I really don’t want to keep kicking BBC Breakfast whenever it does something stupid, as there aren’t enough hours in the day to catalogue the horror, but when they go after ver yoof ov 2day, I feel compelled to bring it up. This morning the Z-team of Charlie Stayt and Susannah Reid reported on a study from the University of Toronto claiming that, contrary to popular belief (i.e. panicky, ill-thought-out guesswork), teenagers using text speak to communicate with each other are, get this, able to switch back and forth between normal English and the abbreviations they use in texts. I know! Crazy.
To discuss this they brought in the typical opposing viewpoints, a teenager, Lucy Van Amerongen, who has just written The A-Z of Teen Talk, and Marie Clair from the Plain English Society. After an embarrassing animation showing some text speak (containing such mind-bending arcane symbology as “cya 2nite”), Susannah claimed it was like a different language, and then asked Lucy if she started writing like it when not texting. Lucy, who seemed like a normal person and not a drooling imbecile, said that had never happened, pointing out that it’s only used in texting because it’s more efficient. Not to be dissuaded from her “different language” point, Susannah asked if she had to learn a new language, which Lucy pointed out was not necessary. Any abbreviation that got the point across was fine. I can’t believe I’m writing a post about a news show that revealed this fact as if it was revelatory. Do these people live in a commune or something? I know White City is a bit far from civilisation, but it’s not sealed off from the rest of the world.
Plain English Marie then joined in, stating she doesn’t want to be seen as a fuddy-duddy, and then proceeded to say there was a problem with people using text speak in other contexts (Charlie seemed very worried that people would use the word “fink” instead of “think”, poor guy). It was here that my ire rose, because again we were discussing a hypothetical idiot who would be compelled by the march of progress to ignore the English language entirely and revert to symbols and probably grunts to communicate, probably while mugging people with copies of Grand Theft Auto IV. The Hypothetical Idiot is a useful tool when getting into a panic over modernity. “But will this drive the Hypothetical Idiot I just imagined in my head to go crazy hotwiring cars and driving them into crowds of grandparents?” “Will Facebook make some Hypothetical Idiots I just conjured up in my imagination have sex with billions of people?” “Will the Wii make Hypothetical Idiots break nice vases while indulging in silly pastimes that have no educational value not unlike BBC Breakfast?”
If we’re going to worry about what a Hypothetical Idiot might get up to, we might as well stop creating anything or doing anything that might inspire people to potentially harm themselves, providing that person has an IQ of -59. Who needs progress? We can just sit around listening to Test Match Special, drinking weak tea and making polite conversation about the weather. ::breaks object in anger:: Hey, here’s a thought. Let’s not worry about the Hypothetical Idiots, people. They only exist in your fear-encrusted mind! They are merely doing your bidding; you’re the only ones making them jump off buildings after smoking a spliff or drinking Red Bull. Let my hypothetical people go!!!
A quick caveat. I’m sure kids have started to write text speak in exams, and the stories we hear about such things are not apocryphal. It would be crazy of me to think otherwise. I frequent talkbacks on the internet, for god’s sake. I’ve seen spelling errors, grammatical foul-ups, syntactical snafus that would turn Marie Clair’s hair white. The internet can often be a place where language goes to die, and it is shocking. But there are checks and balances in real life, and if people are growing up and still making mistakes like these in situations where they will be judged harshly for it, then there’s a good chance they might have been incompetent anyway. People have had trouble with language before texting came along. It’s not like we were all Kingsley Amis/Margaret Atwood until twelve years ago and now we’re all grunting at each other, burning our dictionaries, and using numbers or letters instead of words (Prince and his fans are exempt from criticism on the last one). Idiocracy is one of my favourite movies of the past few years, but I don’t think it’s coming to pass. People can switch from lazy text speak and back to normal Plain English at will. If I can do it, anyone can.
Of course, none of this mattered to the BBC Breakfast guys. Susannah had already asked Lucy if she slipped into text speak while writing, but asked her again just a minute later, “I mean, Lucy, imagine an exam situation. Can you honestly say you’ve never written any of those abbreviations, or in fact had letters from friends or notes where they’ve started to let these words slip into their normal way of writing?” She was like a dog with a bone. Except stupider.
Sadly Lucy admitted she has used the abbreviation “cuz” instead of “because”, but only in her revision notes (instead of saying, “No, in the imaginary exam you just asked me to create in my head, I didn’t do that. And I got an A+. And then I left school and applied for your job. And got it. And did it better than you”). As a result of that admission all of the adults ganged up on her and started claiming it proved their point and it was a slippery slope and the next step was practically illiteracy. Dear God, it made me so mad.
Charlie won the stupidity trophy, though, by saying to Lucy (who I would, probably rudely, assume to be upper middle class) “you’re very well spoken, and clearly have good use of language, and in a way you’re not part of the problem as you have proved that you can do these two things, but the problem is what happens with other people.” People from a different economic background, perhaps? Lucy looked suitably embarrassed by the whole thing. Marie then compounded the idiocy by proving she knew nothing about text abbreviations by saying LOL stood for Laughing All Over.
After that Susannah interrogated Lucy for a while about how many hours a day she texts (I wish she’d said “ALL DAY LONG AND YOU CAN’T STOP ME OR THE CODE THAT IS USED TO USURP YOUR AUTHORITY!!! LOL!!!!”), and Marie hilariously admitted she abbreviated in texts as well, but used that to prove that she was allowed to because she was a responsible adult who could switch between text speak and Plain English (which was the point of the Canadian study, not to mention what Lucy had been trying to explain earlier). Basically she was convinced, using Hypothetical Idiots as her study group, that young kids would grow up only knowing text speak. The only thing that could stop this, she said, is teaching them a standard version of English that everyone agrees on. A radical idea! I think we should have already been teaching people this universally agreed-upon standard of English all along. I have even invented a name for these places where children can learn this language. I shall call them “schools”.
It was absolute nonsense, yet more of the oldsters panicking because their kids are developing a culture and mode of communication that they cannot possibly understand, thus bringing them closer to oblivion and obsolescence. I can imagine parents must be freaking out that their kids have developed a code that they use to confound authority, and so we hear horror stories about children and teenagers losing the ability to use syllables or words of more than four letters and probably starving as a result, so don’t do it, kids!!! I remember a colleague commenting on how superb Pixar’s Monsters Inc. was as it perfectly captured the fear and ambivalence parents have toward their children (mingled with much stronger love, obviously), either that they would hurt themselves or develop a life of their own, leaving them alone and confused. Well, Charlie and Susannah were Mike and Sully this morning, and Lucy was Boo. Best of all, she totally PWNed the adults. Kudos.
Oh, and if you check out the review of the book I linked to before, skater girl can get bent. She’s obviously just a jellus hata. (And no, I’m not proud of myself for picking on a fifteen-year old.)