Could SMS language affect communication negatively?

I recently read a viral post peppered with SMS language in Bahasa Melayu. I had a headache reading it. Here’s an excerpt: “Aku n family lepak mapley mlm td. Agak lambat jgak lah dlm 10.30 mcm tu. Baru habis soping barang/buku sekolah budaks. Dah singgah kedai faveret tp ada plak yg tak setuju kedai tu, lalu kami cari kedai lain.” See the original post here:

Though I am not a native speaker, I paid attention in school. I speak Malay daily. I try to read Malay literature. I appreciate its beauty. None of these training prepared me for reading SMS language. Sometimes, I find reading SMS language harder than reading literature work. I don’t think these cryptic short-hands are aiding communication and comprehension.

Brief history of SMS

First of all, let’s take a look at the history of SMS. When I say history, it’s actually not that long ago. SMS went mainstream around year 2000. Each message is limited to 160 characters, and telco charges customer by each message. SMS short-hands were born out of necessity because users needed to cramp as much information as possible into a very limiting 160 characters.

Typing letters on a number pad isn’t the most pleasant experience.

The numeric keypad further exacerbate the problem. Pressing “2” three times to get a letter “C” isn’t exactly the most convenient way to type. To minimize the pain, users resorted to short-hands to minimize typing. Innovation like the T9 typing system did alleviate the pain somewhat, but it was first made for English. And then European languages. Support for Malay language came much later. By then, the habit of using SMS language has taken root in most users.

Old habits die hard

It is a habit indeed. Because if you look at the technology we are using now, there isn’t any reason to rely on SMS language any more. Most smartphone virtual keyboards now offer Malay as an option, with AutoComplete built-in. You can type complete and correct Malay words as quickly as any other languages. When you are at a physical keyboard in front of a computer, there is even fewer reasons to use short-hands, if at all.

Problems arise when using SMS language becomes a habit. It means that users will use short-hands without thinking. As an employer, I have received resumes filled with SMS short-hands, as if the applicants did not realize how unprofessional that made them looked. But why should they? Everybody around them is using short-hands. So it must be acceptable, right?

It is worth taking note that these applicants actually grew up with smartphones. Those born after year 2000 did not have to endure numeric keypads. Their habits of using short-hands were not shaped by necessity, but by the adults around them.

What’s wrong with SMS languages?

What’s wrong with SMS languages? First of all, as said, it is colloquial and unprofessional. It has its places, like in daily conversation with friends. But one may argue that using correct language with friends is just as well, if not better. Beyond that, SMS language is inappropriate most of the time.

File:SMS composition on feature phone.png - Wikimedia Commons
SMS short-hands are cryptic especially to non-native speakers.

While there is no body that governs the standard of short-hands, most native speakers have come to the understanding that “mcm” is “macam” and “dll” means “dan lain-lain”. Even so, when reading such messages, readers are forced to take another step mentally to translate such short-hands, thus slowing down comprehension. It is even harder for non-native speakers like me.

In this era of social media, everybody wants to express himself or herself. But very little thoughts went into how such expressions are perceived. As in the social media post mentioned earlier, the writer wanted to tell a story. It’s a good story. It could be better if it was presented in a more legible manner.

Alas, let’s face the reality here and now. Short-hands aren’t going away. My Malay friend taught me how to read SMS language. Don’t “read” them. But “listen” to the sound they produce. Well, it kinda works for me. But as a writer who’s passionate about language and culture, I still advocate using language correctly.

Chiew Ruoh Peng

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