ENGLISCH/949: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (213) - texting and the way the English language changes (SB)

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook,

I've just learned that to write an SMS to someone is "to text" in the English language. Now I found, the word "text" in old dictionaries means "a piece of writing". In modern wordbooks you only find the explanation above "writing an SMS to someone". Does this mean that the meaning of the expression "text" has changed completely in the English language?

Peter K. (Zurich, Switzerland)


Dear Mr K.,

The English language is permanently evolving and developing. To follow the changes of meaning is a very interesting and exciting subject for an etymologist. New developments in technology usually bring new words into the language. And sometimes a word or expression changes or gets a double meaning. If the new meaning is then used more frequently in modern English, the old meaning might disappear in the dictionaries. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist any more, it is just very rarely used.

The modern meaning of "text" is one of these very new words that have come into English as a result of the internet revolution and especially, this time, the cell phone or mobile phone revolution. Mobiles didn't exist 40 years ago. As soon as they came along, people started using them to send messages to each other. SMS stands for Short Message Service. Invented in the 1980s and defined in the 1985 GSM standards, it is one of the oldest texting technologies. It is also the most widespread and frequently used. And with no significant costs to hold them back, we're seeing US smartphone owners aged 18 to 24 send an average of 67 texts a day.

So, first as a noun, you had the noun "text" as in "text message" and now you have the verb "to text", which is to send a written message using a mobile phone.

Actually it isn't a new word at all. Although the verb "to text" is a modern feature of today's English, you can - as Professor David Crystal puts it in a BBC-lecture -, "trace it back to the 16th century when 'to text' was to write something in very large letters, in capital letters, also called 'text hand'".

In an e-mail service for teachers of English "text" he explains:

"And, if you look it up in a big dictionary these days, you'll often be told "this verbal use is now rather rare". Well, it was rare until about 17 or 18 years ago. Since then of course, everybody's been using it, and it's produced a whole new family of words."

Crystal implies that now you can "text" somebody of course, but also you can be engaged in the noun "texting". And then you've got "text messaging" which is a more complete form of the idea of texting somebody. Then, the people who send messages to each other are called "texters". And because in the early days the telephone companies each billed one unit for a 160-character SMS, the messages were actually kept very short. In addition, for the abbreviated communication that you can use - introducing short forms into your text message to make it as succinct and quick to send as possible - a new word has also been coined: "text speak".

I'm afraid I cannot say whether "text speak" has become an obsolete term in the new generation of smart phone owners and whether in times of unlimited texting plans it is hardly heard or even used any more. You really have no idea what "text speak" means? Now, here are a few examples of how to send as much information as possible with only a few characters:

LOL - Lots of love,
2DAY - today,
B4 - before,
NO1 - no one,
SUM1 - someone,
WKND - weekend,
LUV - love,
THNX - thanks,
wan2 - want to,
RUOK? - Are you okay?,
GR8 - great,
NE1 - anyone,
I C - I see,
2moro - tomorrow,
CUL8R - see you later,
BTW - by the way.

BTW "text" is a very good example of how language develops, because originally "text" comes from the Latin "textus". So before it got its meaning for something written in Classical Latin, the term textus in turn came from the word "texto", meaning "I weave". That might explain why text and textile have the same first syllable. Nobody remembers nowadays, that text is also related to the word "texture", which refers to the quality of a weaving. But I can talk about the texture of an argument.

One should also keep in mind, that text will never only metaphorically stand for "weaving". It is, always, also, a literal weaving of material and ideas. However, a text must be written - otherwise it would just be a series of words. If we talk about texting we don't seem to appreciate this nowadays.

I think that is enough weaving and texting to answer your question, text me again any time you like ...

Miranda Gobbledygook

12. Dezember 2018

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