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Txt speak
May 22, 2008

“2 b, r nt 2 b dat iz d Q wthr ts noblr n d mnd 2 sufr d slngs & arowz of outrAjs fortn r 2 tAk armz agnst a C f trblz, & by oposn nd em?”

Confused?

If you are, you’re probably not paying attention to your teenaged son, daughter,  grandson, granddaughter, nephew or neice. What is undecipherable to you is merely the so-called next revolution in writing referred to as “txt spk” or “txt speak” — for the lay person “text speak.”

For the text messaging illiterate, the above speech is from Hamlet, Act III, Scene I. It’s doubtful the “Bard of Avon” would recognize his own words, but if Shakespeare were alive today, he would marvel at how far the written English language has progressed — or digressed, depending upon one’s viewpoint.

The translation: “To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them?”

Text messaging is sort of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics of the modern computer age, whereby one symbol often stands for an entire word (ancient Egyptians also had symbols for consonants and vowels); thus 2 becomes “to” as in Hamlet’s famous speech. In hieroglyphics the symbol for sun, a circle with a dot inside, actually means “sun” or it can mean “day,” just as a text message 2 can mean “two” or “too.” Other text speak examples are Q as the whole word “question” and C as “sea.”

Walk down the street any day of the week, pass a bus stop bench and you’re bound to see a teenager head down in concentration and thumbs working frantically on a miniature keypad to tap out a text message. Actually, you can go anywhere — the movies, the park, the beach, etc. — to see such a sight. And more adept teens are able to tap out a text message without looking, which comes in quite handy when wanting to send a text message to someone sitting an aisle over in the classroom.

It’s in the classroom that text speak has been a bit of a headache for school teachers and university professors. What started out as social interaction has penetrated the lofty realm of academia with mixed acceptance. 

Many decry the use of text speak as an abomination of the English language, while some have been kinder, claiming it as possibly “bad” language, but still having the ability to express an idea.

In fact, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the school exam authority in Scotland, allows the use of phrases such as “2b r nt 2B” in exam papers as long as the candidate (student) showed they understood the subject,” according to the United Kingdom-based Daily Mail.

“We give credit for the idea a candidate is expressing,” a spokesman for the SQA exam board told the Daily Mail. “But you would get more marks for that idea in perfect English than if you used text language (in the U.K. text speak is text language).”

Yet, a report on Standard Grade English in the U.K. expressed concern over deteriorating writing standards.

“No wonder employers are complaining about the lack of skills in school leavers (graduates), when students are allowed to pass their exams using text language,” Murdo Fraser, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, told the newspaper. “It’s ridiculous. You wonder what future there is for grammar and high standards of English usage when this kind of thing is allowed to go on.”

In a new form of Orwellian double-speak, the spokesman for the educational Institute of Scotland answered critics by saying: “While candidates may not technically lose marks over the content of their answers in text language, they will effectively make themselves ineligible for the additional marks which can be awarded for the clarity of their answers.”

Apparently, text speak may be an acceptable language form, but it lacks the clarity of English. If that’s the case, why allow its use in English exams in the first place.

Scotland is not alone in allowing students to use text speak. In New Zealand a similar decision was made by that country’s qualifications authority.

The NZQA discourages students from using anything other than “full” English in exams, but credit will be given if an answer “clearly shows the required understanding,” according to a report by Associated Press.

The news agency reported Internet blogger Phil Stevens was not amused by the announcement and wrote: “nzqa u mst b joking or r u smoking sumthg?”

A new survey by Pew Internet & American Life Project found that many students use text speak in their everyday school work. Fifty per cent said they use text speak in their school work, while 38 per cent use acronyms and 25 per cent put “emoticons” (a smiley face for “happy” is a good example).

The same survey found there is hope for old-fashioned English, since the vast majority of teenagers know there is a distinction between text speak and “real” writing. In fact, they don’t consider the latter writing at all. They claim text speak is the equivalent of a phone call or a greeting in the hallway.

There is an acknowledgement among students and teachers that people use text messages, phones and e-mail in a conversational way, while not thinking about how eloquently they speak or write.

On the other hand, the survey revealed 86 per cent of the teens surveyed recognize the value of proper writing to succeed in life after school.

“They (students) would like to see more instruction,” said Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in a report by TechNewsWorld, “more class time and the opportunity to use some of the technological tools and use computer-based applications to help build some enthusiasm for writing. There’s a desire to draw that enthusiasm for electronic communications and bring it into more school-based writing. Educators as well as teens think that bringing technology into the classroom might have that result.”

Dropping the use of capital letters in everyday text messaging is not the end of civilization, but students still have to recognize that capital letters are an essential part of written English required at exam time. While text speak may convey the gist of an idea, it is not the same as using proper written English to fully express an idea.

“g2g bbl” (Got to go. Be back later.)