BOB GARFIELD: The typewriter, the telegraph, the television -- the advent of each new communications technology brings the inevitable cries of horror from language purists who fear for dear old English, and just when we thought it was safe, along comes: text messaging, which is now gaining traction here in the United States. Texting is a way to send typed messages, discreetly and in the middle of class for example, over your cell phone. It has spawned a written lingo of sorts, mostly among teenagers -- a combination of abbreviations, acronyms, and emoticons that to the uninitiated looks like secret code. Some are even calling it a hybrid language. Here to tell us how concerned we should be for our beloved English are two linguists, Geoffrey Nunberg, from Stanford, and Naomi Baron of American University. Naomi, Geoff, welcome to OTM.
NAOMI BARON: Thank you very much.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Thanks for having us.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so earlier this year, Microsoft condensed a portion of the Iliad to 32 lines of text message lingo and sent it to six million members of its MSN messenger service in Britain. In text lingo, the word "to" - T O - was replaced with the number 2 - and other words are changed to reflect their phonetics, for example "what" is spelled W O T. The chairman of the Queen's English Society called the Microsoft synopsis "appalling." Geoff, do you have a similar reaction?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: No, I think it's funny. Don't you? I mean it's a form of language that's designed for a certain purpose, in the same way that when I take notes, I write W slash (w/) for "with" or B C (bc) for "because." And I'm, I'm not tempted to use those if I'm writing an op-ed piece.
BOB GARFIELD: Naomi, your reputation on this subject is more of a curmudgeon [LAUGHTER] than Geoff is suggesting. Should we be worried that English standards are just slipping away?
NAOMI BARON: We know that children learn to talk because there are some people -- we call them adults or older kids -- who already know the system, and the younger kids pick up an awful lot of what we model for them. My question is not "Can you have a range of different registers -some informal, some formal, some texting, some essays that you turn in for class" -- but "Are we modeling those more formal forms of writing that we used to?" And I don't think we are so much any more.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: The more you write, the better you write. The best way to learn to write is not to learn the rules or take courses. Just sit down and write. To that extent, I think you could argue that the kids who are now doing text messaging and email and, and IMs and so on and so forth, will wind up writing at least as well as and possibly better than their parents or than any generation in history.
NAOMI BARON: I'm afraid I have to disagree. Geoff, as we know, is an eloquent writer, but I guess I don't buy what I'll call "the comic book argument." "As long as they're reading something, even if it's comic books, they're reading. Isn't that terrific?" We all do a lot of talking, but we don't necessarily become more eloquent just because we have talked for more years.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: I think it's important to realize that the alternative is not the same kind of alternative that you have when you talk about the question - well, should they be reading comic books or should they be reading The Tempest, because the fact is that when these kids are sending emails or text messaging, they're doing it not in place of writing a, a letter to the editor at the New York Times-- [LAUGHTER] but in place of having a, a conversation. That is to say, writing as a means of expression, is a much more important part of their lives -- at all levels -- than it was for us. And the idea that kids are somehow going to be incapable of learning other forms of writing because they've learned this quick form of text messaging just seems to me wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: So what do you say to the middle school teachers who are pulling their hair out when the essays that they assign come back with the word "because" spelled C U Z and no i's capitalized and, and so on.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: If kids do it occasionally, it's the kind of habit they're easily broken of.
NAOMI BARON: Those habits are easily broken if somebody cares to break them, because one of the things that is happening, is there are a number of teachers -- middle school, high school -- who are saying at first I was really concerned about this, and then, as Peter Sellers would say, "I learned to love the bomb," and I said this is being creative -- I shouldn't touch it.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: You know, people have been complaining about the language of adolescents forever. And, and they're right. The history of 16 year old speech is an unbroken catastrophe, going back to the flood. So, in that sense, you can think of these, these complaints about text messaging as just the latest in a, in a long series of complaints about how the English language and the way we use it is going to hell in a handcart. And they couldn't all be right, or, or we'd be bears today.
BOB GARFIELD: What does the, this current style attached to text messaging bespeak for the future of the English language? Is there any prediction that we can make about what's going to happen from this point forward?
NAOMI BARON: Well, if you look at the history of English, you'll find so much about the language goes in cycles. If you go back to the 16th Century, people didn't care terribly much about spelling. Then there was a long period of centuries where they did. And now, perhaps, we care less. Similarly, there used to be an awful lot of abbreviations and acronyms, particularly in the late manuscript period, early printing period -- far more than there have been, say in the 19th or even the 20th Century. So, it's really hard to know whether the kinds of abbreviations and acronyms that come up --not just in texting, cause first they were in IM, and before that they were in email --whether those are going to maintain into the regular off line language.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: There's a complicated relationship between technology and language. People used to say that because of the telegraph, reporters were wiring their stories in -- stories and sentences both became shorter, and that affected the English language, and, and it's certainly true that between the late 19th Century and the 1960s or '70s, the average sentence got a lot shorter, whether you're looking at the New York Times or best-selling novels. Whether you can actually make a, a causal story that connects those two is a lot more complicated. It may have been just something that was in the air. So, to that extent, I think it - you, you could say that text messaging will be part of what happens to the language, but I think it would be going out on a limb to say it will cause anything to happen to the language.
BOB GARFIELD: If I get a vote on all of this, let me just say that both of my teenage children are prolific text message users, and I'm delighted that they're using shorthand, because I'm paying the bills, and they're already just-- [LAUGHTER] exorbitant. I want to thank you both. Naomi Baron is a professor of linguistics at American University and author of the forthcoming book Beyond Email: Language in the New Millennium. Geoffrey Nunberg is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford and author my favorite title of last year, Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times. Thanks so much for joining us.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Thank you very much.
NAOMI BARRON: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, an old-fashioned battle for the airwaves, the elusive October surprise, and local news is neither local nor news. Discuss.
BOB GARFIELD: We will. This is On the Media, from NPR.