Can you decipher the gibberish in the title of today’s post? If you under 15-years-old you certainly can. If you’re over 40 — you might need a clue.

We know how to textually laugh but do we understand the tenets of basic colloquial textual conversation? The New York Times recently reported kids are going crazy with SMS “texting” on their cellular phones and creating their own sub-language to thwart parental control and direct observation:

In a survey released 18 months ago, AT&T found that among 1,175 parents the company interviewed, nearly half learned how to text-message from their children.

More than 60 percent of parents agreed that it helped them communicate, but that sometimes children didn’t want to hear their voice at all. When asked if their children wanted a call or a text message requesting that they be home by curfew, for instance, 58 percent of parents said their children preferred a text.

Is SMS texting degrading proper English — or is it enhancing the way we communicate with each other? Should “texting” even be considered a word?

Or is “texting” now a language — with its own style, grammar, structure and context — that should be studied, taught and honored as a part of a whole new cultural revolution?


  1. Hi David. I read with amusement this post about texting. I was going to write one about my experiences texting during my trip to the Philippines in January.
    I think texting could possibly become a word someday. It will be a form of slang for the teenagers, if it’s not already.
    Texting is an integral part of the culture in the Philippines, arguably the texting capital of the world. In fact, some of my cousins are so addicted to texting that even their emails are written in the texting shortcuts.
    I used to use shortcuts a lot in my texting because I had to hit keys multiple times to type some letters, but I stopped once I found out about the T9 function that makes it easier to text real words.

  2. Manny!
    It’s so good to hear from you again!
    Are there any Filipino “texting” secret abbreviations you can share?
    I find this kind of SMS texting a rotting of the English language. Context doesn’t matter. Spelling is out-the-door. There is no form to the function — yet, it survives like a virus in the bodies of the young.
    I realize on small things like iPhones and cellular phones, actually typing out a whole word and creating a sentence with proper punctuation takes more time than just “blunting it up” — but isn’t that the point?
    Why bother having standards for a written language if we merely toss those ideas to the wind in the name of speed and expediency?
    SMS creates a rubble of a sentence that barely makes sense. Text should be clean and clear. If you spend more time trying to understand a text message than reading it… there’s an alarming disconnect there.
    Isn’t it easier to place a 10 second phone call then text the same message in a sentence? What’s the point?

  3. I need a clue !
    I still have no mobile – still have no way of sending texts ……… I hate text speak when used by people attempting to communicate with me – they get ignored if they cannot use proper English!

  4. Fixed it, Gordon! For some reason your HTML was calling an image from Wikipedia. We can’t post images in comments here and we NEVER use Wikipedia any longer! 😀

  5. It’s funny, though, that ou812 is old enough to have been used as a name for a van halen album.
    I prefer sms in many cases – for example, when I’m on a bus and I’d rather the whole bus not know that I forgot an address. Also with sms you have a written record that you can carry with you – memory fades but the text message stays on your mobile phone until you deign it delete worthy 🙂

  6. Nicola!
    Our Gordon sussed it all out for you with great links!
    I won’t respond to that “text speak,” either. I tell my students not to use it with me if they want me to answer them, and if I get an SMS from someone using those abbreviations, I ask them to resend their message in English. I usually get an email back instead of another text message. 😀

  7. Gordon!
    Yes, ou812 was familiar to me — it’s just so silly you’ll never forget it. 😀
    I appreciate the SMS defense! I’m all for short text messages, I just don’t like them abbreviated. Janna and I use SMS, as you can image, all day long. It’s divine and it does preserve the record as you said.

  8. Ah! I see what you were doing with the image now, Gordon. Fine work! That makes it semiotically clear how juvenile ou812 actually is… 😆
    I find it clearer to use a lowercase “o” and “u” or people naturally make the “o” into a “0” in their minds because of the other numbers… sort of ruins the joke. I’m surprised Van Halen used all Caps.

  9. Somehow – since we know there are no coincidences – I will say it wasn’t a coincidence since I read the wordpunk article before making my comment and I think it was somewhere in my mind when choosing the phrasing 🙂 I like how you inspire me.

  10. Thinking about it makes me just higgle-yorff. The opposite of higgle-yorff comes to mind when I think of the trauma I have experienced and summed up in the article I just e-mailed you. 🙂

  11. Is SMS texting degrading proper English? Yes and No.
    Yes if the person using it transfers that language to writing it.
    No because it is enabling communication.
    Is [insert current slang terms] degrading proper English?
    Yes if you ask the generation who ask that about the generation below.
    This is not meant to imply that you are old David!
    Should it be taught? No. I think this is something you need to discover and absorb for yourself. Teaching would indeed establish it as something more positive and could start a march toward more ‘paper use’ of it.
    Should it be studied? Absolutely – it’s a language and like so many things a historical view can enlighten. With technology changing the nature of any change would be very interesting.
    Two points:
    First that using txtspk is much quicker and that is no bad thing. If we can speak more concisely in any situation it can be a bonus.
    Second is that texts cost money so due to character limitation, being able to cram in more meaning saves you cash.
    And lastly I do not think we should entirely blame the mobile phone. Such abbreviated use of the language (any probably) is in evidence when people communicate through MSN, ICQ and all the other messenger programs. In fact, a young person who has a mobile phone and the ability to txtspk with their peers has connectivity close to an internet connection and IM. No bad thing.
    And if I send a text? It’s composed as it I were handwriting it.

  12. Thanks for the great comment, Mark! I love to mock myself with Mr. Green :mrgreen: and the overused icky 😆 that your link so rightly punishes!
    Yes, I guess I’m being a cranky old man on this — I like to understand what’s being said when people speak to me — and that’s the difference with those who text… there’s no established form of communication that is agreed upon and so one is forced to guess at meaning and intent.
    Here are a couple of really popular Cingular Cellular commercials (Cingular is now AT&T) that address this problem in a fun and informative way:

    With the advent of “unlimited texting” — you can get that on an iPhone for $20.00 USD a phone now — there’s no need for brevity or sparseness of meaning any longer!
    You’re right that online chat created this dearth of communication abbreviations and I blame that on slow-typing chatters who can’t keep up with the natural flow of having to type out proper English in order to express their thoughts. So they cheat — and cheat the rest of us — by making up their own abbreviations.
    I think a sentence like:
    Which, translated, means:
    “Have you eaten yet?”
    … and that sort of “sentence” only degrades the spirit and unnecessarily dirties the language because the common tenets of meaning that communication is supposed to share between people is forsaken in the name of speed and impatience.
    I can’t wait until videophones become the new handheld norm. Typing will be out. Speech will be out. We’ll just make our own “emoticons” with our faces and hope we are understood in the ongoing tightening of our painful days into grinning nights. 😀

  13. “So they cheat — and cheat the rest of us — by making up their own abbreviations.”
    I disagree. The language excludes only those that do not understand it. Just as a foreign language does to someone who does not know, just as slang does, just as professional jargon does. There is cheating because it is deception, and exclusion felt for just plain not knowing.
    Someone – like yourself – with a deep knowledge of English and who can creatively use it could arguably be excluding those who cannot follow. So you are – by using the long words – excluding in the same way as those that use short.
    I look at it this way – a mobile phone is not meant for any sort of depth in communication. It is for brief contact, a reminder, a single question. It’s the equivalent of a post-it note. There is limited space on one of those too.
    “u8q” is not degrading. It’s an adaptation, in fact it is enriching. It is creatively using one form of language to communicate in a severely constrained environment. It is enriching because it increases communication and that can never be a bad thing. It is all the more marvellous because as a communication vector texting was not meant to be.
    The advent of the typewriter and email removed the nuances that can be used in a handwritten letter. And when videophones come in then animated avatars will again remove what will be touted as ‘more human’ communication. It’s all about adaptation.

  14. Mark —
    An abbreviation requires agreement on both sides before it can be invoked.
    “Texters” wrongly assume that if they’re texting someone, the other party knows their insider language.
    For me to force an unfamiliar acronym on you is rude if we are talking about anything meaningful that requires agreement or understanding.
    If I started signing ASL to you or speaking in Latin or Chinese or some other language you do not speak — I am cheating you out of understanding what’s happening by modifying the memes of communication.
    To extrapolate this “leaving out” — just start signing a conversation in ASL in room full of hearing people and you’ll immediately gets stares and accusations of being “unfair” to those who cannot understand what is being said in sign language. Those very accusers, however, never stop to consider for a moment that the Deaf signer stuck in a roomful of Hearing people has no way to interpret the abbreviated, unfamiliar language overlapping conversations.
    I realize there is proper English and colloquial English and we support all English speakers here and, as stated on our Comments page, we are happy to communicate with new English speakers. We encourage international readers.
    We don’t allow non-English comments, or Pidgin-Signed -English comments — though we do sometimes accept Urb comments:
    We love the sound of languages and we experiment with communication memes as you can see in that Urb link –- so we’re open to new adaptations as long as there is agreement first between all the parties in the employment of the confiscation.
    “u8q” is degrading if you assume use it on a person who doesn’t speak the language because your intent is to rule and not share — and you’d only degrade a person in that manner that you do not know or do not know what they do or do not understand.
    If I do not understand that phrase, I am then forced to ask you what you mean — wasting time and effort — and then you get to “translate” it for me so then I can answer the question you asked that you know I didn’t understand. That process doesn’t save anyone any time or money and someone should not be forced to use abbreviations or acronyms they do not understand.
    Now everyone reading this understands “u8q” –- the two of us could use it with each other without any degradation because we’ve used established English to create the shortcut. If you used it with me, however, I’d understand your questions, but I’d be a little disappointed you were too lazy/cheap/busy to type out a sentence
    What English nuances were removed by email and the typewriter as they replaced the handwritten letter?
    If you’re point isn’t about language — but rather the context of presentation — and if you’re saying a handwritten comma has a different meaning than a typewritten or emailed comma, then I confess you’ve lost me.

  15. Oh, and Mark, if I texted a reader of this blog with “UrbSpeak” without knowing if that person understood the conceit or not — I would consider that degrading because I am pushing a communication dyad that may exist in the world and is accepted… and has been indexed by Google and used here in a verifiable context… but that “language” has not been agreed upon for common use and that’s my main issue with “texting.” Language evolves out of agreed usage and not forced opportunism and we need only to look at Spanglish as one shining failure.

  16. My purpose what not to question you or the blog, it’s authors or commenters – I feel you think I was. It was meant to illustrate that regular readers of this blog may be unfamiliar with those using abbreviations as their common communication and the opposite would be true. As a former nurse caring for people who had communication problema and used SL and Makaton in public then yes I agree with what you say.
    “An abbreviation requires agreement on both sides before it can be invoked.”
    At what point does a technology reach a point where others assume knowledge is possessed by many – that they will already know? People ask me what I do – and up until I mention ‘blog’ they understand. At that point I lose them completely – but doesn’t everyone know that ‘web log’ = ‘blog’ = ‘online publishing’ / ‘diary’ etc? So my using a term I have done for over 5 years confuses people. I have an assumption that others will know but do we not all have such assumptions?
    I do have to disagree about degrading or at least that term. An assumption was made by the sender and it was wrong. That it takes time to then figure out could be a fault with the initial text, but other communications we have are not failsafe either.
    The question posed in your post – should we consider texting a language – is one I would answer with a No. It is not a language but an interpretation, an adaptation. It has it’s faults – just as email has when compared to a handwritten letter (which is another discussion and where presentation is of more importance.).

  17. Mark —
    No offense here at all. I was just giving examples of our being open to new styles of communication for those who may not be frequent readers of this blog. We like being adaptable here and to try new things and to have conversations like this.
    Are you saying the abbreviation for “weblog” is “blog?” Don’t they mean the same thing? Or did one grow out of the other based on shared usage and a common understanding? Are abbreviations able to be synonyms or are they only “short code” for larger word or phrase?
    As new ideas emerge, we have to associate new labels with them using words to create meaning. To condense a sentence down to “u8q” isn’t, to me, evolutionary or even de-evolutionary… it’s just silliness pretending to have cultural importance. That phrase won’t last into the next 50 years, but both “weblog” and “blog” will.
    We’ll agree to disagree on the use of “degrading” — and we can do that because we both understand its definition and context and we provide meaning to that word that allows us the freedom to choose to accept its inclusion or not.


    The term “weblog” was coined by Jorn Barger[9] on 17 December 1997. The short form, “blog,” was coined by Peter Merholz, who jokingly broke the word weblog into the phrase we blog in the sidebar of his blog in April or May of 1999

    So they do mean the same – but you still need to know what one is to understand what I do.
    ‘u8q’ will last 50 years if for no other reason than the people using it now will still be around then. It may well last 100 if it is documented and be compared to whatever is being used at that point.
    ‘u8q’ For me it’s a minor evolution spurred by available technology and is comparable as I mentioned before with instant messaging. Not bad, just different and being the type of person I am, I will let it pass – not my style 🙂

  19. Mark —
    FYI… we don’t use Wikipedia here as an authority (see #28 on our Comments Policy Page) but Webster’s Dictionary confirms the 1997 and 1999 etymologies for “weblog” and “blog” for those who care. 😉
    “u8q” won’t last if it isn’t understood or used beyond my invention of its definition here today in this blog — sure, the people reading it here might use it, but I doubt it will ever be found in a dictionary or other scholarly resource as shorthand slang that becomes colloquial enough to warrant its forever embedding in the English language or even “Texting” as a language… if it ever gets there.
    Technology is fleeting in its fascinations and today’s “u8q-like” abbreviations will become some other mindless cudgel created by the young so they can hide from discovery and numb the inquiries of those who want to know who and what they are…
    I am reminded of “TwinSpeak” — a friend of mine has logged and recorded the secret sounds, vocabulary and guttural utterances of his two young boys who invented their own language — for use only between them — as Twins.
    At age 5 — and in full TwinSpeak as their means of verbal and visual communication, they found the power drill, removed the hinges from the back door and hid the brass screws in the flowerbed.
    Their TwinSpeak will last their lifetime, more than one person understands it and it has been recorded — but their TwinSpeak will never be commonly agreed on as a language by enough minds to catch a foothold in the lives apart from theirs.
    Enduring ideas have words that live beyond the momentary life and into the eternity of recorded language.

  20. I only quoted wikipedia because I knew that part of the entry there to be correct – my apologies though.
    “Enduring ideas have words that live beyond the momentary life and into the eternity of recorded language.”
    Agreed, though interpretation of those words can and does change.
    “…created by the young so they can hide from discovery and numb the inquiries of those who want to know who and what they are…”
    And so they should create, they should hide, they should try and succeed in being different. Language is an essential part and to try and remove that would be a bad thing I feel.

  21. Hi Mark!
    No problem on the Wikipedia thang. 😀 It’s sort of a sore issue here and if I didn’t say anything to you I would’ve been yelled at by those I have yelled at… and so on and so on…
    Do word change meaning over time? Or are we required to keep strict word definition and then invent and evolve new ideas out of the original base word?
    I think creating words and changing words with existing definitions can be a dangerous thing in that it becomes about the individual and not about the enduring understanding across a society. We may not use all of Shakespeare’s words — but we can still look up their meaning to understand what he meant at the time.
    Pressing a current definition into an old word makes for confusion. Context is everything.
    We used to have several people here who frequented this blog who liked to add meaning to a defined word to extend a definition to suit their needs or they would just invent a whole new word and then define it — as if that would win an argument or make their point clearer.
    It’s always been a difficult task to learn vocabulary words, their meaning and definition and enforce their use in a proper string and context — and I confess I misuse words all the time — and that’s why I’m grateful for corrections and for the dictionary so I can right myself in order to be understood when I am no longer around to defend my words or expand my meaning.

  22. This whole conversation with Mark reminds me of some domains I’ve purchased:
    I wrote about branding those names here:
    I find it interesting that they’re all “new use words” but they’re all based on a pre-existing word that provides a base context for definition provenance.
    Here’s where “RelationShaping” was born:

  23. “Do words change meaning over time?”
    Yes, certainly.

    I think creating words and changing words with existing definitions can be a dangerous thing in that it becomes about the individual and not about the enduring understanding across a society.

    The key words there are ‘a society’. Within all groups there are sub-groups and the larger the starting mass the greater the number of sub-groups that may exist. The greater the need to create and hold an identity. As language is a powerful medium it not be immune to this process.
    One way to look at it: I could travel to my home city of Manchester. I would look the same as everyone else but if someone spoke to me in the local dialect I may not understand, I may not be able to work it out, I would feel stupid for not being able to immediately pickup on the communication and the person who spoke to me would be in one of many states of mind. It was not their fault to use the words they did, it was not may fault for not being able to tell them prior to the start that I would not understand. But we are both english and our cities are less than 200 miles apart.
    Is not txtspk a dialect or something to be considered as such? A niche language?

  24. Mark —
    You raise a whole new interesting path for discovery in the evolution and use of language: The effects of a sub-language in groups:
    Karl Popper would likely agree with you that a sub-language that subverts the comfort of the norms of a group is a good thing because it causes group doubt and less societal cohesion against the minority power in control.
    If, however, we look at “texting” in that light — as a means for subversion of youth against the mandatory morality demanded by a panopticonic, fraternal never-blinking eye, then I would say it is more of a spike in the side of society rather than a path of its own that leads to the evolution of its own non-static language.
    Is “texting” reliant upon English to be understood? Is there Japanese “texting” — and if so, are the same abbreviations used as Japanese character replacements? Using ASL to sign “texting” would not be understood, or even shared, because it goes against the sense of a required visual, grammatical, clarity.

  25. I recall this a few years ago – an ‘essay’ in txt
    While I can see why the word ‘subversion’ could come to mind I think it is taking the identity issue too far. The young people have less ability to travel, less ability to use a home telephone because of cost and less desire because they want their privacy too. They are also adaptable and less wary of technology. So mobile phones having this (originally unintended) behaviour has given them a space and they have used it their way. There were no rules so they – collectively – made them. If texting has been consistent for over 5 years now if we take the above example as the first instance then that says something about the ‘language’ and it’s stability. (Given the distributed nature of it’s users and the wide diversity of them it would also prove hard to change surely? This is both a good thing and a bad thing depending on circumstances and viewpoints)
    A spike…. time will tell. It is still young in comparison to other methods of communication. I like your use of the word spike though. I see it as an alternate path, a diversion, a route through territory we may not all be comfortable with. Your imagery brings with it pain, annoyance, a threat, a need to repel, a need to defend, ownership / guardianship maybe – and this is where our differences lie with the perception of texting.
    I very much doubt that texting in reliant on English, but then I also think there will be differences even with the English speaking texters – again a dialect. There is also the fact that someone in Japan may text using English as a way to further disguise the message.
    Texting is more like a cryptic crossword clue – all the information is probably there, you just have to deduce the correct answer.

  26. That’s a killer URL, Mark, thanks!
    It certainly will be interesting to see how long the texting fad lasts. I think it is more of a fad than a calling reformation — more like Pig Latin than Latin — and it will come and go with the tendencies of time and space and I fully expect with the rise of videophones that “texting” with words will be replaced by “shorthand” with the hands.
    If texting is a crossword puzzle clue – then I don’t think it qualifies as a standalone language or even a niche language – it’s just an abbreviation of English words and sentence structure using letters and numbers.
    Your argument about subversion and the young using any means possible to create their own core within a core — even though they are at a great disadvantage without any real power or money in the overall power structure — is a fine insight and it deserves more discussion.

  27. A fad – I’m not so sure.
    Somewhere right now a 13 year old is sending a text message. In 10 years I would expect another 13 year old to also be sending a message but for the 23 year old to have trouble deciphering what they sent at that time. An age specific language / dialect / fad maybe?

  28. Mark —
    That’s a funny URL, thanks! Though, in the interest of full disclosure, we should mention that is a satire site:

    All characters and events reported on this site are ficticious. Oh all right, Blair and Bush and all the famous people obviously aren’t, but all members of the public are invented and are not intended to represent anyone alive or dead. We will only use real names when public figures are being satirized.

  29. Mark —
    Do you think texting will still be alive in 10 years? I think we’ll be at full video conversation — at least in the USA with the advent of true 3G cellular networks — in the next 5-8 years.
    We’re in the Golden Age of the Word right now — where cogent writing has a re-birth in importance in communication and I am thankful I am alive to witness it and promote the trend — but we’ll be defaulting back into illiteracy over the next decade as the spoken word and the facial expression become the new means of major communication. We’ll be the worse for it, too.

  30. Alive in 10 years? Yes.
    The technology will just get cheaper. Japan has vending machines for phones. Partly this is because Japan has vending machines for an amazing range of items, but also because the technology is that cheap it has become disposable.
    Disposable means a guaranteed market because the item has no perceived value and it also means the price falls to a range within that of even more people – and the disenfranchised, be they young, old, bankrupt and the criminal will always be looking for such a facility.

  31. Hi Mark!
    I am less optimistic that texting will be around in 10 years — I think as technology grows it cheapens, as you suggest, in order to blow out the next big thing to keep the eco-economy of the business booming. It will be cheaper to do live video then than it is to do SMS now.
    I don’t think we’ll recognize current “blogging” in 3 years and in 5 years we’ll all be on to something totally different. We already see traditional blog platforms replacing static websites and becoming CMS portals and moving into social networking pathways…

  32. Hi David,
    The maximum I can go abbreviating is :
    ‘Pls’. Instead of ‘please’, ‘abt’ instead of ‘about’, ‘u’ instead of ‘you’. The rest seems broken to me. I understand the younger generation is used to this ‘textspk’ and it might be considered as an emerging language – but I am not sure if it can be widely used as a formal communication.

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