The Language of Text Messaging and Social Networks

Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Dr Caroline Tagg 
Recorded: 22/05/2012
Broadcast: 28/05/2012
Notes: Caroline’s book ‘Discourse of Text Messaging – Analysis of SMS Communication’ will be published on May 24th 2012 by Continuum. 

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Andy: Hello, today I’m with Dr Caroline Tagg who is lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Centre for English Language Studies at the University of Birmingham.  Hello Caroline.

Caroline: Hello. 

Andy: So, do you want to tell me a little bit about what you do?

Caroline:  In Applied Linguistics we study language and its relationship to real world problems.  What I’ve been looking at is not a problem as such but I’ve been looking at the language of new media, so text messaging and social network sites, so I’ve been looking at Facebook. 

Andy: So something that very much applies to all of our lives, what kind of things have you been looking at?

Caroline: Well, back in 2003, 2004 when I started my research, when there was no Facebook or Twitter, so I was looking at text messaging. Well the first problem was getting hold of the data.  There aren’t many studies on text messaging because text messages come to people’s mobile phones and it can be very difficult to transfer the data to a computer and also people don’t necessarily want to give you your data. 

Andy: No. 

Caroline: So I got my data by starting with family and friends and asking them to send me messages that they’d sent and also ones that they’d received.  So I put together a corpus of over 10,000 text messages which took me three  years. 

Andy: Wow. 

Caroline: Yes, it’s a long and lonely process!  The contributors to the corpus were largely adults, so the youngest person was 18 and then I had a spread of people up to their 60s.  So the language was perhaps a little different to that you’d find young people using. 

Andy: Yeah. 

Caroline: So I was surprised to find people being creative in other ways, often quite wordy, lengthy ways, so they weren’t trying to shorten the messages, they were being quite expressive. So people were doing things like playing around with idioms, so one texter says that they’re going to get their ‘not on the dot’ rather than getting there ‘on the dot’ and then playing around with puns, so in one exchange a texter asks her friend if she wants to come belly-dancing and the friend replies ‘I don’t think I’ve got the stomach for that’ and they go onto develop this a little bit. So they’re very collaborative, they’re sort of co-constructing this creative language. 

Andy:   It’s quite interesting that you say that people have been using language not to shorten their text messages but to be quite creative and often make them longer because you tend to think of people using awful text language like ‘c u l8r’ because time is often of the essence when you’re texting. 

Caroline: I think one thing it shows is that people are perhaps not overly concerned with cutting the message down. Research suggests that people are more concerned with not so much getting their point across but saying what they want to say in the way they want to say it to a friend. So it's all about building up relationships and expressing yourself and that sort of thing. So people will use more words if that’s necessary.

Andy: And where do emoticons come into this?

Caroline:  The thing about texting and to an extent, other forms of online communication, is that you can’t use gesture and intonation, facial expressions and other things we take for granted when we’re speaking. I think to an extent that encourages people to make puns and play with the language in order to express themselves. But of course emoticons is another way of adding to the resources that you have.  What’s interesting about emoticons is that we don’t tend to use the full range that you see presented in websites and are available on instant messaging programmes and so on. People tend to use a smiley face or an unhappy face or a winking face. So it’s actually more limited than you would think. 

Andy: Yeah. 

Caroline:  And the other interesting thing is that people will often use, say, a smiley face, not just grinning inanely at the end of a positive statement, but will actually use it to express irony, to show that they mean the opposite of what they’ve said, or, to soften something. So if you’ve asked perhaps cheekily for a lift you might put a winking face at the end to show that you realise that you’re being cheeky or to sort of soften the harshness. 

Andy: But still, give me a lift!

Caroline: Yeah.  [laughing] 

Andy: That’s what I’m saying.  Text language has sort of bled out now into other areas, like you say, of social media. Even in emails I’ve seen people using text language. I guess some people like it and other people think maybe it’s diluting the language or has the potential to completely destroy English?

Caroline:  There have been a lot of fears expressed about the English language, because of the internet. Text speak predates text messaging and is said to have come from internet chat forums and then come from text messaging. 

Andy: Yes. 

Caroline: But you’re right that now we sort of see it as coming from text messaging to Facebook and other arenas.  And of course there’s the fear that it is also coming into children’s schoolwork and having that kind of effect. I think there are two points here. One is language change and one is language variation. So with language variation it’s important to understand that there are different varieties of one language, so where language varies according to the context it’s being used in, or the reason it’s being used, so you have the language of academic writing and the language of science, the language of biology and the language of physics and you have the language of newspapers and then you have more informal varieties like spoken conversation and text messaging. So rather than seeing text messaging as changing the language as a whole, it’s adding to the language if you like, it’s another variety, another way in which we’re using language. Throughout our lives we learn different registers and we learn to navigate them and to manage them and of course you’re going to get - particularly young people - who use text speak, use certain spellings occasionally in their school work, in the same way that they would spell words according to how they’re sounded. So they would sort of transfer that from spoken language. So you get crossover like that and some of it raises concerns but what children are doing there is learning what’s appropriate and when. So we recognise that language does change and has always changed, and it’s changing now, it’s probably becoming more informal in some ways, not because of text messaging but it’s part of it.  

Andy: The research that you are currently doing, looking at social networks and in this instance, Facebook, is in its early days so I know there’s not a lot you can tell me but is there anything so far that you’ve found to be quite interesting?

Caroline: One of the differences between social network sites and text messaging is that social network sites are public, or semi-public. So you might be having a conversation with one person through say status updates and comments, but there are a lot of people who are potentially listening and that changes the dynamics a little bit. One option on a site like Facebook is to put people into groups, or lists, so you’re actually targeting specific people and this may be increasingly done as Facebook develops. However, research suggests that people don’t necessarily want to do that, either because they don’t trust the technology or because it’s not nuanced or sophisticated enough; they can’t necessarily put people into a category and perhaps the point of Facebook is that you are talking in front of people, you’re performing in front of people. So people will adopt other strategies, some of them linguistic, in order to address certain people.  So for example, you might use song lyrics or references to events or to people so that certain people are excluded and other people realise they’re being talked to.  Another strategy is to tag people in photos, even when it’s not a photo of them, and I think that’s part of that sort of attempt to carve out your own little community within the social network sites. And what we’re looking at is how people use language choice to target particular people. So they will choose to use one language or another. So English is often used to target a wide audience across language groups but multilingual speakers will then use local languages to target specific groups within that. 

Andy: Right. 

Caroline: So you have a distinction between English as a general lingua franca maybe for public topics or to mark your statements as being for a general audience, and then a local language saying OK, this is more private.  What’s interesting about Facebook is that through people’s language choices, it doesn’t just show you who they’re addressing but it shows you who they imagine they’re addressing, who they think they’re addressing. 

Andy: Right. 

Caroline:  So you can create your own audience. It’s interesting to know how people perceive their audience, how private they think it is and there’s evidence sometimes that people treat it as being very private so they’re using very contextualised language or very specific language practices like using a local language even when you have friends from different countries. 

Andy: Dr Caroline Tagg, thank you very much for joining me.

Caroline: Thank you, it was a pleasure. 

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Andy Tootell.