The evolving language of text and SMS communication

When the concept of SMS was first developed in the 1980s, the idea was ambitious but simple: make communication more convenient for people across the globe. With more than two trillion texts now sent each year, it’s clear that the work of its early pioneers was a major success. In truth, though, the invention has had an even bigger impact than was first intended.

As the popularity of texting has grown over the years, it’s had an undeniable influence on the language we use every day, and it’s not just limited to our digital conversations either. Acronyms and abbreviations are now part and parcel of modern communication, for which both advocates and critics have SMS to thank.

A few basic examples of ‘text speak’

Before we get into the reasons behind its evolution, let’s take a look at exactly what it is that falls under the text speak umbrella. Newbies – or n00bs – might not understand the complex and advanced side of SMS language, but there are a few simple examples that most people (ppl) will have used once or twice in the past:

2 = to/too

4 = for

B = be

C = see

R = are

U = you

Y = why

Of course the words above are based on the basic sound of the individual letter or number. Beyond this, there are plenty of commonly used words which have been shortened by the removal of vowels or what the sender deems as unnecessary letters. Here are a few examples:

Ppl = people

Plz = please

Gr8 = great

L8r = later

2moro = tomorrow

Frm = from

Dnt = don’t

Nite = night

All pretty easy to understand so far, right? From here, things become a little more complicated, but we’ll come onto that later.

So how did ‘text speak’ happen?

The UK’s teenagers of today – all of whom were born this side of Neil Papworth’s pioneering ‘first ever’ text in 1992 – have grown up in a society that has always relied heavily on text messaging. This has (understandably) had a notable influence on the way they connect with one another. Even those born just before them have depended on this clipped and concise form of communication for a number of years now, and with the level of convenience on offer, it’s easy to see why. There are a number of reasons why this has had such a big impact on language as a whole – necessity and efficiency are the two most obvious.

With a limit of 160 characters, SMS senders have historically been restricted with what they’re able to write. With the odd short greeting, like Mr Papworth’s ‘Merry Christmas’ message, this isn’t a problem. As soon as the writer starts to put full sentences and paragraphs together, however, they’re left with a dilemma: send two messages or shorten the current one. The answer, especially when messaging was more expensive than it is today, was usually to cut the number of characters used until the message was short enough – albeit without losing any of the meaning. This could result in vowels being dropped (e.g. ‘txt’), or numbers used in place of words (‘str8’).

Texting dexterity (texterity?) may come pretty naturally to today’s smartphone users, but the idea of inputting letters using a numeric keypad took a little getting used to in the 1990s. With a multi-tap system quickly adopted by most of the major manufacturers, users were, for a few years at least, stumbling over their digital words on a regular basis. Shortening the words and sentences used in SMS correspondence seemed like the perfect way to ease this issue and make texting faster.

Constant evolution of mobile communication

Of course, mobile technology has been evolving constantly over the past decade or so, and thanks largely to Blackberry and Nokia, QWERTY keyboards are now standard on most handsets. Instead of reverting back to using standard language as a result, however, many texters have moved towards an even more complex system.

No longer are we just shortening individual words, we’re creating new acronyms to replace common phrases and even whole sentences. Some of the main examples have been in use for some time already and are understood by most people – LOL (laugh out loud) being the most obvious. There’s also YOLO (you only live once) and NSFW (not safe for work). Go any further than this, though, and you’ll find terms that only a texting expert (texpert?) would understand. The list includes:

OATUS = on a totally unrelated subject

CWOT = complete waste of time

ROFL = rolling on the floor laughing (for when a simple ‘LOL’ isn’t enough)

IMO = in my opinion

GOAT = greatest of all time

Of course, these aren’t quite as easy to understand as the previous examples. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible without the prior knowledge. So what began as a system designed to simplify conventional English for the purpose of saving time, money and frustration has evolved into a language all of its own – one that takes time and effort to learn before it can be used or understood. Still, it’s hard to not be impressed with what it’s possible to achieve.

For example, using the examples given in this piece, we could write:

“OATUS, R U coming out 2moro nite m8? IMO it’s going 2 B a gr8 nite – with so many ppl, it mite be the GOAT. Hope 2 C U there frm about 9pm. LOL.”

instead of

“On a totally unrelated subject, are you coming out tomorrow night mate? In my opinion, it’s going to be a great night – with so many people, it might be the greatest of all time. Hope to see you there from about 9pm. Laughing out loud.”

Of course, this is an extreme example, but the importance here lies in message length. At 190 characters (compared to 110), the latter version wouldn’t fit into a single message – making it a CWOT.

Whatever you call it – text speak, SMS language, txt lingo, txtslang, textese or SMSish – it’s clear that this new system of communication has been fully embraced by the modern consumer. It can be seen and heard in all manner of contexts, too, and its evolution seems to show no signs of slowing down.

Does text speak work for businesses?

It’s important to remember that opinions on the use of text speak are split; some people have shunned conventional language in favour of these much shorter, informal expressions, while others simply feel there is a time and place for them – for which business missives are neither.

If you’re using SMS as a marketing tool, you must be able to determine the type of language your audience will respond to best. This could well depend on age, with younger people traditionally more open to clipped conversations. It can also be closely related to the content of your message. Pizza delivery offers, for example, can afford to be a little more laid back, but reminders of a GP appointment or notice of school closures should certainly be more formal.

Either way, b sure 2 do ur research b4 going ahead!