IM, Texting and the Way We Communicate

July 3rd, 2008

Mother and Wife
Creative Commons License photo: David Prior

I think it’s fascinating how instant messaging and SMS text messaging is changing the way that we write. The general consensus is that they’re bad for language.

In February of this year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said (though presumbly in French), “Look at what text-messaging is doing to the French language. If we let things go, in a few years we will have trouble understanding each other.”

SMS text messages have a limit of 160 characters and teenagers send billions of them every month and it’s increasing by a good 10% every month.

IM must also have some interesting effects on language. According to an article at LiveScience:

But a recent study of IM-ing by college students found that the communication was more formal – in use of vocabulary and abbreviations – than might be expected in a speech-like medium. The research also uncovered significant differences in how men and women use the medium.

… When divided along gender lines, the messages between females were more formal – with fewer contractions and better punctuation – than those between males.

“The female IM looks more like a written genre, while the male IM looks more like a spoken genre,” Baron told LiveScience in a telephone interview.

Overall, though, the messages surprised Baron with their level of linguistic sophistication – considering that IM gives the impression that it is something you do “as fast as you can,” she said.

Creative Commons License photo: fazen

It’s an interesting debate to be had over whether this is a good thing for language or not. There are those who will say that we should communicate in the letter of the Queen’s English. It’s the way that English is meant to be.

The opposite argument is that language exists simply as a way to communicate: there is nothing wrong with inventing new words and new ways to communicate in more efficient and concise ways.

I’m personally a fan of the second view. Language simply evolves in a way which makes it as efficient and useful as possible, hence reducing the costs associated with communicating and the possible ambiguity which could result from using older and less precise language. Science and technology are examples of fields where we always coin new terms: how could we describe a “podcast” using the Shakespearean English?

What is certainly true is that IM allows us to communicate in a much more efficient way. I noticed yesterday that I had six concurrent IM conversations going on at once and within each conversation we often had several threads of discussion going on. This is something only the medium of IM would allow; it is impossible to have several conversations at once in real life, let alone be talking about multiple different things in each one.

Certainly, I think IM and SMS have led to large changes in the ways that people communicate. Many people seem to disapprove of it, but are they the same people who don’t like using computers and technology? Will we really reach the point where we no longer understand each another?

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About Ken

Ken Lo

My passion is helping people to get the most out of their mobile phone. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005.

Aside from writing about mobile technology, my interests are in software development, digital marketing and physics. Outside of the blog, I work with numerous technology companies helping them to explain their product and helping them to market it to consumers. Please get in touch for more information.

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