The death of the text language

Remember when SMS messaging was new? Looking back at it, typing on a phone was a laborious task, and I think that’s down to two things.

Firstly, unlike today, most mobile phones featured alphanumeric keyboards. All of the hot phones of the time, such as the Nokia 3210, the 3310 or the Ericsson T65 had this layout. Even much later, the likes of the Sony Ericsson K800 – with its then-astonishing 3.2-megapixel camera – and the ultra-trendy Motorola Razr subscribed to this format.

The alphanumeric layout involved tapping on the number keys multiple times in order to bring up the letter you were looking for. Yes, there were some decent predictive text functions on these phones, but the format as a whole proved so lengthy that there was something of a social revolution.

It came in the form of the “text language” era. “How are you?” became “How r u”, “Going to a meeting” became “Goin 2 a meetn”, and – in the spirit of the recently passed Valentine’s Day – “I love you” became “I luv u”.

To anyone hoping to achieve even a basic level of professionalism in their communications, it was a nightmare. And don’t think it was only affecting English speakers, either – as far as I could tell, all nations were being swept up by this revolution.

Of course, you could get around the problem by adopting one of the early BlackBerry smartphones, or else one of those new-fangled PDA devices. These did come with QWERTY keyboards, but that leads me onto the second reason why texting was so laborious back in the day – the software running pretty much every device – smart or otherwise – was rubbish.

Yes, at the time, these phones were at the cutting edge of what was possible. But compared to today, that’s not saying much. With the smart devices, it was just as easy to fall into what was becoming the standard mode of communication – “C u l8r m8” – as it was with the alphanumeric devices. This was because the software was clunky, the autocorrect wasn’t all there, and the phones were slow.

In my mind, this was becoming a real problem. News reports damning the age of the text sprang up all over, supported by quotes from teachers explaining that kids were now writing in text language in exams. The professionally written word, it seemed, was being phased out, all in the name of convenience.

But then something happened – the affordable smartphone gained traction. Around the same time that Apple first released its iPhone, Google unveiled Android. And the firm formerly known as RIM upped its game considerably with the next generation of BlackBerry devices.

Apart from the touch-screens that actually worked, the easy-to-access mobile email and the speedy web browsing, the phones that everyone wanted at this point featured either a virtual or physical QWERTY keyboard. And, joy of joys, they were complemented by a decent autocorrect function.

These phones had no time for the childish text talk that had plagued the digital world for more than half a decade. They recognised errors and they corrected them – not always with good results, but it was certainly a start. What’s more, these phones made it easier to type properly; it had suddenly become an effort to type “2” instead of “to”.

By now, almost everyone spells correctly when texting, WhatsApping or BBMing. Sure, the grammar isn’t all there, but at least the respect for professional communication has been given a new lease of life. And the functions on these phones are always improving.

So, thank you, Apple, Google and BlackBerry, for making texting easy. And for quashing a revolution that might have seen business leaders from around the world unable to spell properly.

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