Tech Tidbit #2: SMS to avoid OMG

I used to focus my thoughts on “Text Speak” on the implications it would have on our written language. Is SMS just the natural evolution of language (anyone whose ever had to read Beowulf is probably thankful about how much our language has already changed), or is it “belittling” the written word? After reading the following tidbit, I started thinking about the spoken & socialization aspects of it instead. In one of my Senior classes (24 students) I recently asked, “Have you ever broken up with someone via a text message?” Answers were submitted anonymously on paper. An astounding 13 responded yes!


The following was submitted by Jeff Moore 11.21.2007

Hello, everyone.

Last spring, Cingular/AT&T offered what has become one of my favorite television commercials. The cell phone bill is too high. Mom is scolding her daughter for too much text messaging. The daughter, of course, responds in that strange language:

Mother: Who are you texting 50 times a day?

Daughter: I-d-k. My b-f-f, Jill.

(Subtitle: “I don’t know. My best friend forever, Jill.”)

Mom struggles to drive her point home by attempting to communicate in this youth-tongue. Daughter exits stage right, where we assume she remains unimpressed.

The language that has grown around “short message service” (SMS) on cellular phones, and which has spread to instant messaging and other social tools on the internet, is still foreign to many of us. It’s a polarizing thing. Some of us want to accept it. English, after all, is an ever-evolving thing. Some of us want to reject it.

There is clearly a phenomenon to deal with, here—one that’s not going away any time soon. On one hand, you have to hand it to student ingenuity and flexibility. Your teenaged son/daughter can punch through an entire conversation on a cell phone and stay engaged with a whole bunch of other stimuli (iPod, homework, AOL Instant Messenger, dinner), all while listening (or at least pretending to listen) to you. The shorthand of SMS has evolved to help them multitask. However, while the media has gone way overboard in portraying SMS shorthand as a “youth code” designed to subvert our authority and even our very culture, we are rightfully concerned that our students are losing control over the nuances of rhetoric, persuasion, etc., etc. (A nod, there, to my fifth grade English teacher, the very traditional Mrs. Hornetsnest. She’s smiling on me from heaven right now.)

The larger concern for me, however, isn’t language. (Sorry, Mrs. Hornetsnest.) A recent poll out of AOL and Associated Press has discovered that students use mobile communications devices—and the blunt shorthand that goes with them—to squirm out of uncomfortable situations. They’re avoiding “omg” (“Oh my God!”) moments. They have a tool in hand to deliver all of their social assertions, to fling them off to where they cannot see how those assertions actually impact upon another person. Without a full range of senses, do they really learn how to read and communicate emotion? Does empathy really translate through this shorthand?

dEr john U R a gr8 guy bt I tink we shud jst b frnds! l8r!

Rather than just an evolution of language, then, this may be part of an evolution of expression. And it’s troubling. We have to recognize, however, that millennials need to be conversant in SMS shorthand if they are find success in the highly competitive, fast-moving world that they will enter after they leave us. If you see “cyr ofis,” you’d better call your boss. Maybe it’s nothing important. Maybe it’s a crisis. Who knows? Better call, though.

Not that we need to teach SMS shorthand. No, no, no. We might explore, however, capitalizing on students’ ability to “code switch”—a skill that we’re much more apt to recognize in limited English proficiency students. Treating SMS as a translation tool, for example, may just allow us to explore the meaning of English. A student who can translate the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet into SMS shorthand may send Shakespeare (and Mrs. Hornetsnest) spinning in the grave. However, that student really has to decode and understand the scene.

Romeo: wotz dat lite? itz juliet. she ndz my ;; lIk d morn ndz d nyt.

(“;;” is “sadness.” Look at it again, this time thinking about two eyes with tears. The rest? Well, look to the links at the end of this email for a translation tool.)

Students also need to understand when and how to perform this code switching. Emailing your boss? Writing an essay? Applying to college? Better be formal. Texting friends in the mall? It’s SMS “pRT tym.”

Want to know more? Copy/paste these addresses into your browser. (Clicking on them probably won’t work.)

Read a short article on AP/AOL Poll (from CNN):

Have fun with this SMS Translator:

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