Zounds! New "Dit-Dah" Lingo of Telegraph Operators Threatens Standard English! ;-)

I’m teaching a 200-level “Writing for the Internet” class, with students ranging from seniors to first-semester freshmen.  Our opening unit is on social, academic, and professional conventions, foregrounding the fact that the internet on which young people play and learn is the same internet in which the adults in their lives are teaching and working (and playing, and learning).

Senior Denamarie Ercolani, responding to an April NYT article about the prevalence of IM shortcuts in high-schoolers’ written work, writes

I, personally, have never used emoticons, text shortcuts or omitted proper grammar and puncuation in my schoolwork, but outside of essays and other schoolwork, I find myself using this new form of communication frequently. Any type of writing is real writing even if it is improper.

You can see for yourself what some other students had to say about that article.  In a comment on Denamarie’s blog, MS replied:

As an English teacher, all that I have to say is that these IM’s and text messages are destroying the English language faster than anything else… This abomination of our language is not cute, hip or expressive; it is dangerous.

I sympathize deeply with MS, and expect that any student of MS’s will be well prepared for the rigors of college writing.  Yet I can’t share MS’s hatred of txtspk — a wildly successful, specialized offshoot of English, characterized by its reliance upon thumb power, creative use of abbreviations, and the expectation that any useful bit of communication will likely involve numerous rapid back-and-forth sallies.

It’s All About The Thumbs

I wonder… did the users of Morse code stunt their ability to write traditional prose?  I’m working my way through Moby Dick, purely for pleasure, and I thoroughly enjoy the fact that Melville is in no rush.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, when many literary authors were paying their bills by writing for newspapers, we saw a motion in literature towards “telegraphic writing,” even as authors began shifting from writing out drafts longhand to banging out drafts on their typewriters.

I doubt that many visor-wearing telegraph operators or gin-soaked news-hacks found themselves accidentally writing “dit-dit-dah-dah” or “in this reporter’s opinion” in a letter home to mum, because they had already been through school systems (way back when the 3Rs weren’t “respect, relationships, and recycling”).  Theirs was a professional lingo.

Today, emerging technology gave rise to the tweens’ new social lingo.  Based on based on what I see as a college wriitng teacher, it would seem that tweens must have a habit of texting each other instead of paying attention during the few middle school and high school classes devoted to English grammar.  But nobody — not even the thumbiest thumb mavens — uses IM-speak as a native language.  We all babbled to our families and picked up crayons in our chubby dimpled hands long before we had any angst worth texting our peers about.

Tweens aren’t typing “cul8r” because they are ignorant of, or deliberately flaunting flouting, the rules.  Such abbreviations make their peer-to-peer communication more efficient, which leads to immediate social benefits (in the form of more, stronger social connections), which motivates further text-messaging innovation.

I know many student writers who can text with winged thumbs, and also turn out well-written research papers on literary theory.  And I have yet to meet a student who genuinely *cannot* expand their IM lingo into complete sentences. For every accidental “ur” (a popular IM abbreviation for “your”), I see at least as many examples of “per say” (a mondegreen for “per se”) and “should of” (a similar mishearing of “should have”), and all manner of similar mistakes (“That story was bias” for “That story was biased”) that have nothing to do with text messaging, and a lot to do with the fact that tweens and teens live in a largely oral culture.

Textspeak as Sociolect

On Denamarie’s blog, I left this reply for MS:

MS, would you consider American Sign Language to be an abomination of the English language?  It’s a specialized offshoot, designed for speed and efficiency for a certain subset of our society. It’s far more efficient to make a gesture than, for instance, scribble on a portable whiteboard.  It serves an important purpose in its own community.  The word order and syntax sometimes differs from standard English in important ways, but thought expressed by ASL is still thought, even if ASL users have to make a conscious effort to follow different rules when communicating with outside audiences.

Look at all the abbreviations that you use in your specialized field, in order to communicate more efficiently with your closest peers.  While writing this entry I initially referred to “social dialect,” but while reading up on the subject I found a better word from outside my own literary and technical specialties — “sociolect” (a way of speaking shared by members of the same social class).  I’ve often heard teachers and administrators talk about “SWOT summaries” (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) and refer to “SWBAT” (Students will be able to…). And I write “AWK” in the margins of student papers because it’s faster than writing, “This is an awkward passage.”  Some professionals are more aware than others about the needs of any potential non-specialist audience, but the solution is not to forbid the specialists from using abbreviations; rather, we should expect them to learn how to shift their communications strategies to meet the needs of their audiences.

Teens have historically listened to shocking music and danced shocking dances and used shocking language specifically in order to distance themselves from their elders, to experiment with forming their own social groups (which prepares them for the transition that will happen over the next 10 years or so, as they find their place in adult society). Making the transition to college-level writing in an important step, during which they learn to accept their obligation to adopt the standards expected of everyone who communicates in the wider social groups in which they wish to gain membership.

When my eight-year-old son started regularly beating me at chess, I had to train myself to reject the first good move that I saw, and instead keep looking at the board, storing up a catalog of potential good moves, then projecting each one forward to see what his likely responses would be, what my options would be for responding to each move, etc.  While I’ll never be a grandmaster, forcing myself to follow this strategy vastly has improved my game (and it works for any strategic contest… see chess-boxing).

In a similar way, students who are in text-message mode can churn out the required number of words in no time; however, the result is a list of four or five decent ideas that go nowhere, rather than a well-thought-out campaign that accomplishes a worthy long-term goal.  Like chess palyers, student writers also need to keep looking at the board, playing more mental moves before they commit resources to any one strategy.

Textspeakers Must Develop an Internal Filter

Students who are good at textspeak are good at brainstorming, good at critiquing each other’s ideas at the information-gathering and idea-testing stage, and generally willing to incorporate the instructor’s feedback at an early stage.  But only in a first-year writing class are they likely to get so much of the instructor’s time, so early in the writing process.

I hope my discussion of the virtues of txtspk does not blind anyone to its

I’m sure MS would agree with me, that students need to filter out the “good enough” ideas that clutter up their brainstorming pages, in order to make room for developing the kind of complex idea that emerges only after a writer has made a conscious effort to force stream-of-consciousness reflections and gut-level reactions into a formal scheme.  Complex ideas develop through causal and logical connections, not just chronology and proximity.  I’d like to encourage text-messaging tweens to retain their habit of quickly recording their off-the-tops-of-their-heads ideas into txtspk, and using it to kick-start the development of a new facility to filter out the false starts and intellectual dead ends.

Like MS, I would not accept an emoticon or a “lol” in a polished academic submission. But in the lower-level writing classes, I’d prefer to think of an inappropriate abbreviation as a passive vice, somewhere between overreliance on cliches and simple typographical carelessness.  Students can get by if they learn to edit their txtspk out of their drafts, but to succeed as a college thinker, they must develop the ability to craft academic papers without first producing a smiley-encrusted, abbreviation-infested transitional draft.