June 2007
Literature and Literacy

Bad ba mag-txt?

SMS as a literary form? [PCIJ photo]

cn hrdly wt 2 clmp
my tith on yr clt
2 brk my fall
my tngue nside n
around yr pnk cnt
2 lse n ur jus
d wrds i lie w/
n wht u wnt 2 hir

THIS IS the first stanza of the poem “Alba” by Ricardo de Ungria, professor and former chancellor of the University of the Philippines Mindanao. It is part of the book Eros Pinoy published by Anvil Publishing in 2002. It was the first poem I read in Text or SMS format — a lovely, ingenious piece that explored the tension between sexually explicit diction and the elliptical, almost cryptic abbreviation associated with text messaging. Showing even as it hid, involving the reader as both codebreaker and intimate, peeping tom and partner. I read the poem just a few months after the president of the Philippines was unseated by a series of Metro Manila-based protests that were fanned and fed by text messages. SMS-ing like mad were segments of the population upset by the outcome of the reality-show-cum-telenovela called the impeachment proceedings.

As early as 2002, students of media and members of academe were cataloguing and analyzing the relationship between Filipinos and the keypads of their mobile phones. For example, history professor Vicente L. Rafael, then with the University of California at San Diego and now with the University of Washington (Seattle), quoted from and interviewed various members of Jose F. Lacaba’s Plaridel Papers mailing list to write his essay “The Cell Phone and the Crowd: Messianic Politics in the Contemporary Philippines.” It remains interesting reading until now and has the added bonus of capturing the mood of — shall we call it text empowerment? — during the heady demonstrations against President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada. (And lest we think that texting is another case of “Only in the Philippines,” Rafael recently informed me that the essay has been included in other books on media, in the United States, Italy, and India.)

Even before Edsa Dos, however, people were already using this “secondary feature” of the mobile phone to finesse the physical difficulties of going around the metropolis, to find family members lost in mallwide sales — and, yes, of course, to cheat during pop quizzes and unit tests. Yet today people still wonder (and worry) what texting does to the Filipino’s communication skills. The images are familiar and often cited: a couple sitting together at a table, holding, not each other’s hands, but their glowing mobile phones; visitors at a wake, heads bowed, not to pray but to better read the latest addition to their inbox; or (and this is from personal experience) a new graduate applying for an editorial position in a publishing house by sending:

Gud am. Pwde b po mg-apli 4 jb as cpy editr. Tnx. Pls rply & tu2loy ako s ofc nyo.

(No, I didn’t reply and no, hindi puwede.)

THAT PEOPLE worry is understandable. After all, television, when it arrived in the ’50s and ’60s, may have diminished the time families sat facing each other to swap stories or accounts of the day just ended, and undermined the communal observance of the Angelus or the saying of the rosary. But at least it still brought them together in living rooms or bedrooms, laughing and squealing at the same shows, sharing the same memories and accounts of Leila Benitez, Sylvia La Torre, Oscar Obligacion, “Sea Hunt,” and “Perry Mason.” Today, with more channels and cheaper sets, the children and grandchildren of these families watch their own shows on their own sets in their own rooms. Could texting do the same thing? Will it bring about a country of not only bad spellers, but of people woefully unable to interact when face to face?

I don’t think so — at least not yet. Television, after all, is one-way. It talks at you, not with you. And, despite epithets like kapamilya and kapuso, it remains, above all, a pusher: news anchors shout at you, commercials and station IDs (in what amounts to the same thing) have their audio tracks pre-set to decibels above normal programming. It acknowledges as much when it appropriates the phone and the modem as tools for you to share your thoughts, your pictures, and in the case of “all-text” channels, your desire for sexual adventure. The only way to communicate directly with a television set is to press the off button or the button that changes the channel. Even this is not a communicative act; it ends communication instead.

Not so with the mobile phone. Despite what the marketing divisions of phone makers trumpet about their everything-in-one devices, the mobile phone remains a tool for communication in a country that is A) an archipelago B) full of people torn apart by poverty, inadequate education, class, and culture. It allows people who have long been talked at (or talked to) to talk among themselves, allowing them, at a relatively small price, to complete the many small transactions of everyday life. Through the artful manipulation of a few plastic keys and their re-presentation as pixels on a tiny screen, the invisible in our society achieve a sense of presence and belonging in a greater community that has been typified by alienation, isolation, and separation.

We are a people of small groups who think in terms of family and barkada (close friends) before neighborhoods, of clans, classes, and tribes before nation, of provinces and regions before country. Texting allows us to affirm those few relationships that inform our lives whenever and wherever we want to. And if we take this sense of presence and belonging, of being part of a loop no matter how small it is, as a basis for communication, then texting — no matter the subject of one’s message — affirms the social nature of our being.

my nsetip wet
w/ ur pbic swet,
cum, n me own slva,
a fngr n ur ass alertd
ur nppls stpplng my beli
nothng around us s dry

TAKEN AGAINST this broad view of communication, the horrible grammar and quirky spellings can be seen not as omens of the death of our communication skills, but as contemporary expressions of the special “languages” small groups use to strengthen themselves. We can see, for example, how slang (from rhyming to hip-hop), and shibboleths assert the identities of groups and preserve their integrity, just as special handshakes identify Masons and the effete but mispronounced honorifics in a congressional hearing describe the rituals of political power.

Language after all is anything but a solid. It is being made all the time — and we (not just schoolteachers, writers, editors, and just plain word snobs) are the ones who make it. It is hardly an orderly process, of course. It shifts, slips, subdivides, changing those who change it.

Think about it: even as you read this, letters are being dropped, added, misplaced by millions of people; words are misspelled, misheard, mispronounced — and mistakenly applied. (Anyone who has ever been a teenager understands this.) In the process blossom new coinages, startling turns of phrase that capture the collective fancy of a community — or communities — and only usage determines which are remembered and which fall into disrepair. By now, for example, words like tsugi and crayola in the gay argot are already being seen as dated, while acronyms and Oplans remain as dependable and reliable as ever among those who speak militarese. Like Darwin’s little animals, words, phrases, and languages compete to be remembered in order to survive, each with its own particular strengths and flaws.

SMS is part of this glorious disarray. The whole burden of writing is basically borne by 13 keys (the all-important 13th is to delete), made even more difficult by a limit to the maximum number of characters. And yet, as with art, these very limitations invite ingenuity and wit. Consider what we are able to do with these 13 keys and be happy. No one ever minded the pronouns disappearing from telegrams or checked a shorthand transcription for perfect spelling. To hold texting to the standards of the classroom is to misunderstand what it is for. And to assume that all who text cannot spell or will eventually forget how to spell misses the point to say the least. As I said to dear friend and poet Beni Santos years before she became a doctor of literature and acting dean of Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Humanities, when one writes poetry, one writes as a lover of language and not just as a grammar teacher.

i swm n d undrsmll of u
n i rse nside ur mth
n u pul up n i
dsappr nside of u

EVEN BEFORE texting, we spoke differently to different people. When we want to make an impression, we try to speak better than we normally do. Among friends and family, we can choose to wear language in tsinelas (slippers) and sando (sleeveless undershirt). How we write depends on why we are writing and to whom we write. A college essay is not punctuated the way a letter for a lover is. Neither do smileys and flowers improve a written report for one’s boss.

The poor applicant who texted me can be faulted not for bad spelling, but for an immaturity that failed to recognize the importance of applying the right language to the right situation. And this shortcoming is not the fault of texting technology, but of the individual mind. In the same way, the poignant image of a couple sitting together but texting other people points out not the evil of this new communication technology but the daily tragedies, the daily little deaths of Sondheim, of human relationships. Just watch the breakfast scene in the black-and-white movie Citizen Kane. There, through some brilliant editing and well-applied dissolves, Orson Welles describes, in a few cinematic minutes, the sad parabola of marriage: how it begins with a couple solicitous over each other’s breakfast and, with the passage of years, becomes a wife watching her plate while her husband is engrossed with another revolutionary tool of communication — the morning newspaper.

In summary then, one can say that neither technology nor language is a zero-sum game. Technology is not evil, neither is it good. It does not lessen the work we have to do (indeed, it only makes us do more work faster). Besides, just to place things in context, texting is only one of the many ways with which we communicate and science continually spews new possibilities to stay in touch. Just entering its second decade, SMS could go the way of the feather quill, the telegram, the pager, and Morse code.

Language, too, is not an either/or affair. Texting, on its tiny own, neither debases nor guarantees it: it is the texter and the textee who determine this. Simplistic attitudes like those of politicians who espouse English-only rules or Cebuano vs. Tagalog moro-moros no longer have a place in this world where the distance between continents can be spanned by one’s thumbs.

We live in an environment that contains some of the most irresistibly gregarious people in the world who, wittingly or un-, are helping to shape a language still in its adolescence but already being spoken even in the dark corners of the globe. Texting, because it allows correspondence in Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Ilokano and all the rest of our languages mixed in with English and Tagalog and Arabic and Italian, makes the dream of a truly national language like Filipino seem actually plausible. (It has even allowed, in contests initiated by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts for example, “ordinary” people to rediscover ancient poetic forms like the tanaga and the dalit.) In language, it is not, as I’ve mentioned earlier, grammarians or politicos who determine its actual making but the waves and waves of small people who daily mangle and erode, remember and redeem what they learned at home and in school.

n my nid 4 u
am nothng agin
n i fil no pain
bt d old byuti of losng u
whn i wake

And what of bad spelling? Well, that’s what dictionaries and proofreaders are for, snapshots and photographers that freeze the snaking river of language to provide us buoys rather than tablets of stone that help us navigate our very lives. Let them do their job, while we tap happily away, improvising and syncopating like aficionados of jazz.

With text as with all language, the morer, the merrier.

Ramón C. Sunico manages Cacho Publishing House. He is also an editor, a book designer, a teacher of Creative Writing online, and a writer with a few books of poetry and for children to his name.