TPCS 1: Lessons in textspeak from Sexy Chick: Supervernacular literacy in South African Instant and Text Messaging

Working paper
The Editors

Fie Velghe


The uptake of mobile phones has created new communicative environments which in turn create new possibilities and opportunities for identity making and the making of (super)communities. Those (super)communities develop new supervernaculars and challenge the standard rules of ‘established’ language practices through the emergence of normativity within the supervernacular and its local and translocal dialects. Just as in formal learning practices of standard language practices, one has to become a literate participant of the new communicative environments, by learning or being taught the norms, modes and codes of the supervernacular and its localized varieties in an often very informal way. Looking at the emergent normativity of textspeak in instant messaging messages and text messages between the author and Lisa, an inhabitant of a post-apartheid township in South Africa, this article illustrates the emergent norms, modes and codes of those new resources and the social and cultural repertoires that go along with them. Finally, looking at the transportation of supervernacular literacy from Lisa to the author, this article explores the role of the ethnographeras-pupil, as finding out is learning.

Keywords: supervernacular, emergent normativity, MXIT, textspeak, language learning 

How to quote (APA):  Velghe, F. (2011). Lessons in textspeak from Sexy Chick:  Supervernacular literacy in South  African Instant and Text Messaging, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies nr. 1

Read the full working paper Lessons in textspeak from Sexy Chick:  Supervernacular literacy in South  African Instant and Text Messaging.


Mobile phones have become a necessity and a fixed value in the daily life of people all over the world. The recent uptake of ICT’s – and of mobile phones in particular – has been especially remarkable in the developing world. According to ITU, the developing world is increasing its share from 53% of total mobile subscriptions at the end of 2005 to 73% at the end of 2010 (ITU 2010). Until the arrival and uptake of mobile phones, people in the global south only had minimal access to telecommunication technologies since the uptake of landline networks has always been very limited, compared to the developed world.ii Nowadays even the people at the bottom of the income pyramid have a mobile phone; for the first time in history they can take part in the telecommunication society.

New communicative environments create ‘new channels of communication, new linguistic and cultural forms, new ways of forming and maintaining contacts, networks, groups and new opportunities for identity making’ (Wang and Varis 2011). Living in Wesbank, the South African township from which the data for this article originate, the adoption of a mobile phone made it possible to transgress one’s immediate life-world and participate in local and translocal activities, something that was very difficult before the uptake of the mobile phone, due to the physical and mental seclusion and exclusion of the community. Short- and long-distance mobile - and often online - networks create new identity repertoires and large-scale (mobile) communities, communities that develop new vernaculars; supervernaculars (Wang and Varis 2011) so to speak. Those new communicative environments - created by the mobile phone in this case - are enabling a constant ‘diversification of diversity’ (Vertovec 2006) and are challenging the established rules of ‘standard’ language practices. A new supervernacular - textspeak or instant messaging language

for instanceiii - is, however, not merely characterized by happy heterogeneity but is constantly controlled, ordered and curtailed (Wang and Varis 2011). Not anything ‘goes’ and is allowed in texting, and instead of looking at textspeak as a corruption of language and a degradation of standard spelling, it is interesting to look at the norms and modes that go hand in hand with the development of such a new global vernacular. To avoid miscommunication, freedom and creativity - in the conformation of superdiversity - is controlled by an emergent normativity. ‘Gr8, C U@8’ will be regarded ‘correct’, according to the norms and rules of the ‘global medialect’ (Mcintosh 2010) supervernacular. Gr8, S U@8 on the other hand would be ‘wrong’ and could even be ridiculed and dismissed. What looks new, chaotic, creative and experimental is a strictly ordered and conventional language in practice.

In Wesbank, a community characterized by multilingualismiv and superdiversity, texting and chatting is predominantly done in the global ‘code’ or medialect based on English and its orthography but often mixed with other (inter)national languages such as Afrikaans and isiXhosa (see also Deumert and Masinyana 2008). The emergent normativity characterizing the global supervernacular is thus influenced and controlled by local and translocal systems, which instigates a process of localization. Supervernaculars are brought into a strictly local economy of meaning. Norms of the global are not just merely copied, but are coloured by an original ‘local’ accent, in this case the South African accent, or a predominantly Western Cape Afrikaans accent to be more precise. We will see examples of this localization, or the emergence of ‘dialects of the supervernacular’, later in this article.

As it is possible to write things ‘wrong’ or ‘correctly’ in textspeak, the norms, modes and codes characterizing and controlling the supervernacular have to be learned and made one’s own. According to Blommaert and Backus (2011) ‘language learning’ is ‘a broad range of tactics, technologies and mechanisms by means of which specific language resources become part of someone’s repertoire’. Not learned in formal schooling, alternative literacies, such as textspeak, are learned through often very informal, more democratically organized learning trajectories and by a usage-based approach (Blommaert and Backus 2011). As repertoires are indexical biographies of the person using them (idem 2011), it is important to ‘speak or write right’, as repertoires - constantly fluid and moving – and the possibility of applying or not being able to apply them at the right time and place and in the right context shelter much more than mere linguistic resources. They produce social and cultural meanings of the self and ‘contribute to the potential to perform certain social roles, inhabit certain identities and be seen in a particular way by others’ (idem 2011). So being able to ‘chat right’ or ‘text right’ in this case says more than just something about the linguistic repertoire and literacies of the person chatting or texting. It also says something about one’s place and role and involvement in the new communicative environment, one’s social and economic possibilities to participate in it and one’s social, cultural and economic capabilities to learn, appropriate and play with the global supervernacular.

In this article we will look at the case of one inhabitant of Wesbank, chatting on an instant messaging programme called MXIT under the pseudonym ‘Sexy Chick’ in a global (English) medialect (textspeak) with a local (Afrikaans) accent and her interaction with me, the ethnographer coming from abroad - with neither English nor Afrikaans as her mother language - who is not at all familiar with this locally ‘coloured’ supervernacular nor with a cell phone-based instant messaging programme like MXIT. We will look at my first steps in the instant messaging world, and see how Sexy Chick is teaching me modes and norms, unconsciously creating an - informal - tutor-pupil dynamic, in which she is teaching, defying and correcting me and in which I seek for challenges and ask for explanation, gradually expanding the resources entering my repertoire. Moreover, we will look at the new identity repertoires and the social and cultural meanings of the self that are being created and maintained through the new communication environment and how, next to an emergent linguistic normativity there is an emergent social normativity, characterized by expectations surrounding chat programmes and the responses to those expectations.

In what follows, we will start by describing the context of the field, giving an explanation of the origins of the data and by introducing ‘Sexy Chick’. Then we will look at some examples of chat sessions, having a closer look at emergent normativity and the tutor-pupil dynamic, followed by developing the social normativity assumption. We will conclude by reflecting on the methodology of ethnographic fieldwork and on how I became an ‘informal’ pupil. Finding out is learning, and as doing ethnographic fieldwork is much about ‘finding out’ – how people live, function, think, communicate, ... - through an empirical approach, the ethnographer often becomes a pupil, curiously taking shaky steps into a reality that is partly or totally unknown and new.