear, in these days when the word "spam" is loaded with a variety of meanings relative to the speaker's age and proclivity, but I assume he intends the pejorative, one way or another.

The article, in one of the Sunday papers, went on to report that it "emerged earlier this year that a 13-year-old schoolgirl handed in an essay written entirely in text shorthand". The tone implies that the reporter shares the outrage.

Have I got news for them.

Katie is by no means a weak student. She will sit the higher level GCSE English in June. Her Burberry bag, in which she carries everything she considers necessary for a school day, measures 15cm x 10cm x 5cm: big enough for a mobile phone, but not for a daily planning book (from which she tears and folds the pages), or even a Biro. Being an intelligent girl, she has quickly mastered the vocabulary of the new technology and seen its advantages.

Texting, which is an alternative literacy with disciplines not covered by the QCA, is a real threat to us old codgers. Word 2000 tells me that "to text" is not a verb, but words like "text" and "access" have become verbs in the past three years as a result of burgeoning technology. Word 2000 does not yet convert (_x_) to "kiss my arse" or :-o zz to "bored". If the computer cannot keep up, then what chance a bunch of middle-aged academics who frown on sentences that end with a preposition? (I could go on: Word 2000 prefers "which" to "who" because it doesn't consider academics human, but has no objection to a sentence ending in a preposition.) Perhaps the most interesting development in texting is the use of symbols.

Appropriate, really. Not for nothing have I been treading on the toes of the art department by discussing the reading of images, static and moving, under the curriculum heading "Englishmedia". The QCA, Messrs Seaton and Mitchell, and all teachers, live in a literary culture; our children and pupils live in a sophisticated visual culture. They are converting to hieroglyphics and we are outraged.

According to the most believable explanation of how language began, grunts turned into short words that the memory could retain. That is why language is splattered with: "the", "a", "it", "he", "she", "and". Most of what followed was pomposity. The wider the vocabulary, the more impressive the bearer's memory must be, and so academic bullying was able to rival physical bullying. Besides that, thinking brought fresh problems. The Greeks had the devil of a time thinking up words as fast as they could think up concepts. How sickeningly flash was the Greek who put the name onomatopoeia to the rudimentary process of imitating the world's sounds?

Texting uses a vocabulary that wrestles communication from academic snobbery and returns it to the majority. However, these halcyon days will be shortlived. The fact that it will be taught from next September means that someone in Great Barr believes he or she knows better than someone else how to do it. And so academic snobbery muscles in.

I am outraged too, but for different reasons.

Paul Miller Paul Miller teaches English in a large Birmingham comprehensive

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