Merry Christmas! The First Text Message Turns 20 Today



Tens of thousands of years ago, somewhere, early man put pigment up on a cave wall, or maybe drew something in the dirt with a stick, presumably because he wanted to tell someone something.So, if you really want to go all the way back, you could say the text message, with all its use of language and images (emoticons), is a lot older than just 20 years. But, strictly speaking, that’s how old the text message is, turning 20 on December 3 of this year. On that day in 1992, a simple message – “Merry Christmas” – was sent from the computer of Neil Papworth, a test engineer, to a cell phone owned by Richard Jarvis. Granted, the definition of what first constituted a text message as we know it today is difficult to nail down.

This one manages to bear special significance as the very first message to be sent using SMS over a telephone network. As far as first words go, an early holiday greeting was on the unassuming side. In the following 20 years, texting has done anything but remain unassuming – it’s been responsible for palpable transformations in language. It’s even managed to rise to the status of being decried as the next big thing destroying our society, putting it up in a pantheon that includes (but is hardly limited to) video games, rock and roll music, theatre, and the novel. So, is it? The social ills for which text messaging has been blamed at one point or another are legion – it’s diluting the English language, churning out a generation that can’t spell properly, turning people into narcissistic churls, causing traffic accidents, contributing to neck and hand ailments, and killing good old human-to-human interaction.

This must have been what those Mayans were talking about, right? Once we get the past the hysterics, it sure looks like a lot of those accusations are about as legitimate as that whole Mayan 2012 end of the world deal. To celebrate the 20th birthday of the venerable text message, we’ll take a look at a few of the ways texting has impacted the way we communicate. Turns out, texting’s not so bad, once you get to know it.

OMG, Wat iz Happening 2 English?

For some, reading the above question might be a bit like hearing nails on a chalkboard. It’s representative of the fears of a number of people – that the English language is being degraded, broken down into arcane acronyms, with words eviscerated, their vowels violently removed and tossed aside for the vultures like carrion. Dark times are ahead, as students everywhere will begin handing in papers with 2 replacing to with regularity. Except, that’s not really the case. That comes with a disclaimer – text messaging is only 20 years old, and has only been a meaningful cultural force for maybe about 10 of those years.

Communication by text message is a radically new phenomenon, and as a people, we’re still very much in the process of feeling it out. There’s a dearth of solid scientific studies on the subject for that very reason. There have been some studies completed, and as it turns out, text messaging, and specifically knowledge of “textisms” – those little acronyms and spelling shortcuts – might even be leading to improved literacy scores. A study completed by researchers at Coventry University found that knowledge of textisms was linked to improved verbal reasoning ability, with the caveat that defining the relationship between the two was not possible. In fact, the study was largely inconclusive, which by itself is plenty meaningful – hazy results aren’t exactly indicators of impending crises.

Perhaps the strongest debunking of any sort of imagined crisis was put forth in Txting: The Gr8 Db8, written by linguist David Crystal. In the book, he points out that

“texting forums already provide anecdotal evidence that many texters are well aware of differences in their audience and are capable of adapting their messages to follow suit.”

He points out that teenagers often use more formal writing when texting parents or other adults, saving the informal textisms for peers. The important point here is that, if we really did have a crisis of language on our hands, we would expect teens to hardly be able to communicate via text with their parents at all. The fact that many teens have awareness that different audiences call for different styles seems to betray the notion that their linguistic skills are somehow suffering as a direct result of text messaging. That leaves textisms as something far less dangerous – a new vernacular, one heavily skewed towards generational differences, rather than regional differences.

The argument for the degradation of language as a result of texting becomes weaker when you consider that all of these acronyms and shortenings were born more out of necessity than anything. Text messages, for the most part, have been limited to 160 characters. Under the pressure of size limitations, it’s little wonder that teens found ways to keep things short and sweet. If anything, they should be commended for finding a clever situation to a real problem.

When you combine that with the fact that a mobile phone encourages multi-tasking and, thus, speed and efficiency in composing text messages, the use of acronyms and shortenings becomes even less surprising. And then, for good measure, consider how much of a chore texting on keypads used to be, before the days of smartphones. It’d be senseless not to start abbreviating. All of this is rendered moot by the fact that what texters are doing to the English language isn’t even particularly novel.

As Crystal points out, words like exam, vet, and fridge are all abbreviations that have been in use for decades, and in some cases centuries, and were also met with their share of detractors at the time. Don’t like seeing tonight shortened to 2nite? You’ll have to explain how that’s different from “of the clock” being sullied, becoming the “o’clock” we use today. Do you snicker whenever someone says “JK” out loud? Next time, ask yourself how saying “JK” is any different from saying “OK,” besides the fact that one is older than the other (in fact, “OK” is even more heinous, being based on a deliberate misspelling – “oll korrect”). Same goes for PM, AM, AKA, IOU, RIP, ASAP, FYI, etc.

Or, you can be horror struck by Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Abbreviations – featuring monstrosities like “aftn” (afternoon), “difclt” (difficult), and “fwd” (forward). By the way, that dictionary? It’s from 1942. That’s not to say that texting is being granted a full acquittal. Many anecdotes of teachers receiving papers full of textisms are no doubt true, and a study by Veenal Raval cited in Txting: The Gr8 Db8indicated that students who texted more tended to be less detailed when given a description task. But, at least as many studies, if not more, point to the positive effects of texting, like giving students more exposure to the written word in any form, more encouragement to put their ideas into writing, and greater verbal reasoning skills. More studies are needed in the field, but it’s safe to say that for right now, the students of today are facing far worse problems.

The Smiley Face – Texting’s Gift to Language

Visual text communication has been around for nearly as long as homosapiens have, but the only true historical analogue to the modern text message is the telegraph. Pioneered by men like Samuel Morse and his Morse Code, and later consolidated and mastered by Western Union, the telegraph eventually grew to be a force in communications in the mid to late 1800s. But, telegraphs by and large remained very simple and to the point. There were no frills – sending a telegraph was no minor process, and one person sending out hundreds in one day was impossible. There was no, or at least very little, room for playfulness or experimentation with the language. Today, modern text messaging is both efficient and relatively inexpensive. That’s led to the text message becoming commonplace, to where we have people who really do send north of 100 text messages a day.

With the trillions (yes, trillions – 7.1 of them in 2011, by one estimate) of messages being sent out every year, it’s safe to say that we have room to get a little creative. And we have. It’s a shame that so much of the discussion about text messages has centered around their negative effects, because they’ve actually resulted in some fantastically clever innovations in language. One of those is the smiley face. The emoticon smiley was by no means invented by someone sending a text message – the emoticon smiley can be traced back to 1881 and Puck magazine, which introduced a set of vertical emoticons that resemble what we know today. But, the smiley face took on new life when text messages took over. That’s because text messaging, for all its convenience, has one crucial drawback. Communication via language dominates person-to-person communication, but with text messaging, vital emotional cues that can shade meaning and intent are missing.

There are no facial gestures, no hand gestures, no body language to interpret, and no intonation to pick up on. Even the volume of someone’s voice can greatly influence meaning in communication. All of those are lost in text messaging, and that’s led to more than a few misunderstandings, to be sure. Fortunately, humans tend to be a resourceful lot. We co-opted the smiley face, and his brethren, to fill in for those missing cues. An emoticon isn’t just a playful bit thrown in at the end of a message – it gives the recipient clues to the sender’s mood, tone, and, ultimately, meaning. A lot of us do this without thinking about it now, but if asked the question, I think most would acknowledge that the same text message sent with or without a smiley face would bear a much different message than the original. It goes past the smiley. All of those little acronyms make a big difference, too. An OMG or an LOL helps to create a certain tone for the message, one that can be entirely based on context or on how well the sender is known to the recipient. Starting a message off with “haha” is done by millions without thinking, but those four letters can change the rest of the message. The recipient knows that we’re “saying” that message with a smiling face – or, at the very least, that we want them to think that we are. Along the same lines, I can make you think I’m shouting at you JUST BY DOING THIS. All of these little additions and tweaks preserve, albeit in an imperfect form, the richness of face-to-face communication.

Breaking Up is Easy to Do

There’s a flip side to that lack of emotional cues in text messages. Delivering bad news becomes a lot more palatable to the one doing the delivering when they don’t need to hear the other person’s voice, or see their eyes. They don’t even have to read the text message sent in response, or pick up the phone if the other person tries to call. That’s ice cold efficiency. In a 2009 survey done by social networking site MocoSpace, 45 percent of the site’s users admitted to breaking up with someone over text message. It’s not limited to break-ups, of course – it’s not hard to find droves of similar stories involving firings and divorces. You can pass off break-ups via text as taking the easy way out, and that’s doubtless been the case for many. A more depressing possibility also exists – as we know, the text message, despite our little emoticon and acronym additions, is still perilously lacking in emotional subtext.

It’s easy for misunderstandings to crop up. Pair that with the tinder box that relationships can be, and add in how devastatingly easy and fast a text message is to send, and you have a recipe for disaster. Break-ups can be initiated before one party or the other has even realized what has happened. The same kind of distinction can be made for bullying via text message, and it’d be interesting for someone to explore this in an empirical way, if at all possible. Some bullies who choose text messages as their medium are probably only adding to their already robust repertoire. But, there might be another group of bullies who are enabled by the simple, fast text message – people who might otherwise have never gotten up the nerve to be bullies in the first place. When emotional cues are dropped, communication becomes depersonalized. It enables unilateral communication on a person-to-person level – it’s a novel way to quickly tell someone something without ever having to concern yourself with seeing or hearing their reaction. The recipient, in some cases, might as well not even be human to the sender – it’s a terrifying thought, and a legitimate concern when we consider what the text message is doing to the way we communicate.

Language Lives

Texting is very young, and as a people, we are still feeling it out. Regardless of how texting changes the English language long-term, language and how we use it has been and always will be in flux. The conservative approach towards language is inherently quixotic. Take a work of Shakespeare, and the average person probably won’t understand every word. The English language in the time of Shakespeare was no better or worse than what we have now, but it has evolved, and to no particular detriment to society. Language is a living thing – trying to preserve it as is is like trying to stop yourself from aging. Texting is just one tiny new branch on a large tree, anyway – its overall impact on language has, to this point, been marginal. Take an average person off the street today, send them back in time 30 years, and they won’t have any problems making themselves understood. All texting is is a new way to communicate. That new method has led to the creation of a new vernacular, especially among younger people. It’s also led to some new trends in the way we communicate, and not all of those trends are going to be seen as positive. Despite that, the idea that texting is somehow bringing down language is ridiculous on its face. The purpose of language is to convey intelligible meaning to a target audience – that’s something that hasn’t changed, and never will change. It might be that you happen to not be part of that target audience. If that’s the case, well, SBI.