Keep it Short: How SMS Messages and E-Mail are Influencing Expression

Is the language of SMS messages ruining they way in which we express ourselves? According to a recent poll, most Germans think it is perfectly all right to congratulate someone on their birthday in an SMS message. And then they write “Happy B-Day 2U” instead of “Happy birthday”. Is the language of SMS messages ruining they way in which we express ourselves?

Four young friends using cellular telephones Enlarge image (© dpa/ picture alliance) In English, the phenomenon of abbreviated language is aptly called “txt spk” (text speak), with this keyword getting as many as 50,000 Google hits. Yet while online translators have long since been parodying this kind of writing, the website Urban Dictionary is quite matter-of-fact in its approach to text speak: “A language created by chat room users, but more commonly used by people who use mobile phone texting.” Indeed, nearly everyone has been forced at some time or another to be extremely brief when writing mobile phone text messages.


Say it all using 160 letters

EmoticonsThat is because the length of SMS (short for “Short Message Service”) message texts sent by mobile phone is limited to 160 characters. So abbreviations are used wherever possible. In German, there are hardly any numbers or letters that can be used to replace a whole word, but there are in English. “2 N8” sounds like “To-n-ight”. “CU” for “see you” is already a classic farewell phrase in text messages. Who understands this language? SMS Enlarge image (© dpa/ picture alliance) Its inventors. Most of them are 14 to 18-year-olds. Emoticons are often added, however, because this staccato way of talking can often sound very impolite. “:-)”, for example, signals a friendly tone of voice. Asian emoticons are also popular. Here, the faces do not lie on their sides – a smile looks like this: “(^_^)”, and an expression of surprise like this: “(o.O)”, similar to the facial expressions of Japanese manga characters.

Christa Dürscheid, a philologist at the University of Zürich, is carrying out an academic study of the SMS text messaging phenomenon. She has discovered that SMS messages fulfil many purposes: making appointments, cultivating contacts, sorting out problems, beating boredom, in short, being constantly available. An SMS message is ideal for this as it can be typed surreptitiously under the table. Young people sometimes send up to ten SMS messages per day, but only check their e-mails three times. An SMS message reaches the addressee right away, but one does not have to engage in a discussion with him, says Christa Dürscheid. This also makes it easier to say things that one would not dare to say face to face.

Does this have any impact on everyday language? Studies have been unable to demonstrate that it does. And e-mails and SMS messages have by no means replaced letters. Rather, receiving a letter by post at all is regarded as a red-letter day. Thus, Deutsche Post no longer uses the slogan “Schreib mal wieder” (Write again) in its advertisements, but “Jeder Brief ist ein Geschenk” (Every letter is a gift).

Author: Franziska Schwarz
Translation: Eileen Flügel
First published on

Adapted by the Internetdivision
Reprint courtesy of the Goethe-Institute

Language of SMS messages

Eine Frau tippt eine SMS-Nachricht