23 Nov 2019

 

Textspeak is killing English

"Abbreviated text messages are addictive like cocaine. You get used to it, and that becomes your comfort zone, ruining your command of the English language in the process."

By Victor Lugala

I met an old friend at his favourite joint in Juba's wild west. He was chugging on a bottle of beer while nibbling on roasted pork (even against his doctor's advice).

I have known BB since school days. He is a liberal-minded and carefree soul who is always up to some intriguing tidbits involving him as the chief character. We always laugh and remember some of our youth escapades.

Today he looked pensive, actually sulking. And each time he was in such a fake meditative or distant mood, I could tell he was up to something.

"So you are enjoying your weekend, eh?" I prodded. He was not amused, feigning seriousness.

"Lugala, how can you say I'm enjoying myself? I'm not happy," He said, pausing for effect.

"Oh, no, I hope it is not a domestic problem again?" I pose.

BB cleared his throat and said he was unhappy because a younger office colleague had insulted him that he didn't speak good English because he didn't go to a kindergarten. That he walked out of the cradle straight to P 1.

We all laughed a hearty laugh. That's the kind of therapy BB enjoys when he is not doing boring field work in some remote corner of South Sudan where open defecation is still a problem.

So we had some story to push the evening before our self-imposed curfew on the streets of Juba, when each one of us went to his house or home.

I told BB that if he didn't go to a kindergarten, no problem, he should instead be contented that he went to university and wrote his Master's thesis in good English.

Any generational gap comes with its headaches. Youngsters think we don't understand them. Even when BB and I were teenagers traversing Juba on foot like cursed people, we blamed some of our woes on the old folk, our parents, and because we also said they didn't understand us, when in fact we were the ones who made life difficult for our parents to understand us. We invented a language and coined words within Juba Arabic to confuse our parents. We used coded language to backbite our parents and got away with murder.

The digital revolution has put smartphones in our hands to make communication easy, as a pastime, for gratification, and to indulge in textspeak accentuated with emoji.

Texspeak is abbreviated written communication or language which is common in SMS (short message service) and WhatsApp which flow on screens of millions of smartphones or mobile phones.

Textspeak is mostly used by young people, teenagers especially, who are using their first mobile phones. They think texspeak is cool. The abbreviated language of text messages is better understood by people who frequently use the medium. For emotional effect they throw in emoji images to express laughter, sorrow, disgust, love.

In reference to texspeak in their book, Choose The Right Word, Robin Hosie and Vicky Mayhew, say, "The new language is becoming the biz in commerce and preferred means of communicating between m8s (mates)."

When a South Sudanese youngster who might have gone to an under-the-tree school reads this, they will feel elated and proud of being offsprings of the digital age.

This is where aping is killing us.

During the World Wars soldiers on both sides used telegraph to communicate coded messages through the wires. The lines were cranky, crackled, and terribly bad.

War correspondents also used telegraph to relay news from the frontline. Hence, the invention of what news people call the "Inverted Pyramid" - where the most important information is loaded at the top in 30 words or less. They call it word economy.

Modernity, globalisation, and technology have thrust our lives on the fast lane. As we say in Juba, there is a lot of jerejere. So when we are texting a m8, we do it in abbreviated, or telegraphic language, full of spelling errors, and don't even mention grammar!

People who have little knowledge of English tend to hide behind short text messaging on the pretext of being techies. I’m not sure if they still teach spelling dictation in primary schools.

In East Africa (are we still there?), the story of textspeak is even worrisome. Young people are increasingly using an urban hybrid lingo with English as the base, then peppered with Kiswahili and some words borrowed from some indigenous languages. They call it Sheng. Those who are fluent in it rap it musically.

English language teachers in Kenyan schools and universities are complaining to deaf ears that sheng is killing proper English.


However, for poor young South Sudanese who were born in wartime or between wars, theirs is to just follow the world. If the world they follow ends up in Kibwetere's shrine of doom, so be it!

I keep telling young journalists that when texting they should discipline themselves to write in good English as if they were writing for traditional media. They should not write kwerekwere as if they were rushing to the disco at the waterfront on a Saturday night.

Good journalism compels us to write (better), so we are told. When a young person is learning English as a second or even third language after their mother tongue and Juba Arabic, it is better they reduce on the use of abbreviated textspeak in English, especially if they are students.

Abbreviated text messages are addictive like cocaine. You get used to it, and that becomes your comfort zone, ruining your command of the English language in the process.

The danger of getting addicted to textspeak is that the textor may find difficulty in writing class assignments, no wonder our civil service is full of young graduates who cannot write office memos, so their bosses reveal.

I know of a former colleague who became a minister. She had to literally rewrite memos originating from her office to avoid embarrassment.

If you read some of the messages on social media, especially rejoinders to fiery political commentaries you will feel like crying. In those platforms some of us think in our local languages and then struggle to write in borrowed English.

SMS or abbreviated text messages are cool, alright. For a young person tinkering with a new smartphone, texspeak is sophisticated, urbane, it is the in-thing. But as for my old friend BB who didn't go to a kindergarten, we will write our words in full, punctuate our sentences accordingly, just the way J.A Bright taught us in his textbook, Junior English Composition and Grammar.

If young people or the millennials think I’m old fashioned for saying the above, I take my hat off and say, Namaste!
 

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