Will Self and Lynne Truss on the horrors of text speak
In my novel The Book of Dave, I employ some of the orthographic conventions – if they can be so dignified – of soi-disant text speak. I did it not because I believe in the permanence of this script, or even because I think of it as having lasting significance – what could such a thing imply? But merely in order to counter what I term the Star Trek convention. This is that bizarre phenomenon, all too often met in narratives – film, or book – that try to introduce their readers or viewers to alternative worlds. The crew of the Starship Enterprise journey to strange new galaxies, where they encounter strange new life forms who – strangest of all – speak standard English!
In The Book of Dave I asked of my readers to time travel to a future England – approximately 500 years in the future, to a society that has, due to some unspecified environmental disaster, collapsed back to a 15th-century level of technological advancement. In order to make this convincing – to me, at least – I had the inhabitants of my post-apocalyptic, flooded London, speaking a dialect called Mokni, in which the commonplace salutation was “Ware2 guv”, and it’s response “2 Nu Lundun”. In this tinorous new world, a map was an “a2z” and charcola “barbieQ”.
What any of this has to say about texting I’m not entirely sure. All I do know is that while not being hopelessly imprisoned by Lynne’s Truss, I’m still of an age – and a bent – where I can’t help finding the bowdlerisation of texting quite insufferable. I’d rather fiddle with my phone for precious seconds than neglect an apostrophe; I’d rather insert a word laboriously keyed out than resort to predictive texting for a – acceptable to some – synonym.
Does this make of me a technophobic Sir Bufton-Tufton? I think not. Admittedly, it did take me some time to learn how to use predictive texting (taught, predictably enough, by one of my own teenagers), and it took me longer still to bite down on the fact that hours of toggling the nodules meant that I could touch-text, something I’ve never achieved with the conceptually more difficult qwerty keyboard. But I like texting as much as the next kidult – and embrace it as yet more evidence, along with email, that we live now in the post-aural age, when an unsolicited phonecall is, thankfully, becoming more and more understood to be an unspeakable social solecism, tantamount to an impertinent invasion of privacy.
That a medium of communication developed more or less by accident (Nokia included it in its first mobile phones as a way for engineers to report problems) should’ve become so widely employed is cause for a celebration of the quirky byways of human ingenuity and adaptation. However, that shouldn’t mean that we oldsters have to tolerate anyone telling us that they’ll “CU later”, any more than we like it when some airhead juvenile who we’ve never met before, prefaces an email with the salutation “Hi”.
As someone who sends texts messages more or less non-stop, I enjoy one particular aspect of texting more than anything else: that it is possible to sit in a crowded railway carriage laboriously spelling out quite long words in full, and using an enormous amount of punctuation, without anyone being aware of how outrageously subversive I am being. My texts are of epic length. “SMS 4” I am notified on-screen, but I merely smile inwardly at this warning against extravagance, and see if I can finish (for once) without getting to “SMS 5”. No one around me can tell, as I thumb the keys, that my secret delight is to shorten no words, use no smiley faces, eschew predictive text, and employ no handy abbreviations except for “LOL” – which I always use, wilfully incorrectly, to signify “lots of love”.
We pedants are supposed to hate texting, but we don’t. We are in love with effective communication, and there’s nothing more effective than sending a message direct from your phone to someone else’s, sometimes from the hairdresser’s (which I mention for a reason). “I CANT BELIEVE U PUT APOSTROPHE IN HAIRDRESSERS,” a friend texted me recently (he obviously had a bit of time on his hands, too). “Oh, I felt the apostrophe was required,” I texted back, happily – in both upper and lower case, with regular spacing, and a comma after “Oh”.
I am aware that I am breaking unwritten rules all the time with texting. The etiquette is a bit baffling, so I err on the side of overdoing it. For example, I reply on immediate receipt of texts, and I suspect that such overt eagerness is probably desperately uncool. I have one friend who is, I think, trying to train me in the proper (cool) art of texting, which involves waiting a day or two before dispatching a response. But even if I get a text at 1.30 in the morning, I still write back within two minutes, because I’m just too excited not to (and anyway, I’ve woken up and put the light on). I also conscientiously supply answers to questions, which I find is not the norm, either. As with email, the recipient of a texted question seems to have the option to ignore it, while nevertheless saying hello, lovely day, and so on.
There are deeper etiquette issues, of course. A friend of mine once received a text with the news that another friend had committed suicide. This is not the right sort of information to convey by text; just as it wouldn’t be the right sort of news to leave on an answering machine. Texting is a supremely secretive medium of communication – it’s like passing a note – and this means we should be very careful what we use it for. I have been thinking about the great plots in our literature that would be improved (or destroyed) by the use of texting. The convenient plot device of the wrong-letter-in-envelope in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, for example, would be far more plausible as a text sent in error (Robbie had meant to save it in “Drafts”!). But Tess’s confession about her baby would be much too big to put in a text to Angel Clare in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Even in a world of texting, Tess still has to put that letter under that fateful door.
Whether one should read texts in company is the trickiest issue. In America, now, where nearly everyone seems to own a Blackberry, there is a new facial expression I have observed which involves a fixed smile and panicky swivelled eyes, which means, “I am still listening to you, but I can see I have a message, but I am honestly still listening to you, I will read the message later, so tell me again, what did you say, I wish I could read my effing message.” Asking permission from fellow diners to read messages seems fairly acceptable (“Ooh, can I just see who this is from?”), but nodding and sniggering at the content, without sharing it, is not. Composing a quick reply while in company is likewise quite rude. I often excuse myself and then text feverishly from the lavatories, which seems less socially offensive, even if I’m gone for at least 20 minutes (what with all the spelling out of long words, punctuating and so on).
Texting is a fundamentally sneaky form of communication, which we should despise, but it is such a boon we don’t care. We are all sneaks now. It’s as if we have an endless supply of telegram boys who, in a matter of seconds, can not only locate anyone on the planet on our behalf, but also tap him on the shoulder and hand over a sealed envelope marked “For Your Eyes Only”. My favourite text – which I lovingly preserve – was sent to me by a friend in Greece, when I was staying the other side of the harbour from his house. “AM WAVING” it said, and I looked across with my binoculars, and so he was. The oldest form of communication was thus served by the latest. It seemed daft, but also right.