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FYI: texting doesn't threaten native languages

Swiss text messagers often use more than one language per SMS Keystone

When Swiss people write text messages using mobile devices, they use only a few English expressions, a study commissioned by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) has revealed. The report somewhat allays fears of English’s dominance.

This content was published on June 11, 2013 - 11:26
swissinfo.ch and agencies

What’s more, Anglicisms – words or phrases imported from English – were found to be more indicative of a higher education than of declining language standards.

The increasing popularity of English around the world, including Switzerland, has worried a few purists that the number of Anglicisms in Swiss national languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh – is getting out of hand.

“It is widely believed that English expressions are the ‘in thing’, particularly with young people and especially when they are using new and informal types of communication such as text messages,” according to the study, published on Tuesday.

However, this was not the case, as demonstrated by a study of some 26,000 text messages conducted by researchers from the universities of Zurich, Neuchâtel and Bern as well as the University of Leipzig in Germany.

SMS survey

The international research project sms4science investigated communication by SMS (Short Message Service) and attempts to describe the linguistic characteristics of short text messages.

In 2009, the Swiss sub-project invited all mobile phone users in Switzerland to send a copy of their text messages to a freephone number and to fill out an anonymous questionnaire online.

This resulted in the collection of about 26,000 text messages: 18,000 of them in German (around 7,000 not in dialect), 4,600 in French, 1,500 in Italian and 1,100 in Romansh.

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English rarely used

Around 4,600 text messages, mainly sent by young people from German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland, were examined for Anglicisms. The results showed that English expressions are seldom used whether in German or in French text messages.

English words and word components accounted for only 3.16 per cent of the content of the German text messages and 2.34 per cent of the French.

Most of these expressions (in German 2.57 per cent, in French 1.76 per cent) were loan words like “computer” or “jogging”, all of which have long been accepted in standard German or French dictionaries.

Only 0.59 per cent (German) and 0.58 per cent (French) were “pure” English words. Of these, the majority consisted of formulaic expressions for opening or closing messages, for example “Hi”, “Love you” and "Kisses".

“Not a threat”

“It is not true that young people write their text messages only in English,” said study leader Elisabeth Stark.

“Anglicisms are certainly there, but they are not a threat to the native languages.”

Indeed, the study establishes that German-speaking Swiss writers of text messages with a higher level of education tend to use these borrowings.

“Anglicisms are more a mark of education than an indication of a decline of the German language,” Stark said. In French, the use of English elements was too small to demonstrate any such connection.

Multilingualism

Rather than switching to English in writing text messages, Swiss people were more likely to shift to a different national language or to alternate between the Swiss German dialect and standard German, the study found.

Around a quarter of all the text messages examined were multilingual and contained mixed elements such as in the sentence “Sehen uns nächsten Mittwoch, je t’aime” (See you next Wednesday (in German), I love you (in French)).

Switches between languages were almost twice as frequent in the German text messages (28 per cent) as in the French (15 per cent). In the Romansh data, there was at least one language switch in 53 per cent of all text messages and in the Italian 23 per cent.

“Compared with similar corpuses from abroad, these figures are very high,” Stark said, concluding that Swiss multilingualism was making itself apparent in text messages.

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