In the new New Yorker, Louis Menand brings his trademark Menandiness to text-messaging.
Look: frankly, it's impossible for anyone to really say who the audience of the New Yorker is. It appears to be mostly insecure middle-aged urban intelligentsia who would make fun of Iron Man if they hadn't once had a great conversation with Robert Downey Jr. Oh, and huge R. Kelly fans.
So, texting, maybe they do it all the time, and maybe this is one of those not-quite-newfangled things that they'd like to know enough about to make fun of with some kind of knowledge, or pretend to make fun of it so they can secretly indulge in their interest in the not-so-secret language of teenagers.
Either way, Menand splits the difference. So he cracks wise:
In some respects, texting is a giant leap backward in the science of communication. It’s more efficient than semaphore, maybe, but how much more efficient is it than Morse code? With Morse code, to make an “s” you needed only three key presses. Sending a text message with a numeric keypad feels primitive and improvisational—like the way prisoners speak to each other by tapping on the walls of their cells in “Darkness at Noon,” or the way the guy in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” writes a book. And, as Crystal points out, although cell phones keep getting smaller, thumbs do not.(Hey, if semaphore or morse code were live options, I'd give 'em a whirl.)
Then he puts it in his historical context:
Most of the shortcuts used in texting are either self-evident (@ for “at” and “b” for “be”) or new initialisms on the model of the old “A.S.A.P.,” “R.S.V.P.,” and “B.Y.O.B.”: “imho” for “in my humble opinion,” and so on... “People were playing with language in this way long before mobile phones were invented,” [David Crystal] points out. “Texting may be using a new technology, but its linguistic processes are centuries old.” Acronyms, contractions, abbreviations, and shortened words (“phone” for “telephone,” and so forth) are just part of the language. Even back in the days when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and men wrote with typewriters, the language of the office memo was studded with abbreviations: “re:,” “cc.,” “F.Y.I.” “Luv” for “love” dates from 1898; “thanx” was first used in 1936. “Wassup,” Crystal notes, originally appeared in a Budweiser commercial. @(------ is something that E. E. Cummings might have come up with.(In fact, "wassup" was first popularized by the show "Martin," where it was spelled "WZUP," after the titular character's radio call letters.)
God, weren't the twenties awesome? Finally, he adds some titillating foreign ethnography for experts true and vicarious:
A trillion of anything has to make some change in cultural weather patterns. Texting is international. It may have come late to the United States because personal computers became a routine part of life much earlier here than in other countries, and so people could e-mail and Instant Message (which shares a lot of texting lingo)... In the Czech Republic, for example, “hosipa” is used for “Hovno si pamatuju”: “I can’t remember anything.” One can imagine a wide range of contexts in which Czech texters might have recourse to that sentiment. French texters have devised “ght2v1,” which means “J’ai acheté du vin.” In Germany, “nok” is an efficient solution to the problem of how to explain “Nicht ohne Kondom”—“not without condom.” If you receive a text reading “aun” from the fine Finnish lady you met in the airport lounge, she is telling you “Älä unta nää”—in English, “Dream on.”It's Marcel Duchamp in blue jeans! lhooq! ght2v1! rroseselavy! We should all either give up now or type only in French acro-puns. The French are just better at this than we are.