Can we tlk?
On the eve of the Battle of Bull Run, Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers wrote to his wife about his fears of dying (justified as things turned out) in the coming battle.
"I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night -- amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours -- always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again."
They don't write 'em like that anymore.
A little more than 60 years later, the major might have confided: "rly scrd. mite not mk it. luv u. C u on otr side."
There is wide concern that eloquence has fallen victim to expediency, that the thoughtful phrase has been replaced by the fascicle contraction, that communication is suffering, and that texting bears the brunt of the blame. In a 2012 study published in the journal New Media & Society, researchers at Wake Forest University found a correlation between the use of SMS-abbreviations and the increasing inability among students to identify and use correct grammar; the more texts the 10-to-14-year-olds in the study sent, the worse their grammar performance. Indeed, "Sometimes it's like there are two languages in your head," the teenaged daughter of a close friend recently told me. "The language you use for texting and the language you use for homework." And although a 2013 study published in the journal Linguistics and Translation concluded that most users are "context conscious," and are adept at switching from text speak to writing that calls for more formality, is it any wonder the two sometimes intersect?
If conversation is an art, art takes practice. Today, that practice time is used up screen-to-screen, rather than face-to-face or through composing a well-constructed letter. And yet the reports of the death of eloquent expression may be greatly exaggerated. If we look at what the age of digital information--and texting and other forms of digital shorthand in particular--has done to the art of interpersonal communication, all is not lost. It's just different. And in some world-changing ways: better.
Language has a rich history of evolution. It is not meant to be stagnant. Writing, at an estimated 5,000 years old, is itself is a mere babe compared to language, which traces back at least 80,000 years. Each year, new words are added to the dictionary to represent the changing nature of language -- 150 last year alone, including three explicitly linked to texting culture: srsly (text speak for "seriously"), emoji (the emoticons and smileys used often in text messages), and TL:DR (short for "Too long, didn't read.") Just as writing became a new way of expressing language all those thousands of years ago, texting is a new form of expression entirely representative of the way we communicate today -- that is, quickly, economically, and on the go. As such, it is no better or worse than the introduction of email before it or the telegram before that. Just different.
What's more, there is reason to believe that the fluency text speak requires of people is helping to make them adaptable in a world that is dominated by fast-paced, tech-heavy startups; a world that requires adaptability in order to survive and thrive. Language is about delivering information, and throughout history we have needed to adjust to mediums and people if we want to be understood. Recently, a friend my age texted. "Running late see u lunch 1215 diner" The punctuation was abominable; there was no syntax to speak of. And yet I knew what she meant.
There are other benefits. Studies also show that texting can enable those who are shy or lack confidence to be more socially outgoing, and that texting may help foster an increase in emotional expression. It's true that texting may reduce the boundaries and make saying what we mean easier; that's not always a bad thing, whether for the man too shy to tell his new girlfriend how he feels or the colleague too meek to stand up in person to the office bully. Some schools have begun using texting as a way to help encourage students to participate more in class. In one case study, students who were less likely to speak up in discussions in class were far more likely to respond in discussions conducted via text. Research published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology found texting could actually have a positive impact on reading and language development. "Text speak", the study found, correlates with higher reading ability. Another bonus? Teens accustomed to correcting messages before sending them become better self-editors.
It's true: Conversational atrophy can morph into rudeness. We all have stories. Mine is about the future son-in-law of a good friend; described as bright, funny, and interesting. He showed none of that at a recent family gathering because he spent most of the evening fixated, like a snake on a chipmunk, on the glowing screen of his smartphone. It seems it was draft night in his fantasy football league, and he needed a running back. When I asked him about it, he was surprised that anyone thought he was rude. He was listening, he said. Just multitasking.
And yet, while it may not often seem like it, texting does have its own etiquette and set of rules, if loose. There will always be those who disregard the rules of etiquette, no matter the forum. But by and large, technology has not ruined expression. It has empowered it -- no different from when we put down the quill pen and picked up the telephone.