How this for a bit of reflexivity: I'm composing the initial draft of this review on a mobile phone. Admittedly, a full qwerty keyboard-toting BlackBerry and not an old school mobile, so not with the numeric keypad limitations of the usual SMS utilising device but, still, typing-one thumbed while I cling on to a tube strap on an underground carriage with my other hand does put the debate into context.
This is an interesting enough, quick read, but it lets itself down in a couple of presentational respects and also in scope.
Firstly, the title and sale. Already on reviews on this site there is a debate between those who find the book a bit dry and dusty and those who point out it is written by a linguistics professor, so you shouldn't really expect anything else. I suppose composing its title in textspeak was an obvious (if somewhat unimaginative) marketing ploy, but the cheap laugh it gets trades badly against its implied presentation as a book of limited ambition and sophistication - one of those impulse buys at the counter that will wind up on the cistern in the loo, rather than a book you'd buy for its own sake.
As it happens, this is a thoughtful and insightful book written (for the layman - I didn't find it dry in the slightest) by an academic and published by Oxford University Press. But the way OUP has elected to market may cause it to fall betwixt cup and lip.
But - assuming we are meant to treat it as a substantive entry - that leads onto some substantive reservations.
Firstly, I'm not so sure what's so distinctly interesting or permanent about SMS texting over instant messaging, email, discussion forums, blogs, twitter and the manifest other forms of electronic communication that have emerged over the last twenty years that it deserves separate treatment.
To be sure, SMS text has produced some unique artefacts, but it has borrowed more ("LOL"s, preposition abbreviations and emoticons are more prevalent in IM and forum posting) and those few artefacts that are unique (as Crystal recounts) are a function of transient technological limitations inherent in the particular format which are likely to be superseded. As data entry technique and information technology evolve (and they already have: things like predictive text, qwerty keyboards on PDAs, and forthcoming inevitabilities like voice recognition) the SMS idiom will almost certainly wane. I suspect, like the facsimile, it is destined for a short but incandescent trajectory through the communicative cosmos.
Secondly, limiting himself as he does, David Crystal is obliged, in a short book, to look at relatively uninteresting aspects of a minor medium (like texting in a foreign language - it takes him a few pages to illustrate this works much like English does - which is no more than the slightest sober reflection would suggest) at the expense of bigger topics of far more interest and relevance to the whole medium of electronic communication. The linguistic implications of non-destructive abbreviation are significant - but again, more so in the world of general electronic communication (where Larry Lessig's book Code: Version 2.0
or Doug Hofstader's I Am a Strange Loop
are far more fascinating) and not SMS in particular. The fact that, almost overnight, we have converted our language by means of ASCII into a numerical code which can thus be manipulated, processed and treated is a revolutionary insight, but by limiting himself to texting where those implications amount to very little, Crystal can't really joint the debate.
Finally, Crystal's motive seems to have been to take wind out of the sails of the sorts of grumpy old men (Guardian op-ed columnists and commentators like John Humphrys) who claim (much as they and their kind have done about email, typewriters, television, immigrants, slang, hip hop, cockneys, and even the great vowel shift) that this new blight is destroying all that is precious our language. That's obviously horse-puckey: that it is evolution and not destruction isn't really news, and this isn't debate I'd bother engaging in even as a media commentator, let alone as an academic. No one takes these old curmudgeons seriously anyway.
There is enough in this book to make it worth reading through, but that won't take you long, and it probably would have been better pitched as a feature article in a Sunday paper. Where it could have taken on the Grumpies on their own turf.