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  • Txtng: The gr8 db8
  • Naomi S. Baron
Txtng: The gr8 db8. By David Crystal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 239. ISBN 9780199544905. $19.95.

Is Pig Latin a language? Generations of American children have thought so, though the system has no new lexicon or grammar but just three simple phonological rules: strip off the first sound of an English word, place that sound at the end of the word, and affix an /e/. So Pig Latin becomes igpe atinle, and neogrammarians resurfaces as eogrammariansne. Linguistically, Pig Latin is just American English with a small twist. When we consider what constitutes a distinct language, we usually think of a communication framework having far less in common with its nearest linguistic cousin than this. What makes Pig Latin seem so distinctive at first blush is the assault of written (or spoken) strangeness.

Assessing the linguistic status of Pig Latin is suggestive of current debate over written language produced on computers and mobile phones. Internet researchers commonly speak of ‘computer-mediated communication’ (CMC) to refer to language used in email, instant messaging (IM), chat rooms, blogs, and social networking sites. With the growth of written messaging on mobile phones (sometimes known as ‘texting’, sometimes called ‘SMS’), some researchers have adopted the broader term ‘electronically mediated communication’ (EMC). Over the years, a number of alternative names have been proposed (particularly for messages carried via the internet), including ‘e-style’, ‘net lingo’, and ‘netspeak’.

Since the proliferation of email in the early 1990s, and then the emergence of IM on personal computers, the popular press has seized upon written oddities characterizing some online messages. Abbreviations, acronyms, emoticons, nonstandard spellings, and apparently carefree punctuation drew the media’s attention (much as Pig Latin igpe atinle might), and there was much talk of email ‘language’, IM ‘language’, and then texting (or SMS) ‘language’. Following closely on the heels of these stories were cries of alarm from parents, teachers, and prescriptively oriented language mavens that EMC was precipitating the downfall of standard English (Thurlow 2006).

Meanwhile, researchers from an array of disciplines, including communication, sociology, computer science, and linguistics, had begun analyzing the kinds of language patterns appearing in such messaging. A variety of studies (e.g. Crystal 2006) identified the types of linguistic novelties found, while a smaller number of researchers gathered corpora and analyzed usage frequency (see Baron 2008 for examples). Consistently, empirical research has reported that use of Pig-Latinesque forms such as brb (‘be right back’), 2 (for ‘to’, ‘two’, or ‘too’), or frowny faces are more the exception than the rule.

Many discussions of online and mobile language (especially in the popular media) treat all electronically mediated language as looking the same. In fact, though, there is enormous variation across users, sometimes reflecting age, gender, context, or even the writing habits of the interlocutor. Moreover, the platform (e.g. email vs. IM) may influence level of formality. Although email of the 1990s was commonly characterized (rightly or wrongly) as full of misspellings, emoticons, and profanity, today’s email is often viewed as a formal medium in comparison with IM.

Physical device may also shape the message. While computers have full keyboards, mobile phones historically have not, making input more of a challenge. Research comparing American college students’ IM and text messaging (Ling & Baron 2007) revealed greater use of abbreviations in text messages than in IM, presumably reflecting input constraints on mobile phones.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, there were over 3.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions in 2007—out of a world population of 6.6 billion. Most of those users did some text messaging. By 2009, the number of texts sent per day was in the billions. Given this proliferation, David Crystal’s Txtng: The gr8 db8 is especially welcome.

Txtng is written for general readers curious about what texting is, who does it, what those lexical shortenings mean, and whether texting is a threat to language standards. While C does not shy away from the occasional footnote, Txtng is written in the casual, accessible style that is a hallmark of his popular writing. One imagines that typical readers might include teachers and [End Page 914] parents, school...


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