Saturday, 15 October 2011

Texes? New plurals in English

I'm having some trouble with my mobile phone tariff at the moment, and I rang up the other day to ask how it's going. The woman I spoke to in the call centre had an accent from south-east England; let's say it was a London accent, though I can't really tell the difference between accents down there. She told me that she had added some texts on to my account, but she pronounced the word something like /'teksɪz/.

The word text has caused many an angry forum discussion since it appeared in English a little over a decade ago*. People have one or more problems with it:

  1. Text isn't a verb, it's a noun! You should say, Send a text message instead!
  2. Text doesn't have a plural! You should say A piece of text [or similar] instead!
  3. Text is the past as well as the present! Texted sounds so ignorant! Learn to use English properly!
Well, these are all clearly idiotic points of view. Especially (2): text is both a non-count noun (which has no plural form) and a count noun (when it does). Compare:
He's produced so much text, I'll never be able to read it all.
We've got so many texts assigned for this course, I'll never be able to read them all. 
The other two moans are yer basic prescriptive anger. (1) is the age-old dislike of verbification of nouns, which has been discussed so much that if you don't know it's been going on forever, you obviously aren't willing to listen. To reiterate: it's fine to use a verb as a noun, many of our verbs were once only nouns, this is not a new development. 

(3), to put it precisely, is the opinion that text should be irregular in its past tense form (like put or hit). This is an odd position to take in some ways - there's no reason for new words to be irregular, and in fact new words tend to be extremely regular. When existing words are co-opted for new uses, they often become regular where their original counterparts are still irregular: the piece of computer equipment known as a mouse can be mouses in the plural, as well as mice

Interestingly, although there are many many people saying you're wrong, childish, ignorant and stupid to say texted, there's no voices for the other side. There are plenty of people who say it's texted, to be sure, but none of them say that text is that awful. 

There seem to be some people (it's hard to tell, as they have zero linguistic knowledge so they tend to be a bit unclear in their explanations) who think that it should be /texɪd/ rather than /textɪd/ (i.e. without the final t). Now this brings us to the reason for all the variation in the pronunciation of the plural. 

One problem with text is that there aren't many words rhyming with it to use as an analogy. There are verbs in the past tense, like vexed and perplexed, and there's next, but they're already past tense, and none of those ever has a plural form. The only other words are derived forms like context. So we don't have a handy example to tell us how the past or the plural should be said. 

The bigger problem, though, is the final consonant cluster. The final sound of the syllable is something like /kst/, a cluster which even in the bare form text is often going to be reduced to just /ks/ ('tex'). In the past tense, you have the cluster ending in an alveolar stop (t) followed by another alveolar stop (d) with only a poor defenceless little vowel in between to keep them apart. It was never going to work out well, and it's hardly surprising that you get /teks/ > /tekst/ or 'tex' > 'texed', which given its homophony with the word text is spelt 'text'. 

Similarly, the plural form, if regular, would end in the almost impossible cluster /ksts/. I think when I say it, I begin with that form and it comes out something like /teks/. But if you start with the reduced form as the basic form, the plural is logically /'teksɪz/, as my call centre woman said it. To me this sounds odd, as I know that the written form is 'texts', and that is what I approximate in my pronunciation. 

What surprises me is, firstly, that a woman who presumably sees the word written down all day every day still goes by the sound rather than the spelling. Secondly, this is such a new word! It's all happening so fast. In just a few short years this word has gone from being non-existent (with this meaning) to being one of our illogical spellings brought about through sound changes. Knight and through had to wait hundreds of years to become detached from their sounds. 

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*I don't know exactly when text was first used as a verb. I was a regular texter in 1999, when phones became affordable for teenagers like I was at the time, but I can't now remember whether we called it 'texting' yet. I think we might still have referred to it as 'text messaging' in the early days, but I don't think it was long before it became 'texting'. I'm therefore going for a date in the late 1990s, on the basis that I was not a particularly early adopter and a fairly linguistically conservative (for a teenager). 

4 comments:

  1. Hello Laura,
    I just discovered your blog through syntactician's Tumblr post and I love it. This is a fascinating post. I have blogged about this topic in the past too. http://walkinthewords.blogspot.com/2011/07/past-tense-of-text.html
    I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

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  2. Hello Laura :)

    Thank you! I'm so pleased you like it. Your post is really interesting too - and I hadn't seen Crystal's piece on this topic. I've been reading your blog for a little while too, it's really good. Good luck with the 'best grammar blog' award!

    (Full disclosure: syntactician is me doing double duty and failing to be consistent in my branding.)

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  3. According to the framework of phonology we work in at my uni, syllable structure only allows a maximum of 2 consonants in coda position, unless of course there's additional morphology going on, e.g. in 'warmed' (with a rhotic accent).
    The one problem for this theory is a very small class of words that have an 'x', like 'text' and 'next' - so maybe that could contribute to the strange plural form that surfaces in some grammars? Just a thought (that hasn't been thought out properly yet!)

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  4. Yeah, the x does seem to be the problem, and it is only a very few words that have it, most of which don't need pluralising (like next). Interesting. In a way, that means that these words aren't a problem for that theory, as they get simplified in this way to fit in with the 'two consonants in a coda' rule.

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