Creative Texting: Writing and Textspeak
Though the trend may have faded now, not long ago adaptations of the classics into “textspeak” seemed to be all the rage. These works were full of slang, abbreviations, unique spellings, and unconventional grammar. Not surprisingly, these adaptations sparked intense reactions, in particular for the adaptations of the works of the bard in OMG Shakespeare. But were these works, and others like 2014’s Emoji Dick and Lauren Myracle’s 2004 TTYL, worth all the grief? The critics do have some fair points. Perhaps they were gimmicky and short-lived. It is unlikely original works written in textspeak will go on to become classics or the textspeak adaptations hailed as the new greatest translation. But this doesn’t necessarily make them awful.
If one can ignore their initial offense at this “assault” on writing and literature, the exploration can begin. See these adaptations less like masterful compositions and art installations and more like skillful but uninspired portraits painted from a reference. Not the most intellectual, but still worth examining. They are a show of the author’s skill with words, even if they ask nothing more of the reader than to experience the novelty of them. The original novels are the outsider art of their day. They too contain deep and valuable lessons, if one is willing to look past the packaging.
Textspeak Takes Work
There is a belief that because textspeak is used primarily by youth, it is not as sophisticated as formal English. There is also a more insidious process known by linguists as iconization. In it “characteristics of a language are seen as an iconic reflection of essential characteristics of its users.” 1 Essentially, because viewers believe textspeak is lazy writing and less sophisticated, textspeak users, including authors, must be lazy and unsophisticated writers.
Not only is this unfair to those who use textspeak, it is inherently untrue. Linguists have had the debate, and it is already decided that using textspeak does not make one less able to use formal English. So writers using textspeak as parts or even all of their work are not trying to make up for a lack of language skill. In fact, they may have a better grasp of the language then some. Linguist David Crystal asserts that, “Before you can write and play with abbreviated forms, you need to have a sense of how the sounds of your language relate to the letters.” 2 Essentially, just as the poet is aware of the syllables, sounds, and breaks in words to evoke a feeling so the textspeaker must know how far they can go in abbreviations, changing spellings, and new punctuation and still be understood. This is doubly true for authors who are trying to use textspeak to evoke emotion, be understood and carry plot and character.
Consider, too, the amount of work that goes into even automatic writing. When one writes in a stream of consciousness style they are uniquely present in their words, and though they may not choose what to write on, they are still, in some way, choosing how to say it. There is a self-awareness and focus in all kinds of writing that requires the writer to decide, always, what they put down. This is true for textspeak or for formal English. The writer is making decisions, always, about which word to use, and which spelling, and even where to add the extra exclamation marks.
In even more modern adaptations the simple emoticon has been replaced with the increasing number of emojis that can represent any number of things. As in the case of Emoji Dick, these tiny images can (almost) be used to carry an entire story on their own, like pictographs. Pulling complex meaning out of these icons is a challenge for both writer and reader. Oftentimes, emoji aren’t used to craft whole sentences, simply because it isn’t that easy, and that wasn’t what they were designed for. They just aren’t layered enough for that sort of translation. Works like Emoji Dick often have to make great stretches and leaps to make it work. (Linguist Gretchen McCulloch’s blog post is an excellent further discussion on this phenomena).
Combined with textspeak and other alphabetic text, though, emojis can add delicious depth to a written work that asks the reader to work a little harder. That work, in itself, goes against the traditional notion that textspeak is a shortcut for the lazy writer. This, along with the image response found online (though less often in creative writing usage of textspeak) is “at first glance quick, simple, and clear, with the user’s emotional reaction plainly comprehensible.” But, if one attempts to use textspeak, emoji, and image response for an extended work they will know “that the process required to use them is fairly laborious.” 3 How can something that requires such dedicated focus, concentration, and decision-making be lazy, and automatically flawed?
Perhaps part of the problem is that translation time. Readers don’t always want to spend minutes on one line, deciphering the meaning behind an emoji. This is fair. However, textspeak’s opponents suggest that because the reader must go to such work to translate a work from textspeak to something they can understand it is inherently flawed. Writer for the Daily Mail John Humphrys says that, “If the recipient of the message has to spend ten minutes trying to translate it” textspeak stops being useful and, “instead of aiding communication..can be a barrier.” 4 However, one could argue that the act of translating textspeak, at least in the case of the non-urgent creative writing usage can increase one’s involvement with the work or even the fun found in it. Additionally, the work of translation can elevate simple work to the level of poetry. Finding the meaning beneath the meaning in textspeak can work the same as explication.
On the note of poetry, there is a rich history in that tradition of changing punctuation, line breaks, and word shortening. The work of e. e. cummings is a perfect example of a writer playing with punctuation, capitalization, and spelling of words to further a work’s overall meaning. His choices were deliberate. Today they are praised for their revolutionary quality, and emulated by other poets. What is to say that textspeak is not just another step in this tradition?
The abbreviation and word shortening in textspeak has a history and a tradition as well. Medieval manuscripts, written in both Old English and Latin, were rife with shortenings and abbreviations. This was most often to save time and save the effort of writing out many, many long and complicated characters. This also carries an extra lesson to those who consider Shakespeare and other classics “too important” for textspeak. To the writers (and abbreviators) of medieval manuscripts ,“Even the Scriptures were not considered too sacred to abbreviate.” 5 All work, and all words, are open for re-interpretation.
A Voice With Personality
Assuming one has pushed aside their former beliefs about textspeak, and accepted that the writers who chose to use it make conscious, creative choices, one can examine the uses for textspeak in a creative work. Textspeak has two main benefits; allowing one to better convey their feelings, and allowing one to better represent themselves. For the creative writer, this allows for a stronger conveyance of voice, and to help present character and personality in new ways.
The idea of “textual paralanguage” can describe a majority of the ways that textspeak conveys emotion. Paralanguage is traditionally associated with speech and makes up all the parts of communication that aren’t the words themselves such as tone, body language, and pitch. The Idea Channel presents this concept in their discussion of emoji, and explains that emoji can be thought of as a type of gesture, aside from all their other uses. We see what the speaker means as well as “hearing” it. 6
In this way, textspeak transforms simple, plain English into a sort of performance. The reader hears the voice of the writer, whether that be a professional author playing a character or their friend telling the reader about their day. This is not unlike script writing, which includes stage directions and cues for tone. Though, it is also intersting to note that textspeak is an inherently visual form, and though one will receive textual paralanguage in the process of reading, how would one read aloud textspeak? Is there a universally accepted pronunciation of “lol”? How do you pronounce the face with tears of joy emoji? It can’t be done, at least not yet. Not without adding extra words the textspeak or emoji was designed to replace. But this is one of the delicate intricacies that textspeak demands. It is part of what makes it a complex language form worth using.
Aside from adding facial expression and gesture, textual paralanguage can be found in other places, such as specific punctuation, like excessive exclamation points. This conveys more excitement than a simple period or even one exclamation mark. Using “u” instead of “you” is no longer just to save time, but more in accordance with the formal/informal style of address of the romance languages. Capitalizing some of the words but not others adds emphasis, or changes the tone to excitement or anger. Multiple messages and line breaks, as in poetry, have taken some of the weight of the period. (Here are a few examples of various ways we say, “yes”, how the period has changed its tone, the usage of “u” versus “you”, and why we add extra letters to words.)
A highly trained writer who wishes to use textspeak can take advantage of this fact in their fiction. In moments (or messages) full of tension or excitement more capitalization or exclamation marks could be used. Ellipses could show up more when a character is skeptical, suspicious, or even hesitant. If emojis were available or desired, these could be used to add a whole new layer of feeling. The message “cool” will come across differently than “Cool!” with a few sparkle emojis afterward.
Overall, paralanguage is a complex intuitive system individual to the user. It is so individual that in some cases, this can even be used as evidence in crimes. In 2002 “a detailed comparison of the vocabulary and other stylistic features of…text messages,” discredited a man’s alibi and helped find him guilty of murder. 7 Obviously, no two textspeakers are exactly alike, and some may not even use the same tone with the same individuals. This is a sign that textspeak’s intuitive system of presenting one’s emotions and voice sits easily beside one’s ability to present themselves in whatever way they please.
In the case of emojis, there was once limitation to how one could represent themselves, or how a character could describe themselves, simply by the nature of skin tone. 8 Until more diversity was introduced, it would have been harder for a character to identify as darker skinned and still use emojis such as the hand or even the simple boy or girl emoji to identify. This has been solved, thankfully, thus allowing writers access to a wider range of characters and human experiences, and aiding in the struggle to increase diversity in creative writing.
This extends beyond emojis alone. Even the basics of writing and orthography can be part of one’s identity. For one user in a study, “his writing style (is) an inherent part of his identity,” and he chose to misspell or play with grammar to remain connected to a culture. 9 Criticism of his writing thus become an attack on or misunderstanding of that culture. It is similar to how those involved in a trade use the technical jargon and terminology of their trade when talking with one another. They know they will be understood by that specific audience, and so speak freely. Textspeakers who communicate together know that their choices will be understood, and so they are free to write in the way that is not only the most comfortable, but the most accurate to who they wish to be.
This is a little more difficult for the creative writer, as they have the ultimate goal of being understood by a reader and telling a story, but there is still room for play as well. Characters who are softer spoken could use less capitalization or fewer words in general. A character could choose not to use textspeak, for whatever reason, and this, too, would show their personality or their lack of identification with internet or textspeak culture. Specific abbreviations or slang words, like those in gaming culture or found on a specific social media site like Tumblr, could be used to show a character’s connection to that culture. An inexperienced reader may not pick up on all of these subtleties, but a skilled writer will be able to draw enough personality from other sources, even ones as simple as word choice, that the character should still shine through. Even if it proves more difficult, when writers do choose to include mediums like text messaging or IM that would normally contain textspeak, it is in their best interest to take advantage of this medium, and pay as much attention to their textspeak writing as their formal English.
Only time can tell how textspeak will step into modern communication. As writing in the voices of youth continue to grow in popularity, writers will need to pay closer attention to their textspeak. In the YA genre, in particular, it is nearly essential to have some understanding of the linguistics behind textspeak to capture the teenaged voice authentically. The text has spread as a mean of communication beyond just the young, though, and even the most stoic adult send texts—a few with minimal textspeak included. Ignoring the opportunities presented in textspeak is ignoring a tool ready and waiting for the writer.
To demonize language change is to fight a futile fight. The change is already here. Embracing it, riding the wave, and using it all to the advantage of creative writing now is worth more than chasing the status of a classic. Because the people of the present don’t get to decide what gets remembered. That’s the job of the youth of tomorrow, and if texting trends tell us anything, they’d probably like a few more sparkle emojis in their life.
- Bogetić, Ksenija. “Metalinguistic Comments In Teenage Personal Blogs: Bringing Youth Voices To Studies Of Youth, Language And Technology.” Text & Talk 36.3 (2016): 245-268. Academic Search Complete. Web. ↩
- Crystal, David. “2b or Not 2b: David Crystal on Why Texting Is Good for Language.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 04 July 2008. Web. ↩
- Grant, Harley. “Tumblinguistics: Innovation and Variation in New Forms of Written CMC.” Diss. Academia.edu. Web. ↩
- Humphrys, John. “I H8 Txt Msgs: How Texting Is Wrecking Our Language.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 24 Sept. 2007. Web. ↩
- McNabb, Cameron Hunt. “The Truth about Internet Slang: It Goes Way Back.” Salon. Salon Media Group, Inc., 3 Aug. 2014. Web. ↩
- Can You Speak Emoji? By Mike Rugnetta. Perf. Mike Rugnetta. PBS Idea Channel. Public Broadcasting Service, 13 Apr. 2016. Web. ↩
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