Blogs > HNN > Jim Cullen: Review of David Crystal's Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Nov 29, 2009 9:33 pm

Jim Cullen: Review of David Crystal's Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (Oxford University Press, 2008)

[Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book is Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History. He blogs at American History Now.]

It’s a measure of the pace of technological change these days that linguist David Crystal’s book, which was published last year and just issued in paperback, is already a historical artifact. The word “Twitter,” for example, does not appear in the index; no mention is made of the role of cell phone text messaging in building grass-roots support for Barack Obama, or in the public demonstrations of last summer in Iran (nor, needless to say, its role at the recent G-20 summit protests last month in Pittsburgh). To Crystal’s credit, he anticipates such developments even if he doesn’t name them. In any event, it’s clear that if the book is to have any future, a new introduction will have to be produced –- at the very least. And yet this compact volume, which can be read in little more than a sitting, is both a useful sociological survey of the practice as well as a handy reference guide for novice and veteran alike.

The “db8” of the title refers to a discourse of criticism, common at the start of the decade but since largely resolved, about the potentially deleterious effects of texting on the English language, on the education of the young, and the future of civilization itself. (We now all understand texting is here to stay, though we’re finally getting serious about banning the practice while driving.) But while many of us now take the various linguistic shortcuts that we associate with texting for granted, we often feel unsettled about its seemingly hieroglyphic quality, a sense that it’s a foreign tongue always at the edge of comprehension.

Crystal addresses this unease with a number of important points. First, he notes, there is, in fact, no codified SMS (short message service) idiom; the various forms of shorthand out there are largely contextual and improvised. Second, in almost every case, the abbreviated terms that have entered common usage have pre-texting antecedents. Crystal provides a table from a 1942 dictionary in which many, like “amt” (amount) and “mtg” (meeting) appear, as well as noting that many abbreviations, like “Mr.” long pre-date cell phones, while others, like “obdt.,” as in the “your obedient servant” Abraham Lincoln used to close his letters, have gone out of usage. And third, the anxiety over the linguistic debasement of the young overlooks the fact that ability to abbreviate language presupposes knowledge of how it works in the first place. A staunch defender of the practice, Crystal concludes texting is the “latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and adapt language to suit the needs of diverse settings.”

Indeed, while untangling a series of discrete uses for text-messaging, Crystal emphasizes throughout the sheer pleasure and inventiveness tools like emoticons afford for human beings with an anthropological need for play. He reproduces a series of clever poems written in text language, as well as some lol (“laugh out loud”) pictographs, like this one for the animated television character Marge Simpson: @@@@8-) Homer, for his part, looks like this: ~(_8^(׀)

Crystal devotes a chapter to the complexities of texting in other languages, many of which have adopted Anglicisms along the way. He speculates that over time there will be linguistic mergers. Again, this book was clearly written in the days before the iPhone and the growing proliferation of QWERTY keyboards on cell phones eased the challenges posed by alphanumeric keypads. But as a snapshot of a world in motion, the book shows us how far we’ve come as well as suggesting where we’re headed.

Plus, if you buy a bound book instead of downloading it onto your Kindle or iPod, you can always hold on to it as a collector’s item. ;)

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