2 txt or not 2 txt, tht is th ?

<strong>txtng: the gr8 db8</strong>

David Crystal, with cartoons by Ed McLachlan

<em>Oxford Un

On one side of the "gr8 db8" stands valiant David: the author - one is told - of a hundred books. He speaks for the motion that "texting is the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative". And "ludic" to boot.

And, on the other side of the "gr8 db8" stands ugly, naysaying Goliath. Philistine Me. To my frank consternation, I find myself quoted, without permission (but let that pass), on the outside and inside flaps of the dust jacket and prominently in the body of the text (old meaning). The hook on which the whole of the book hangs is a long quotation from none other than myself. This is it:

As a dialect, text ("textese"?) is thin and - compared, say with Californian personalised number plates - unimaginative. It is bleak, bald, sad shorthand. Drab shrinktalk . . . The dialect has a few hieroglyphs (codes comprehensible to initiates) and a range of face symbols . . . Linguistically it's all pig's ear . . . It masks dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness. Texting is penmanship for illiterates.

I figure thereafter as "the commentator in the Guardian". For which read, "the prat who can't see that texting is the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative". And ludic.

For the record, I wrote that piece in 2002. Six f*ck*ng years ago. Ton-up Dave has dashed off nine books in that period. I thought the essence of texting was speed. Giant sloths debate faster than this.

One of the reasons Crystal publishes so much is that people want to read him and they are interested in his subject. We can all use language expertly, but linguistics is not easily grasped by the layperson. In most hands it's off-puttingly technical. Crystal has a gift for explication and a wonderful eye for illustrative example (see, for example, his delightful "curiosities of linguistic usage" book, By Hook Or By Crook).

txtng offers a highly comprehensible description of such things as: initialism, predictive spelling, consonant writing (such as wrtng), logograms, the difference between a hieroglyph and a rebus (that prat commentator in the Guardian comes in for some more stick on this particular point). txtng supplies a crystal-clear explanation of the electronic imperatives that condition the practice. This short book is bulked out with 50 pages of off-the-shelf, but nonetheless helpful, glossaries and text abbreviations in no fewer than 11 languages. The chapters are interspersed with charming cartoons by Ed McLachlan.

What propels the book is Crystal's passionate belief that texting is fascinating. And he makes it fascinating. But since I've been press-ganged into his great debate, I may point out that my personal views have undergone a Kuhnian paradigm shift since those long-gone days in 2002. A U-trn, one could say. In 2004, for example, I launched a campaign with dot.mobile, aimed at integrating texting into education (it attracted a lot of snidery). A couple of weeks ago, "commentating" in the Guardian, I argued that students, rather than being instructed to turn off their phones in class, should be encouraged to text each other, on-topic, during lectures and seminars. I'll be on the watch in 2014 for Crystal's response.

Texting, I now believe, has its uses. However, it remains, I still believe, intrinsically clunky and rhetorically impoverished. It is a temporary adaptation to a rapidly evolving communication device which, in ten years' time, will be as obsolete as the leper's clapper. Communications history provides evidence of many such transient techno-dialects. Morse code was superseded by voice transmission. CB radio (a much richer dialect, I venture, than texting) has been superseded by the trucker's satellite phone. "Tele grammese", the longest-lived, lasted more than a hundred years. Evelyn Waugh has great fun with it in Scoop - a novel whose comic effects mean as little to any reader under the age of 25 as the Abyssinia where the comedy is set.

Crystal and I are of an age. We are both academics emeritus (don-Latin for "scrapheap"). Tele grammese was, at a bob a word, essentially an adult code. Antique-speak. Texting is very much a young-tongue. Recently, for example, the department of motor vehicles in North Carolina withdrew all state number plates containing the letters WTF after being informed that it was the texting acronym for "what the fuck!". Juvenile sniggers all round. For their elders and betters it's "what's the fuss?". They just don't get it.

Does Barack Obama text? I would be amazed if he doesn't. There's a cellphone strung like a six-gun round his waist. Poor old John McCain may know how to fly an F-4, but he doesn't know how to log on to the web or how to email. Give him a BlackBerry and he'd tip some Häagen-Dazs on it and try to eat it. Unfortunately, one can't, even in an age of electronic voting, vote by text. If one could, Michelle could already be putting in her order for new White House drapes and Cindy could start checking out retirement homes in sunny Arizona.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games