ESSAY- I'll rite btr l8r: Or will I? Text messages ruining English?

The president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, is worried about the French language. As though he doesn't have enough to worry about with the economy, rising pâté and gas prices, and getting more notoriety for his love life than for his policies. On the plus side, Audrey Tatou is replacing Nicole Kidman as the face of Chanel No. 5, so maybe things are starting to look up for the country.

His problem? "Look at what text-messaging is doing to the French language," Sarkozy said in an SMS [short message service] message to everyone in the country. "If we let things go, in a few years we'll have trouble understanding each other." 

JK. I mean, just kidding. About the SMS part, anyway. He actually did say this, only it was out loud to a reporter since he didn't want to wait while his assistant typed the message into the phone with his or her thumbs, not to mention he didn't know the proper text message way to sign off, which in French is a2m1 (à demain). Think CU2moro.

If that last word doesn't make sense to you, you're probably older than Hannah Montana– and wondering who the heck she is. It also means you don't have to waste any time wondering why every girl between the ages of 7 and 14 throws a fit until Mom and Dad shell out a week's salary for concert tickets, then throws another fit until they buy every bit of concert merchandise Disney could dream up. And trust me, they can dream. If that's the case, go back to the end of the preceding paragraph and read the last word out loud. Don't worry, we'll wait.

       That's SMS– or text message– talk, also known as txtspk, and in this case it saves seven thumbstrokes. If you've ever sent a text message, especially from a plain old phone that doesn't have a QWERTY keyboard, you'll understand how precious those saved keystrokes can be. Face it, if we were meant to type with our thumbs, we would have evolved with 10 of them– or at least two on each hand.

       To save time, kids around the globe have developed their own text abbreviations, and France is no exception. They use JTM for je t'aime, cb1 for c'est bien, and BCP for beaucoup. This is especially galling to Académie française, the French group that tries hard to retain the purity of the language. It's bad enough they have to guard against English words creeping in, like le pique-nique, le week-end, and Freedom Fries. Now the French themselves are making up words. Is it any wonder Sarkozy's beret is in a knot?

       It's not as if the French don't already use a lot of abbreviations. There's RSVP, which means "The caterer wants to know how many mini egg rolls to pull out of the freezer"; A+, which has been a shorthand way to close a letter for years (à bientôt); and ITABIYPOAYHTSM (Is that a baguette in your pocket or are you happy to see me?). Is Koi29– Quoi de neuf? or What's new?– so much worse?

       The French aren't the only ones worried about creeping textisms. A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (motto: "We lol @ r name 2") found that 64 percent of American teens have used chat and text shortcuts or emoticons in their school assignments. Can you imagine that? :)

They're either doing this out of habit or because the lines between chatting with their friends about who's really hot and writing an essay about the relevance of the Monroe Doctrine in the modern world are hopelessly blurred. They're certainly not doing it to save keystrokes. The same study found that two-thirds of teens don't use a computer when they do their school writing– they do it longhand. Yes, with paper and pen. The researchers think this is because most of the assignments are short, but it's more likely so their computer can be free to simultaneously IM their friends, update their MySpace page, watch a YouTube video of a gerbil skateboarding while singing "Who Let The Dogs Out" and tossing M&Ms in the air and catching them in its mouth, and Google an assignment just like theirs so they can role-play being Jayson Blair.

       Does this creeping txtspk signal the end of the English language as we know it? Probably not, imo. I mean, in my opinion. After all, language changes. Richard Sterling, chairman of the National Commission on Writing at the College Board (motto: "Eschew obfuscation, beginning with our name") thinks we might be seeing the dawning of some grammar rule changes. You know, like sentences not having to start with a capital letter, using numbers 4 words, and having Hooked on Phonics replace Strunk and White.

       And why shouldn't language change? High school students have to read Beowulf, Chaucer, and Shakespeare without understanding most of it unless they read the footnotes, ask the teacher to interpret, or rent the movie. Face it, we don't speak the same English Chaucer did, nor will future generations speak the same txtspk– I mean, English– we do. r u redi 4 it? b4n*

 *bye for now

 Formerly of Richmond, Barry Gottlieb – when he's not soaking his thumbs in ice– now hangs his Mad Dog hat in California's city by the bay.