What Texting Owes to the Literary Enlightenment, Radio 4

One man's texting hell is another's Gr8 Db8
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Sometimes you can get away with the flimsiest of pretexts for making a programme. The "literary enlightenment" bit alluded to in the title of Chris Addison's scattergun but engaging investigation into texting was a small hook indeed: in passages of his Journal to Stella, 65 letters written to a female friend, Esther Johnson, the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift employed a kind of code, a secret, shared language – an abbreviated baby talk which does, it must be said, sound remarkably like textese. The wider point being made is that texting has ludic, or games-playing, aspects to it. This listener remains unconvinced.

Reference to Swift's cooing idiolect was just a way in to examining the perennial tug-of-war between those who would preserve language in aspic and the rest of the human race. I can identify with rent-a-grump Will Self, who gets texting anxiety attacks when he has to write a proper name without a capital letter. "Basically I write texts," he says. (He also hates emails that start "Hi Will".) But he also says of texting, and all the other ways in which language is bent, reshaped and remixed: "It's all good."

David Crystal, the author of Txting: the Gr8 Db8, makes the point that writing is becoming closer to speech than it has been for 500 years. Printing and the Enlightenment brought about the great codification of language that's now under such sustained attack. And who knows where new technology will take us? Already in Japan you can have text stories sent to your phone, while Self suggests that texting is ideal for writing haikus.

The poet Scott Tyrell finds a new poetry in predictive texting. When he input Kipling's "If ..." into his phone it became "He" – "He you can jeep your head when all about you ape losing theirs." And it ends: "... you'll be a mam mop sue". I don't know what Swift would have made of it all: he admonishes Esther for her slapdash approach: "I allow you henceforth six false spellings in every letter you send me." Poor woman.