You Are Now Entering the Phone Zone

An incredible 24 million mobile phone text-messages are sent and received every day in Britain. The young, especially, love this way of communicating, but many academics and teachers are increasingly worried about the quality of English they use when sending an SMS.

I admit it. When I was at school, I could not spell. In fact, I was the worst speller in the classroom. Some people said that I had dyslexia. My only reply was: "How do you spell dyslexia?" When teachers saw the results of my spelling tests, they were speechless. Some of them resigned! But after a while, with hard work, a dictionary and good spell-check software, things improved.

If research is to be believed, however, bad spelling in Britain is not unusual. Seventeen per cent of British people cannot spell the following words: height, accommodation, necessary, and sincerely. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concludes that the British have one of the lowest levels of adult literacy in the industrialised world. The Scandinavians have the best reading and writing skills. Among the 29 members of the OECD, only the US, Hungary, Ireland, New Zealand and finally Poland (unfortunately) have worse rates of adult literacy than Britain.

And this situation, according to British academic Dr Ken Lodge at the University of East Anglia, is getting worse. Mobile phone SMS "text messages", he claims, are ruining the English language. Users of SMS (short message system) spell so dreadfully, says Lodge, that even his new university students are becoming illiterate morons. "Texting could restrict people's ability to communicate," he told the Guardian newspaper. "The quantity of communication is increasing, but the quality is rapidly decreasing."

Text messaging increased by 1,800 per cent last year in Britain. Each month, 700 million SMS's are sent and received. Many people are using an abbreviated form of English when they do so. It is a form of shorthand. It saves time.

Those who text-message in English sometimes condense words, or use single letters or even numbers, as substitutes for words. For instance, I want to text-message a friend and say, "Will I see you today, or tomorrow?" On my mobile I could write, "WIL I C U 2DAY, OR 2MORO?" Or, an "advanced level" text messenger could write, "R U FREE @ 7?" Spelt properly, this means, of course, "Are you free at seven o'clock?" You see, it's simple!

Most people who own a mobile phone use SMS occasionally. It is simple to send and receive, and it costs a lot less than making a phone call. Young people are the most likely to text-message. Sixty-five per cent of children aged between 14 and 16 have their own mobile phone in Britain! The young are also the most likely to use SMS shorthand when they are sending a message. English teachers are worried that this flexibility when spelling could make the teaching of basic linguistic skills harder.

Flexible spelling, however, did not begin with the text message. Up until three or four hundred years ago flexibility when spelling English words was normal. Shakespeare, for instance, wrote his great plays before English spelling was standardised. In his day, you could spell as you liked. Original documents of the time show that the name of England's greatest playwright was spelt in many different ways. Some spelt his name "Shakspeare", others spelt it "Shagspear". There was no standard way of spelling anything.

The result was linguistic anarchy. This anarchy ended with standardisation in the eighteenth century. After Samuel Johnson's dictionary was published in 1755, writers had a standard text to refer to when they wanted to spell a difficult word. Meanwhile, in America, Noah Webster produced his first dictionary in 1828 with standardised American spelling.

But standardisation did not make spelling easier. As I am sure you have noticed, English spelling is very strange! Don't feel too bad when you can't remember how to spell sovereign, or rhyme, or even island. Many British or Americans can't spell these words, either!

In 1879 the British Spelling Reform Association was formed. This organisation began to promote a simpler, more phonetic form of spelling. In America, where they already had simpler spelling (color, favor), a similar organisation had the support of Mark Twain and President Theodore Roosevelt. Both organisations failed.

In the 1950s, the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw also expressed his support for changing English spelling. He argued for a new phonetic alphabet to be established. In the 1960s some British schools agreed to use an "Initial Teaching Alphabet", popularly known as "ITA" (i-tee-ay). Children in these schools were taught to read and write using a totally phonetic system. Only later, when they had learnt the basics of English, were the children introduced to the conventional alphabet and spelling. This method was also used in a few American schools at the time. Teaching the Initial Teaching Alphabet has now gone out of fashion. But it shows the difficulty that children have always had when learning to spell in English. Put in this context, the desire of those who text-message to shorten and simplify English spelling does not seem so strange, or so new.

SMS text messages are rapidly creating a new phonetic way of spelling English words. Richard Wade, from Oxford in England, believes that SMS shorthand is not bad spelling, but "creative spelling". On his web site you can vote on the most innovative way to spell different words when text-messaging on your mobile. For him creative spelling is a crusade. He believes that standardised spelling is a linguistic prison and argues that one way to escape this prison is to "free-spell" when using SMS.

Dr Lodge, and English teachers in general, are not so impressed by this crusade. They fear a return to linguistic anarchy. "I think it's a weird way to communicate," says Dr Lodge. Though "free-spelling" is fun, he argues, it is no substitute for learning how to spell properly. And I am sure my old English teacher would agree with him.

Whatever you think of this new phonetic spelling, one thing is likely. If William Shakespeare were alive today, maybe he would write all his plays in SMS...

" 2 B OR NOT 2 B, that is the ? "!

Now it's your turn! Translate the following text-messages into correctly spelt words.

+ 4 BRZ 2
S, OK.