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SMS@20: 10 ways text messages have changed your life in the last 20 years

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Dec 04, 2012 at 09:06am IST

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"As advertising blather becomes the nation's normal idiom, language becomes printed noise," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author George Frederick Will once said. As the short messaging service, or SMS turns 20, it has swept aside in two decades known conventions about courtesy, relationship, language and communication.

It troubles linguists that SMS has made deep inroads in language and unfastened from the root the basics on which any language stands.

Take the case of a 13-year-old Scottish schoolgirl who handed in an essay written completely in text message jargon to understand the extent of influence of SMS on language. BBC had famously put up an extract from the essay on its website in 2003 and invited a debate on it to gauge readers' reaction.

SMS@20: 10 ways text message has changed your life

In the last 20 years we have learnt to adjust our expectations to fit romance into 160 characters.

"My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc," said a chunk of the essay.

How has SMS changed our lives in the last 20 years?

Language

For those who assiduously believe that language can survive centuries of corrosion and assault by constantly evolving, there is both good and bad news. Whether the threat from cryptic and often lazy mobile phone communication is real or perceived is immaterial, what matters most is that it has morphed into a giant beast, feeding on the demands that time and career make on modern day professionals. Where is the time to send a handwritten note or a letter? In the electronic survival of the fittest, it is amazing that the SMS has outlived the dying email.

Perhaps language is the biggest casualty of SMS. There are the usual defenders of text messages. Before William Shakespeare came along, the courtly flourish of 14th century writer Geoffrey Chaucer's works were said to be the cornerstone for English language. Chaucer added new words to his language as did Shakespeare. But 21st century thinkers are contemplating modelling spoken and written English to fit the sensibilities of the current day and age.

What is wrong with 'u' if that has come to be acceptable in mobile communication in place of 'you' to save time and adhere to a character limit? You can rue the death of the graceful Queen's English, but modern linguists argue that it would be of no use if it ate up space and time when you needed to pack in as much as possible in 160 characters.

Clarity of thought and analysis

The ability to think clearly, analyse astutely and infer accordingly has been served a death knell with the 140-160 character texts that urge you instead to come right to the point. SMS, the precursor of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook - where status updates and tweets come with a character limit - have dulled an entire generation's ability to think. The complex labyrinth serious discourses and societal issues are broken down to a easily comprehensible and overtly simplified 'ok', 'yes', 'no', 'agree' or 'disagree' without putting in the effort needed for analysis. Before one debate is solved, another crops up and issues jostle for space.

Attention span

The biggest hostage that text messaging has taken is our collective attention span. We text and speak, not lifting our eyes from our mobile phones to look at the person we are addressing. We text during meetings, longish speeches bore us, written communication that is more than a paragraph in length leave us irritable and flustered. The market has understood our needs, which is why we have booklets of witty SMS saying, novellas written in SMSese and our eyes glaze over anything that is over 160 characters long.

Spam

The unsolicited messages that land in your inbox everyday despite your best efforts to block them - spam has become an unwanted companion of our daily lives in the last 20 years. Advertisers use the low entry level barriers and the virtually intractable operation to bomb users with bulk deals that you have no use for. Imagine the pamphlets of the '80s and youngsters putting up posters advertising hair oil in the dead of the night on your home's boundary walls despite several warnings to understand the extent of intrusion of spam.

Emotions

Twenty years ago, a reasonable response to a confession of love would be an ornate handwritten letter or a walk in the park. Gradually all acceptable conventions of relationships have been remodelled into emoticons - an invention of text messages. If there is ever an electronic Nobel instituted, a smiley would be the top contender. Nothing expresses hope, amusement, love, friendship or excitement like a smiley does.

Accessibility

From a company's CEO, to a general physician, a local chemist or your boss - suddenly everyone's accessible. There is no longer the need to formally set up an appointment through a reticent personal secretary. SMS has reduced even the strictly formal relationships like that of an employee and an employer into a convivial, homely mush of a thing.

informality

'Won't be coming in to work today." This text would not have worked as method of putting in a leave application 20 years ago, what is perfectly acceptable now. 'R u bored?' a colleague texting you in the middle of a meeting is as acceptable as a future mother-in-law asking you to join you for a 'bite 2 eat @ 1 pm'.

Too Much Information

There is such a thing as Too Much Information - TMI for short. People you vaguely know texting you at midnight about their heartbreaks, their life's plans and aspirations. Texting your boss what ails your mother-in-law or your dentist your wedding plans in response to a simple query on shifting of an appointment - yes we are living with TMI.

Brevity and wit

It is solely thanks to SMS that we have a flourishing industry of one-liners that crop up during social conversations. SMS has kept wit real and sharp for the times. No one has the attention span to wait for the host to finish the punch line of a joke at the dinner table. They'd rather be 'forwarded' the latest SMS joke doing the rounds. The art of quipping has evolved over years through elaborately planned and tested text messages.

The courier of romance

Perhaps nothing has evolved as much as romance over the last two decades. In electronic age, love is defined by logged in hours and Skype conversations. And even before that, by late night texting under the quilt so as not to wake up the rest of the household. 'Love u 2' has replaced verbose cards and flowers. Emoticons summarise the depth of feelings of a heart broken by failed communication. We have learnt to adjust our expectations to fit love into 160 characters.

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