Every so often, some newspaper or another carries a report on the declining literacy standards of young people, usually focussing the blame on text message speak. I’m not worried about this happening. To illustrate my point, let’s have a look at how txt spk originated. The first SMS was sent on 3 December 1992 by Neil Papworth, who used a PC to send the message Merry Christmas to Richard Jarvis from Vodafone. The message didn’t receive a reply because no phone was capable of it.

220px-Telephone-keypad
All right, Nokia fans. Get ready to drool.

But that problem was solved the following year using a method that already existed. Certainly in the UK, phone number pads were already marked with letters as an aide mémoire when calling other towns and cities, and it’s very similar to the layout of a modern mobile. Codes are no longer assigned like this, yet if you remove the 01 from many modern area codes, you can often guess the original mnemonic. Perth is 01738, equating to 01-PET; while Hastings is 01424, probably resolving to 01-HAI. It’s an efficient system when encoding a very short message such as the codename of a city, however it becomes more cumbersome with a more complex message.

A simple question such as Where are you, John? could become a nightmare to tap out, as you would need to press extra buttons to write a capital W and J, while the first two letters of you need three presses each. That’s not even mentioning the comma or question mark, both of which could be buried in a sub-menu. No wonder people would write whr r u john, reducing button pushes to 22, assuming one press of the 0 or 1 key acts as the space-bar. That’s just over the 20 required to spell the full message on a standard keyboard.

The boffins have improved mobile input since then, at first with T9 predictive text, and now with touch-screen QWERTY keyboards. So too with text messages. By habit, people still shorten messages and miss out punctuation for brevity. Sometimes it can be a challenge to read, but the brain is particularly good at filling in blanks. In fact, the creators of Teeline shorthand knew this back in 1968, and their system removes the internal vowels from most words.

It’s worth noting that the QWERTY layout is a historical hangover too: a deliberately inefficient design intended to slow down typists and stop the first typewriters from jamming. Yet it still endures even although jams were eventually almost eliminated, and other layouts made available, such as Dvorak, which I generally use. So if QWERTY is still around, why am I not worried about txt spk being with us for the long term? Because we’ve been here before, and it wasn’t even within living memory.

When the telegraph was introduced in the mid-1850s, its pricing model was pay-per-word, so people naturally wanted to communicate as cheaply as possible. Businesses quickly learnt to abbreviate sentences into single words, and enterprising authors also wrote code books for the general public. Here is a wonderful example of where a sender has encoded the important points of a shipping accident into just five words. I’ll bet that in the latter half of the 19th century, people thought all communication would end up being that way. For instance, there is a novel from 1880 called Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes [CONTAINS SPOILERS] about a couple who meet via telegraph. And yet, despite the subject matter, the description is rich and colourful, just like the majority of documents from the period.

In short, so to speak, text messages are still brief because of old technology, and telegraph messages were brief for cost reasons. But proper English as a whole was not greatly affected by telegraphy in the late 1800s, despite its popularity, and that’s why I doubt it’ll be killed off by cellular telephony in this era, the early 2000s.

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