txtin iz messin,
mi headn'me englis,
they all come out txtis.
gran not plsed w/letters shes getn,
swears i wrote better
Hetty Hughes [note 10]
As we suggested at the start, much is often said too readily about the uniformity of so called 'youth culture', from the tempestuous nature of young people's relationships, to their dependence on anti-normative practices, and their zealous take-up of new technologies. As Griffin (1993:25) describes it, '"youth" is/are continually being represented as different, Other, strange, exotic and transitory - by and for adults.'; nowhere is this more true than the heightened images in the press and broadcast media regarding young people's use of new technologies generally and mobile phones in particular. Certainly, new communication technologies can empower young people and many do indeed explore and develop imaginative ways of making the technology work best for them (see Thurlow & McKay, 2003). Furthermore, as is clear from the current investigation, mobile phones and text-messaging are undoubtedly very popular among older teenagers. Notwithstanding this, what we have been concerned to do is to address some of the ubiquitous generalizations about young people's use of text-messaging, and, specifically, to examine the reality behind popular notions of their somehow reinventing language in the way that Hetty Hughes' well-publicized poem implies.
In situating text-messaging in the broader context of computer-mediated (or at least technologically-mediated) communication, much the same need arises for establishing the interplay between what the technology itself allows (or affords) and what the communicator herself/himself brings to the technology. Most obviously, in the case of text-messaging, the equipment is small and, eponymously, mobile; it therefore affords users an unobtrusive and relatively inexpensive mode of communicating. At the same time, text-messaging is also technically restricted to allowing only a certain number of characters per message, and, like text-based CMC, is 'QWERTY-driven' (Hale, 1996) - a point we address in the section which follows. Whether or not an aspect of the technology (or 'medium variable' - Herring, 2001:614) is a constraint or an opportunity, however, invariably depends on the user. For example, unlike the landline telephone and instant messaging, the asynchronicity of text-messaging affords greater control over when and how messagers respond to incoming messages. Ling & Yttri (2002:159) make the point that this allows users time for reflection before having to respond which in turn allows greater face-management. Importantly, however, the degree of synchronicity is more in the hands of its users (unlike email, IRC and the telephone) so that the time between receipt and reply may also be varied. Indeed, as is revealed in the data set for this paper, and as Kasesniemi & Rautiainen (2002) have noted in their long-term research, young people's text-messaging is becoming increasingly dialogic and, as such, resembles online chat in its conversational structure (i.e. turn-taking and message length).
It is in this way that users infuse an ostensibly asynchronous technology with a certain synchronicity in the way they actually use it; as is so often the case, the technology is thereby co-opted and exploited to serve the underlying imperatives of intimacy and social intercourse. Other seemingly minor affordances of text-messaging also reveal substantial interpersonal benefits: for example, being able to turn the sound off allows for more discrete, parallel exchanges; the forward function (like email) facilitates the gifting' of chain messages; and, in addition to the face-saving potential of asynchronicity, caller/number display which enables users to screen incoming calls. [note 11]
Still a useful theoretical framework, Uses & Gratifications Theory ( McQuail et al., 1972 ) proposes that audience-related variables invariably reveal the nature of a technology better than the technology itself - which is to say, it is the needs people seek to gratify which explain how they will actually use a technology. For example, more recent research (e.g. Dimmick et al., 2000) has shown how the principal gratifications of the telephone to be sociability (i.e. social bonding), instrumentality (i.e. social coordination) and reassurance (i.e. security and understanding). Rafaeli (in Rössler & Höflich, 2002) also comments on the 'Ludenic' or entertainment qualities technologies - a capacity clearly taken up by the messagers in our corpus.
Ling & Yttri (2002:151) suggest that certain of the affordances are especially attractive to children and teenagers - most notably: (a) being constantly accessible to, and in touch with, friends, and (b) being outside the purview of, and beyond the immediate reach of, parents and other authority figures. Although the second of these appears to play a smaller role with the young adults in the current study, there can be little doubt that accessibility and friendship contact continue to be immensely important. For the young people in our investigation, it seems that text-messaging can be characterized in terms of at least four gratifications, each of which may be compared with another CMC technology like email: high transportability (more so than email), reasonable affordability (more so than email), good adaptability (e.g. also voice-phone) (perhaps equivalent to email in the light of its increasing multimodality) and general suitability (e.g. it is quiet, discrete). Ultimately, however, the over-riding gratification which each in turn appears to serve is the need for intimacy and social intercourse.
That relationship-building and social intercourse are both central to, and facilitated by, technologies for communication should be in no doubt (cf. Parks & Floyd, 1996; Walther, 1996), even though popular opinion still feeds on the once-popular scholarly idea that computer-mediated communication is necessarily asocial and/or antisocial (see Walther & Parks, 2002, for a discussion of these arguments). Certainly, opinion about the advantages of mobile phones often centres on practical or instrumental benefits such as convenience and security, followed by accessibility and control (see Leung & Wei, 2000). [note 12] Nonetheless, perhaps even more so than the telephone (cf. Hutchby, 2001:80), the mobile phone and text-messaging are 'technologies of sociability'. As participants' messages show, much of what is being transmitted to and fro is at the level of phatic communion and/or the kind of micro-level social coordination described by Ling & Yttri (2002). That this is so, was evident not only in the functional or communicative orientation of participants' messages but was also revealed in the linguistic and orthographic content of their messages.
In her paper on the language of email, Baron (1998) sought to grapple with the idea that email might herald a new linguistic genre; her conclusion was ultimately that email language rather represented a creolizing blend of written and spoken discourse. Like email, and indeed most CMD, text-messages have much the same hybrid quality about them - both in terms of the speech-writing blend but also in terms of old and new linguistic varieties. [note 13] Although, as such, we are partly persuaded by Rössler & Höflich's (2002) notion of text-messaging as 'email on the move', this sort of metaphoric label belies the complex nature of discourse as being always contingent, dynamic and hybrid. [note 14] In its transience and ephemerality, for example, text-messaging is as much like instant messaging as it is like email - and, indeed, speech. In keeping with Herring's (2001) proposals, therefore, we are more inclined to view the language of SMS in its own terms; whatever formal similarities it may bear with other types of CMD, the linguistic and communicative practices of text-messages emerge from a particular combination of technological affordances, contextual variables and interpersonal priorities.
From what we have seen in participants' text-messages, and not unlike much CMD, the language of SMS appears to be underpinned by three key sociolinguistic 'maxims' (cf. Grice, 1975), all serving the principle of sociality which drives the messaging:
(1) brevity and speed;
(2) paralinguistic restitution; and,
(3) phonological approximation.
As the first and indeed foremost of these, the dual maxim of brevity and speed is manifested most commonly in (a) the abbreviation of lexical items (including letter-number homophones) and (b) the minimal use of capitalization and standard, grammatical punctuation (e.g. commas and spaces between words). Importantly, and as we have already suggested, the need for both brevity and speed appears to be motivated less by technological constraints, but rather by discursive demands such as ease of turn-taking and fluidity of social interaction. Likewise, in terms of the second and third maxims, where paralinguistic restitution understandably seeks to redress the apparent loss of such socio-emotional or prosodic features as stress and intonation, phonological approximation adds to paralinguistic restitution and engenders the kind of playful, informal register appropriate to the relational orientation of text-messaging. On occasions, the second and third maxims appear to override the brevity-speed maxim, but in most cases all principles are served simultaneously and equally. So, for the sake of paralinguistic restitution, capitalization (e.g. FUCK) and multiple punctuation (what???!!!) may be more desirable; on the other hand, lexical items such as ello, goin, and bin serve both the need for abbreviation and phonological approximation. Nevertheless, some graphical punctuation seems more persistent, most notably the use of question marks (?) and full-stops (.). With reduction of 'typographic contrastivity' (Crystal, 2001:87), however, the use of capitalization and punctuation becomes more semantically marked and, in this way, grammatical marks are co-opted for other less grammatical effects (e.g. wow!!!! or No wait…). Another example of paralinguistic restitution in graphical form is the famous emoticon - a direct borrowing from netlingo and a feature which appears to be similarly unpopular and, therefore, relatively infrequent - in spite of its exaggerated depiction in the media.
Beyond the most obvious impact on linguistic forms of the sociolinguistic maxims, what has been most noticeable about the non-standard items (or 'new' linguistic forms) in the current corpus is how so few of them were especially new or especially incomprehensible (see Table 1 - pdf download). There were, in fact, few examples of items which were not semantically recoverable, even in isolation of their original, discursive context; much of what participants recorded would not be out of place on a scribbled note left on the fridge door, the dining-room table or next to the telephone - where precisely the same brevity-speed imperative would apply. [note 15] In this sense, therefore, claims (both academic and lay) for the impenetrability and exclusivity of SMS language are clearly exaggerated and belie the subtlety and contextuality of discourse. Like the fridge-door note-maker, SMS users surely recognise the obvious need also for a certain intelligibility - in Gricean terms, for example, quantity and manner (Grice, 1975). One of the best examples of this, in terms of abbreviation, is the use of consonant clusters (e.g. THX), recognising that consonants in English usually have more semantic detail/value than vowels. Besides, many of the non-conventional spellings found in participants' messages (also in Table 1) have a currency which is more widespread and pre-dates SMS; examples of this include the use of z as in girlz, the k in skool, as well as those which also entail phonological approximation such as Americanized (or even AAVE) forms like gonna, bin, coz and any g-clippings like jumpin, havin, etc.
In point of fact, the orthographic (or typographic) conventions and the sociolinguistic maxims which underpin the language of text-messaging evidenced in this corpus are interesting but, in some respects, largely unremarkable. The notion of standardness in written language is itself a convention and always an abstraction from spoken language (see Cameron, 1995); in this sense, therefore, like the fridge-door note and the phonetic transcriptions of expert linguists, many of the typographic practices of text-messaging offer more 'correct', more 'authentic' representations of speech.
The use of non-standard orthography is a powerful expressive resource. … [which] can graphically capture some the immediacy, the 'authenticity' and 'flavor' of the spoken word in all its diversity. … [and] has the potential to challenge linguistic hierarchies… (Jaffe, 2000:498)
In their text-messages, young people 'write it as if saying it' to establish a more informal register which in turn helps to do the kind of small-talk and solidary bonding they desire. The language they use is therefore not only intelligible but also appropriate to the overall communicative function. What is more, in a message like M31, it is apparent that they also approach SMS language with a metalinguistic awareness and a robust sense of play:
M31: hey babe.T.Drunk.Hate all luv.Have all men.Fuck them.how r u?We're ou utery drunk.im changing.Now.Ruth.xxx. Hate every1
It is a similar metapragmatic awareness which may also account for messagers' use of such apparently clichéd forms as letter-number homophones and emoticons in the sense that they may be used with ironic effect and/or self-consciously to enact or perform 'text-messaging'. In other words, in a Hallidayan sense (Halliday, 1969/1997), the act of texting has both an interpersonal and textual function as people send messages not only for the kinds of communicative functions outlined above (e.g. relational bonding and social coordination) but also to be seen to be texting inasmuch as texting and mobile phones also carry cultural capital in and of themselves (cf. Kasesniemi & Rautiainen, 2002; Ling & Yttri, 2002). Put more simply, mobile telephones are also fashion accessories and ludic resources in their own right. Irrespective of message content, the very act of texting has cachet and communicates something about the sender; part of buying into the cachet of texting is drawing on discursive-cum-identity resources such as ringtones, keypad covers, and popularized linguistic markers like initialisms, clippings and letter-number homophones.
All of which also raises the question of personal style and register; for example, compare the following messages:
M32: AS IF,wot ugly unsespectin minga has got u?only jokn fatsy,I new ud laf,dats i sent it-erd ur doin levis proj,did u 12 borrow mine?
M33: Moo!we live at 32 Sudbry Rd which is next to the Dough café past the Firkin - if you want,I could meet you at the Firkin though.xx Bazz
M34: Hi mate,how are you today?I'm watching Eden on channel 4,and I know the girl called Cliona.This is really weird.Going to the gym later on.Have a nice day
Probably the most reasonable explanation for the noticeably different orthograhy in messages M32 and M33 would be the difference in their communicative functions (relational and informational respectively) which prompted an understandable shift in register. However, the difference between two relational messages such as Messages 32 and 34 is less clear and might just as easily index a difference in the personal style of the messagers. In much the same way, assumptions about other discursive patterning in text-messaging (e.g. length, use of capitalization, emoticons and so on) need to be made with caution; for example, in addition to situational and conversational factors, personal preference may just as easily account for the differences in length is M35 and M36, where one exchange runs across two messages (see also our comments about length):
M36: Safe Hi babe!Angie + Lucy had words last nite-stood there arguing 4 ages,loads of people outside cobarna.Bit obvious they……werent gonna fight tho cos they were there 4 so long!I was a bit pissed (woh!) Good nite tho!Spk 2u lata xxBeckyxx
In fact, a colleague (and more experienced text-messager) informs us that it is not uncommon for recipients to recognise the 'visual signature' (cf. Jaffe, 2000:509) of incoming messagers based on cues such as abbreviations and emoticons or and message length, in addition presumably to common discursive style markers like topic and lexicon. [note 16] It is surely a mistake to assume that text-messaging and/or young people are any less sensitive to contextual concerns for register and style, or that there is little variation in the appearance of messages; discursive factors such as interactional function and not technological features are just as likely to account for the relative use of 'new' linguistic forms.
The assumption is so often that the language of new technologies for communication is English ( Thurlow, 2001b; Yates, 1996 ), although there is little doubt that the global impact of English and the emergent discourse practices of new technologies are heavily interdependent. For example, Kasesniemi & Rautiainen (2002) note how English is a regular feature of the text-messages of the Finnish children and teenagers they have been studying over the past five years. In the case of this study, however, the use of languages other than English was found only six times - not surprisingly for a predominantly monolingual, English-speaking campus.
M37: Bore da moz.Sri am dihuno ti!Wyt t you dod i darlith medieval Europe am 2?Ost ya, t isie cwrdd tu fas law building am 1:50?Nia xxx [Welsh]
M38: Ello cariad.Caru ti lds [Welsh]
M39: Bist du ok? [German]
Nonetheless, what is interesting here is to see how persistent English is even in these few examples: in the case of M37, M38 and M39 (translations in note 17), the English names of lectures, words like ok, lds 'loads' and ello 'hello'. Importantly, these choices are typical also of the colloquial, hybridized 'Wenglish' spoken (and indeed written) by many young people in Wales. Although an isolated instance in this corpus, isie 'eisiau' (Eng. 'want') in M37, is also a Welsh version of precisely the kind of phonological approximations discussed above.
While the kinds of orthographic (or, technically speaking, typographic) choices which young people make in their messages are sociolinguistically and communicatively intelligible, this is not to say that text-messages are without character or interest. Removed from its physical context, M31 is somehow clearly a text-message. How is this? Does this not imply a specific 'text-message' genre? All genres and all language are necessarily and always hybrid (see Chandler, 1997, for an overview of genre theory); nonetheless, text-messages are communicative events characterized not only in terms of their linguistic form but also their conversational or interactional function. Although some appear more informational or content-focused, the vast majority of which are clearly relational - so much so, that this solidary function becomes an almost genre-defining rule. Admittedly bearing some resemblance to a single IM (instant messaging) or IRC (internet relay chat) exchange, we suggest that what does give text-messages a distinctive (not unique) generic feel is the combination of:
(a) their comparatively short length);
(b) the relative concentration of non-standard typographic markers; and
(c) their regularly 'small-talk' content and solidary orientation.
Key qualifications here are 'combination', 'comparatively', 'concentration' and 'regularly'; none of these three features is individually sufficient to characterise text-messaging.
Once again, none of this is intended to suggest that text-messages are functionally unimportant and peripheral, or that they are uniform and strictly formulaic in form. Interactionally speaking, all 'small-talk' is 'big-talk' (Coupland, 2000). As Androutsopoulos (2000) has demonstrated in the case of 'fanzines', non-standard orthography is a powerful but also playful means for young people to affirm their social identities by deviating from conventional forms; in doing so, they differentiate themselves (from adults) and align themselves with each other. To which we would add the opportunity also to personalize and informalize their messages. Text-messages are therefore simultaneously remarkable and unremarkable in their relative unconventionality.
Although something of a cliché, it is necessary to acknowledge the speed with which these communication technologies are changing and how academic research in this area slides towards obsolescence before it even gets going. Just as Baron (1998:164) warned of email's being a 'technology in transition', the same is certainly true of mobile telephony and SMS. Not least given its commercial potential, the applications of SMS are being extended all the time - most notably in terms of the still largely untapped potential of internet-mobile phone interfaces (i.e. so called WAP 'wireless application protocol' technology). Along with such practical considerations as diminishing consumer charges and increasing commercial advertising, messagers are also increasingly being encouraged into SMS-chat and SMS-dating as well as a host of information services (e.g. news, sports and music) - see, for example, <www.sms.ac>. In this way, the fields of CMC and SMS are themselves beginning to blur. What's more, just as the text-based nature CMC is changing in the face of ever increasing internet bandwidth, so too is text-messaging poised to become ever more multimodal. Other technical innovations likely to impact of the discourse of text-messaging are more sophisticated predictive text systems and keypad innovations.
It is presumably for reasons such as these that, with particular reference to personal communication technology (PCT), Katz & Aakhus's (2002) have called for more data-driven research and comment. As researchers from the Information Society Research Center attest, however, it is not always easy to access data like text-messages which are almost always private and personal, and sometimes very intimate and often 'illicit' (Kasesniemi & Rautiainen, 2002:174). [note 18] In spite of its largely decontextualized linguistic data, the current study offers an empirically-based contribution to growing interest in mobile communication as well as a more critical perspective on the role of new technologies in the lives of young people. In fact, what is evident from the current study is just how blurred the boundary between computer-mediated communication and face-to-face communication really is; for participants, there certainly seems to be little sense in which their text-messaging necessarily replaces face-to-face communication but rather their text-messaging has come to be 'folded into the warp and woof of life' (Katz & Aakhus, 2002:12). What is more, just as new linguistic practices are often adaptive and additive rather than necessarily substractive, young text-messagers manipulate conventional discursive practices with linguistic creativity and communicative competence in their pursuit of intimacy and social intercourse.