Text Message Language: History, Use, and Impact

Also known as SMS language or textese, text message language is all around us. It’s the shorthand language that many of us use on mobile phones, social media, instant messaging platforms such as Skype or Facebook Messenger, and, in some cases, emails.

Textese uses a variety of space- and time-saving measures. Hallmarks of textese are as follows:

  • initialisms (e.g., JK for just kidding, BRB for be right back)
  • shortened words (e.g., cuz for because, ima for I’m going to)
  • nonstandard spelling and/or grammar
  • emoticons
  • slang words (slang by itself isn’t text message language, but slang often appears in casual forms of writing)
text message language

Early humans learned how to use hammers, axes, and phones with physical keys.

The History of Textese

The telegraph is arguably the earliest example of a mode of communication that had length restrictions. In fact, messages had to be as succinct as possible. This same need was the driving force behind the creation and growth of text message language.

Text-speak is a product of the “short message service” (SMS) that was available on mobile phones in the 1990s.

Of course, the commercialization of mobile phones opened up a whole new world of real-time communication possibilities.

Did you know that British software architect Neil Papworth sent the first text message in December 1992? It read “Merry Christmas.”

Some of the restrictions of early cell phones, though, were key factors in the development of text message language:

  1. Early cell phones were far less advanced than the smart phones we use today. The user pressed physical keys (touchscreen technology for phones was in its infancy)—sometimes several times each, depending on the letter. Texting was a time-consuming practice.
  2. Text messages used to be limited to 160 characters.
  3. SMS services initially required users to pay an additional fee per text. This likely contributed to abbreviations in the language.

Necessity is the mother of invention, so users of the technology soon found a way to say as much as they could in the shortest way possible.

Abbreviations and other elements of textese improved the speed and cost at which a user could send a message.

text message language

“need 2 talk 2U. need coffee more, tho. CU L8R.”

In further pursuit of brevity, the rules for punctuation and grammar in text message language relaxed in those early stages.

Today, texting is one of the most used forms of communication. The most recent statistic that I could find was for 2014, when text-happy communicators sent 561 billion messages. That’s more than 1.5 billion messages per day.

Examples of Text Message Language

Some common examples of textese include LOL (laughing out loud), RN (right now), and SMH (shaking my head). These are initialisms.

Another textese practice is the use of numbers as homophones. For example, the number 2 for to or too, the number 8 in gr8, etc.

Texters often shorten longer words by omitting the vowels and other unnecessary letters. For example, tomorrow becomes tmrw.

Emoticons, small character-sized graphics, have exploded in popularity in recent years. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a smiley face or a winkfrown must be worth at least a few hundred.

Textese on Twitter

Smart phones and messaging apps no longer place restrictions on text length. In addition, a full QWERTY keyboard makes typing faster.

But text message language isn’t just for mobile phones. Social media sites are treasure troves of text-speak. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen WTF in a Facebook comment.)

With 313 million active users each month, Twitter is one of the most popular social media platforms.

Tweets have a 140-character limit, though (even the very first text messages were longer). So it’s no surprise that tweets often include one or more elements of text message language.

Katy Perry lets her 92 million followers know how she feels right now:

Basketball star Steph Curry uses tmw for tomorrow:

Pop star Justin Bieber avoids punctuation like the plague:

Is Textese Killing the English Language?

Texts, tweets, and instant messages have changed the way we write. “Standard” English spelling and grammar? like, btdt

In fact, on a texting platform, it’s normal to omit capital letters, leave out periods, and shorten words.

Of course, just because something is normal doesn’t mean that everyone likes it.

The argument against the use of text message language is that it hinders people’s ability to speak and write “properly.”

But two well-known linguists are among those who say that text message language is no threat to standard English.

David Crystal has argued that the advent of textese reveals how dynamic language is. In addition, he says, shortenings are not unique to mobile phone use.

John McWhorter, a linguist who teaches at Columbia University, gave a TED Talk in 2013 titled “Txting is killing language. JK!!!

This isn’t the first time that people have adapted language to meet the needs of a certain time or technology, and it probably won’t be the last.

If you have something to say about text-speak, then leave a comment (and feel free to use WTF).

“SMS Language.” Wikipedia.
“How Many Texts Do People Send Every Day?” TextRequest.
“Is Text Messaging Ruining English?” Dictionary.com.
“College Students’ Text Messaging, Use of Textese and Literacy Skills.” University of Strathclyde Glasgow.
“45 Texting Statistics.” OneReach.

The written word isn’t the only thing that English speakers change. In fact, we often use relaxed pronunciation.

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