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Is Texting Destroying the English Language? Did Telegraphing?

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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James Grimmelmann‘s excellent Laboratorium included the following text in the post Texting, Telegraph Style:

t scetus tdy dodd 5 pw f potus dz n xtd to t pips, ogt all pst cgsl xgn q sj is uxl.

Before cracking open your handy desk reference The Code: Basics for Texting and Instant Messaging (which a retired FBI agent calls “a valuable asset to families who are in the dark about what their children are involved with on the internet”), consider that this cryptic message was sent not in the 21st century but early in the 20th. It translates:

The Supreme Court of the United States today decided that the power of the President of the United States does not extend to the Philippines, on the ground that all past Congressional legislation on the subject is unconstitutional.

It’s cited in Douglas Baird‘s chapter in Intellectual Property Stories on International News Service v. Associated Press, 248 U.S. 215 (1918).

It should be available in response to all variants of questions like Will text messaging destroy the English language? and Is the use of “texting language” harming job prospects?

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Category: intellectual property law, technology law

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2 Responses

  1. Laurie says:

    One problem with the analogy is that telegraphers didn’t include all the population. It would be the same argument made about short-hand and texting. Someone transcribed the message into English. Almost like knowing two different languages.

  2. lukegilman says:

    Exactly, it’s very much like knowing two different languages, or perhaps even more so a dialect of the same language, like an emerging Catalan or Gaelic.

    Linguistic criticism of texting is often couched in the language of linguistic development whereas I think it’s more of a resource allocation decision based on the perceived value of an acquired skill. Texters are obviously capable of mastering complex linguistic customs and rules and they seem to be able to understand each other. Any failure to learn standard English is a social choice based on the perceived value of acquiring that ability. All bilingual group faces this same choice.

    I suppose the challenge presented by texters is indeed their sheer numbers. If they hit the tipping point that shorthanders and telegraphers never did they might leave a significant linguistic footprint – some percentage might plausibly and rationally never abandon the customs of texting if by doing so they can be understood and socially accepted by a sufficient number of their peer group.

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