The Linguistic Features of Text Messages. Influence on Legibility and Meaning

Academic Paper, 2019
15 Pages, Grade: 1
Sven Frueh (Author)


Table of Contents


2 General Information on the Corpus

3 Abbreviations
3.1 Logograms
3.2 Initialisms
3.3 Omitted Letters
3.3.1 Colloquial Contractions

4 Pictograms

5 Conclusion

6 Primary Sources

7 Secondary Sources

8 Appendix

1 Introduction

Text messages are a mobile phone service which transfers short written messages to other mobile users (Crystal, 2008, p. 187). Texting describes the activity of writing text messages. To save time and space, people often use abbreviations, such as logograms, pictograms, or initialisms (Swan, 2005, p. 128).

David Crystal (2008, p. 3) describes texting as a “linguistic phenomenon which has aroused curiosity, suspicion, fear, confusion, antagonism, fascination, excitement and enthusiasm, all at once.” Interestingly, this has been done in a very short span of time, as hardly anyone has heard of texting less than a decade ago (Crystal, 2008, p. 3- 4). It all started in the early 90s when text messages including only twenty characters began to replace pagers in Finland, which, until then, were used as a communication tool (Crystal, 2008, p. 4). Nonetheless, it was not until 2001 that texting became generally known and widely used. This is partly because sending text messages was (in some countries) much cheaper than talking on the phone (Crystal, 2008 p. 92). In addition, experts found ways for carrying letters and punctuation marks but also ringtones, logos, and animations within one text message. In recent years, more and more text messaging services like WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook Messenger are competing for several billion people that regularly communicate via texting, thus, making it a global trend and a twenty-first-century phenomenon (Crystal, 2008, p. 7).

This research paper explores texting as a language variety. It will summarize and explain the defining linguistic features, meaning-making elements of texting, and their frequency of use. Therefore, the works of the leading expert on the language of texting, David Crystal, serves as the theoretical basis. To determine how and how often certain features are used, a corpus of text messages will be analyzed. Furthermore, the paper will present the main causes and incentives responsible for the development of these features; it will start with general information on the corpus, followed by a description and analysis of the most commonly used linguistic features, their usage, and purpose. Thus, this paper aims to answer the question: In how far do the defining linguistic features of texting influence the meaning and legibility of the messages sent and received?

Due to the limitations in terms of the scope of this paper, only the four most commonly used types of features will be analyzed.

2 General Information on the Corpus

The text message corpus was created by the Cyber Security Lab of the Purdue University in Indiana. It has been de-identified, and all research participants voluntarily gave consent to have their messages made publicly available for research purposes (IRB-approved research and consent form). It contains 4962 total Messages from 113 different Americans; the messages were sent over the course of one year between 2011 and 2012. Therefore, the corpus data is limited to text messages sent and received in the language area of the United States of America. Furthermore, the corpus data was analyzed with the concordance program Antconc.

3 Abbreviations

Different forms of abbreviations have a long history, as they can be found in ancient Greek inscriptions or medieval manuscripts; for example, DN for Dominus Noster (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008, n. p.). However, it was not until the twentieth century that abbreviations became a common practice in communication, notably with emails (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2008, n. p.). There was a desire to avoid an overabundance of information because of the widely held view that the body of an email should be entirely visible on the screen without any need for scrolling (Crystal, 2001, p. 109). The most important information was supposed to fit within a 16-line depth – 80 characters each line (Crystal, p. 109-110).

The basic structures and features of abbreviated language production, which were developed in this period, are still relevant today even though the number of characters is no longer the main incentive for abbreviations. The informal and abbreviated nature of modern text messages is mostly encouraged by the high frequency of sending and receiving the messages (Tagg, 2009, p. 17.). Abbreviations are part of natural language development, saving a significant amount of time without reducing the intelligibility of the abbreviated words (Crystal, 2001, p. 51). This can be achieved in various ways as the following examples show.

3.1 Logograms

In order to limit the number of letters, people started to represent words, parts of words, or even noises associated with actions by single letters, numerals, and typographic symbols (Crystal, 2008, p .37-39):

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

These graphic units can be used in combination (Crystal, 2008, p. 38):

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Logograms are based on the pronunciation of the chosen symbol rather than the shape (Crystal, 2008, p. 38); the phonetic transcription of both the logogram u and its original word you, for example, is /ju/ (Fernández, 2014, p. 5).

Table 1: Proportion of the most common logograms (Purdue University Calumet, 2013).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Measured by the total number of cases, logograms are the most commonly used type of abbreviation in the corpus. The reason for the abundancy of logograms is that they often do not change the legibility of a message while saving numerous letters. Therefore, their primary purpose is to abbreviate messages (Fernández, 2014, p. 11-13). A distinctive feature of logograms in terms of frequency is that they are used in equilibrium with the original word they represent. The word you is the third most used word in the corpus while its logogram u takes rank nine; in slightly over 50% of the cases the original word is replaced. This kind of equilibrium represents the most significant difference in terms of frequency compared to the following method of abbreviating.

3.2 Initialisms

The second most commonly used form of abbreviation is called initialisms, where all letters of a word are dropped except for the first ones. (Crystal, 2008, p. 42). The first letter is then called an initial and can be used in different ways:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Although some examples may be new, the process of initializing has been going on for centuries (Crystal, 2008, p. 43). The Latin initialism pm (post meridiem) goes back to 1666, IOU (I owe you) to 1618, NB (nota bene; note well) to 1673, or RIP (Rest in Peace) and ND (no date) to the nineteenth century (Crystal, 2008, p. 43.). Some of the old and contemporary initialisms and acronyms such as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) are found in dictionaries and have already made their way into standard spelling. Furthermore, they may not be recognized as initialisms but as standard vocabulary (Tagg, 2009, p. 108).

Table 2: Most commonly used Initialisms (Purdue University Calumet, 2013).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Linguistic Features of Text Messages. Influence on Legibility and Meaning
University of Linz  (Linguistik)
Discourse Linguistics
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The Linguistic Features of Text Messages, texting, text, text messages, whatsapp, sms, corpus, abbreviations, logograms, initialisms, omitted letters, discourse linguistics, pictograms, colloqial contractions, messanger, linguistic features, analysis, text message corpus, USA, word frequency, frequency, omg, lol, rofl, laser, unseco, david crystal, wanna, wassup
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Sven Frueh (Author), 2019, The Linguistic Features of Text Messages. Influence on Legibility and Meaning, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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