Adapting to a world of ever-shorter screens and ever-longer laundry lists of activities, today’s tech-savvy teens are creating a whole new language of abbreviations as they use cell phones and computers to correspond via short electronic communications called “text messages.” But the rise of this new form of alphabet-soup shorthand has educators debating its effect on students’ writing habits.

The text messages on 13-year-old Margarete Stettner’s cell phone are filled with shortcuts—like “G2G” for “got to go” and “LOL” instead of “laugh out loud.” Even when she isn’t using her phone, the lingo sometimes makes its way into what she writes.

“It does affect, sometimes, how I do my schoolwork,” the teen from Hartland, Wis., said as she shopped in a mall, where cellular phones are as common as low-cut jeans. “Instead of a Y-O-U, I put a U.”

That alarms some educators and linguists, who worry that the proliferation of text messaging—where cell phone users type and send short messages to other phones or computers—will enforce sloppy, undisciplined writing habits among American youths. Other experts, though, don’t think the abbreviations will leave their mark on standard English.

In June 2001, wireless phone users sent 30 million text messages in the United States, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, an industry trade organization. By June 2002, that number had increased to nearly 1 billion.

The method is most popular among teenagers, according to Upoc Inc., a New York-based firm that helps users of mobile devices share information on everything from the rapper Bow Wow to celebrity sightings. A study by Upoc in 2001 found 43 percent of cellular phone users ages 12 to 17 used text messaging, compared with 25 percent of those ages 30 to 34.

These teenagers, hampered by limited space and the difficulty of writing words on numeric phone keypads, helped create the text-messaging lingo.

Words are abbreviated (“WL” for “will”), and common phrases become acronyms (“by the way” turns into “BTW”). There are even dictionaries to sort out the meaning of, say, “AFAIK” (“as far as I know”).

“SOL” can mean “sooner or later” or “sadly out of luck,” but if you’re unclear on which was meant, simply message back a “W” (what?) or “PXT” (please explain that) for a clarification.

Jesse Sheidlower, principal editor of the U.S. office of the Oxford English Dictionary, said text messaging is going through the natural progression of language.

Much text-messaging lingo was first used in instant-messaging programs on personal computers, and some phrases, such as “SWAK” for “sealed with a kiss,” have been used for decades, Sheidlower said.

As text messengers discover and share new abbreviations and acronyms, the language becomes familiar to a growing population of cell phone users. And as more people use the lingo for text messaging, Sheidlower said, it is more likely to spill into speech or writing.

That worries American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron, who said text messaging is another example of a trend in written communication.

“So much of American society has become sloppy or laissez faire about the mechanics of writing,” Baron said.

Problems arise when people use the casual language in other forms of written communication, such as eMail, in which the sender might not receive the message for some time, or writings in which the reader might not even know the author, she said.

But other linguists said a simpler, more relaxed vernacular is acceptable for talking or text messaging.

“Language and languages change,” said Carolyn Adger, director of the Language in Society Division of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C. “Innovating with language isn’t dangerous.”

And besides, Adger said, text messaging—like eMail and instant messaging—is making it easier for people to communicate.

“I think that all of this stuff is really wonderful, because it’s expanding the writing skills of people,” she said.

Chris Mahoney, director of technology for the Lake Hamilton School District in Arkansas, agreed.

“I think the students are actually writing more and are benefiting from instant messaging, simply because it encourages them to write and it is something they are interested in,” Mahoney said. “They are using acronyms, but writing more that they would in a normal note or paper. Students are verbalizing and learning communication skills while using these new technologies.” Teachers are holding students to the same grammatical standards in formal writing and, for the most part, do not accept linguistic shortcuts in their classrooms, he added.

Text messaging hardly appears to have hurt written language in Europe, where 10 billion text messages are sent each month, said Charles Golvin, senior analyst with Forrester Research.

In fact, as more adults began using text messaging in Britain and Germany, the lingo fell out of favor, said Alex Bergs, a visiting linguistics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Even teenagers use the language for only a while, he said.

One teen in Milwaukee, college student Jeremy Rankin, spends quite a bit of time using wireless devices in his job at a cell phone store. The 18-year-old admits he sometimes finds himself abbreviating when he types.

“I might do it by accident, but I don’t think that’s a problem as far as school papers go,” he said. “I proofread my stuff.”

Links:

Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association
http://www.wow-com.com

Upoc Inc.
http://www.upoc.com

Center for Applied Linguistics
http://www.cal.org

Forrester Research
http://www.forrester.com