Language Parents and pedants despair of the way SMS-speak has affected language but they may be wrong.
In 2003, newspapers around the world reported that an American schoolgirl had handed in an essay that began like this: "My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF and thr 3 :-@ kids FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc." For those uneducated in textese, the offering was translated: My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York, it's a great place."
The teacher was appalled, it was reported, and thus began a global panic over the fate of English - and then other languages, from Italian and French to Arabic. The BBC's self-appointed guardian of truth and literacy, John Humphrys, denounced teenage texters as "doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation, savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped".
Similar thoughts have probably gone through the mind of any parent at the sight of the "bleak, bald, sad shorthand" - according to the writer John Sutherland - that seems to be the only form of communication, apart from the occasional grunt, that teenagers engage in. One person who might be expected to whip up the moral panic is David Crystal, a professor of linguistics who has devoted his life to the English language. In a long and productive career he has published a glossary of Shakespeare, edited encyclopedias and written a book titled Rediscovering Grammar. He is now updating the pedants' bible, Fowler's Modern English Usage.
But Crystal, 67, will not join in the witch hunt. His astonishing conclusion is that the kids are all right, and no one is doing anything with their mobile phones that was not done in previous generations. "All the popular beliefs about texting are wrong, or at least debatable," he writes in his new book, provocatively entitled txtng: the gr8 db8. The school essay that launched the great moral panic, he says, is clearly a fraud or a prank. It is a jumble of abbreviations culled from those glossaries of textese compiled by the mobile phone PR companies and gleefully printed by newspapers to whip up the text threat. With its use of commas, capital letters and an apostrophe, it is unlike any real SMS he has seen.
In fact, he insists, texting is good for language skills: it teaches concision and is an antidote to the frothing "bloggorhoea" of the internet and the wearisome inanities of most mobile phone calls - not one's own, of course, but the ones you can overhear. The reality is that less than 10 per cent of words in texts are abbreviated. "All taken together, you find that children who text are getting a great deal of practice in reading and writing, and moreover in reading and writing in standard English," he says.
"The latest research shows over and over that the more you text, the better your literacy scores. Texting is good for you." Crystal is no ordinary professor. He left his full-time academic job in 1984 in protest at his growing administrative burden, though he retains an honorary professorship at the University of Wales in Bangor. He keeps his distance from the fevered campaigns of the London press by living in the port of Holyhead, where the loudest sounds - when the ferries to Ireland are not in harbour - are the seagulls' cries.
He points out that British employers have long lamented the collapse of young people's literacy. Every advance in communications, from the invention of printing with movable type in Europe in 1450 to the SMS a decade ago, has provoked talk of the decline of language. "To talk of decline makes no sense to me. Languages do not decline, they change," he insisted in an interview in his Holyhead office. "Texting is another style of language - an option. But obviously a balance must be maintained between that and the formal language."
Everyone who has been to school, he believes, understands that there is a difference between language spoken at home and the language of formal communication. The advent of informal forms of written English - in texts, on the internet and especially in instant messaging - means more work for the teacher. It is no longer a question of language being right or wrong. Now there is a range of registers that the school has to teach students to use appropriately.
Never one to keep his hands still, the professor waves his arms with mounting passion as he explains the simple fact that critics of texting fail to grasp: everyone who has been to school understands that they have a home language, which guarantees their identity, and a standard language, which ensures intelligibility around the world. Texting is a form of identity language. Nowhere is the difference between these two greater than in Arabic. Standard Arabic ensures that Arabs can communicate from Morocco to Oman. Like many languages, it has been preserved for political reasons, but it also has a unique religious quality: it is the tongue in which the Quran was revealed.
Early mobile phones were not Arabic-enabled, meaning that people messaged in "Arabish" - local dialect written in English letters - with some numerals to indicate uniquely Arab sounds - plus a sprinkling of English words. Crystal is not fazed by these kinds of texts. Arabic is not abnormal in having a "high" form and "low" forms - in fact the more a language is used for international communication, the more divergence you are likely to see between what is spoken at home and what is said in political speeches. "We have to understand each other, but nobody wants to leave their roots behind," he says.
As he is an expert on Shakespeare, I have to ask the professor what the bard would have made of the innovative (or sloppy) use of language that texters delight in. His online glossary of Shakespeare provides contradictory results. In a comment likely to be endorsed by millions of parents, Goneril in King Lear declares: "No more; the text is foolish." But Holofernes, the pedant in Love's Labour's Lost, seems to be a fan of the SMS: "The text most infallibly concludes it."
Shakespeare famously spelt his name in half a dozen different ways. "He teaches us to dare to do things with language. He broke the rules of grammar - insofar as there were any rules - all the time. He invents a word if he wants a word," Crystal says. "Be master of the language. Don't let the language be master of you. That's what we learn from Shakespeare." So if all this playing around with language is so normal, why do parents get so upset by texting? This is a social issue, Crystal says, not a linguistic one.
Mobile phones have liberated young people from the physical confines of their homes - and with texting you cannot even listen at the door to hear their whispered sweet nothings. The texting etiquette is so rigid - messages require instant response - that the SMS world seems more real than the FTF (face to face) world. Thus the annoying habit of teenagers texting under the table when they should be listening to their elders.
"I too get annoyed when I'm talking to someone and they start texting," the professor says. "But perhaps this is a change in society and young people can text and talk at the same time. Perhaps the new generation is more versatile." In the end, the reaction of parents is surely tinged with jealousy. Anyone who as a teenager had to communicate with the opposite sex by letter (which could be intercepted) or through the home phone (which could be overheard) or, even worse, by knocking on the front door, can only feel a surge of jealousy at how easy life is for this new generation, memorably known in Japan as "the text tribe".