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Text messages are not ruining the language

When Swiss people write Text messages, they use only a few English expressions. Moreover, a study commissioned by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) has shown that these anglicisms are more indicative of a higher education than of declining language standards.
English is becoming more important everywhere, including Switzerland. Indeed, so much so that purists here are concerned that the number of anglicisms in our national languages is getting out of hand. It is widely believed that English expressions are "the in thing", particularly with young people and especially when they are using new and informal types of communication such as text messages. That this is not the case has been demonstrated by a large-scale study (see box) of some 26,000 Text messages conducted by researchers under the direction of Elisabeth Stark of the Romance Languages Seminar of the University of Zurich.

English expressions seldom used
Around 4600 Text messages, mainly sent by young people from German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland, were examined for anglicisms. The results showed that English expressions are seldom used whether in German or in French text messages. English words and word components accounted for only 3.16% of the content of the German Text messages and 2.34% of the French. Most of these expressions (in German, 2.57%, in French, 1.76%) were loan words like "computer", "handy" (in the sense of mobile phone) or "jogging", all of which have long been accepted in standard dictionaries like the Duden or the Grand Robert. Only 0.59% (German) and 0.58% (French) were "pure" English words. Of these, the majority consisted of formulaic expression for opening or closing messages (e.g. "Hi", "Love you", "Kisses", etc).

"It is not true that young people write their Text messages only in English," says Elisabeth Stark. By way of comparison, other studies equally show that anglicisms make up only about two per cent of the vocabulary used. "Anglicisms are certainly there but they are not a threat to the native languages," concludes the researcher. Indeed, the study establishes that German-speaking Swiss writers of text messages with a higher level of education tend to use these borrowings. "Anglicisms are more a mark of education than an indication of a decline of the German language," says Stark. In French, the use of English elements was too small to demonstrate any such connection.

Above average numbers of multilingual Text messages
Rather than switching to English in writing text messages, Swiss people are more likely to shift to a different national language or to alternate between dialect and standard. Around 24% of all the Text messages examined were multilingual and contained foreign elements such as in the sentence "Sehen uns nächsten Mittwoch, je t’aime". Switches between languages were almost twice as frequent in the German Text messages (28%) as in the French (15%). In the Romansh data set, there was at least one language switch in 53% of all Text messages and in the Italian 23%. "Compared with similar corpuses from abroad, these figures are very high," says Stark. So, Swiss multilingualism makes itself apparent in text messages.

Correct spelling
People writing text messages stick strictly to the spelling rules that they learned at school. Many researchers contend that the writers of Text messages type just as they speak in order to reduce the number of letters used. "For example, they might write du komst instead of du kommst. That would be shorter and would be pronounced in the same way," says Stark. However, the research shows that such spellings are only very rarely used in the German text messages, over half of which were written in an Allemanic dialect. In other words, Swiss writers of Text messages do not set aside the rules they were taught at school.

Quantitatively, the same applies to French-language text messages. Here too, correct spelling generally prevails over the temptation to shorten words. "French is full of word endings which are found only in writing and never pronounced," says Stark. For example, in the sentence La voiture que j’ai achetée (the car that I bought), the correct spelling of the past participle achetée is with the feminine ending (-e). However, the pronunciation would be the same way whether the word is spelled with or without the ending. Nevertheless, the correct spelling was used in around 90% of the text messages, says Stark. Her explanation is that the writing process is more or less automatic. "When people are writing, they don't think of saving characters by leaving out grammatical information."

Text messages for research
The international research project sms4science investigates communication by SMS and attempts to describe the linguistic characteristics of short text messages. In 2009, the Swiss sub-project invited all mobile phone users in Switzerland to send a copy of their Text messages to a freephone number and to fill out an anonymous questionnaire on the Internet. This resulted in the collection of about 26,000 Text messages: 18,000 of them in German (around 7000 not in dialect), 4600 in French, 1500 in Italian and 1100 in Romansh. The researchers come from the Universities of Zurich, Neuchâtel and Berne as well as the University of Leipzig.

E. Stark (2012): Negation marking in French text messages, in: Linguisticae Investigationes 35-2, 341-366.
E. Morel, C. Bucher, S. Pekarek Doehler, B. Siebenhaar (2012): SMS communication as plurilingual communication, in: Linguisticae Investigationes 35-2, 260-288.

Both manuscripts are available via:

Prof. Elisabeth Stark
Romanisches Seminar
Universität Zürich
Zürichbergstrasse 8
CH – 8032 Zürich
Tel: ++41 (0)44 634 36 24

Abteilung Kommunikation | idw
Further information:

Further reports about: Anglicisms German language Investigationes Mobile phone SMS text messages

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