Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What's in a Word?

Gone are the days when people knew how to write complete, wholesome, punctuated sentences. They are just gone! Bam! Shakespeare will have to do more than squirm in his grave to overcome the anguish at seeing where Queen's English is going.
Before I start off with dishing out a piece of my mind here, let me make it clear that I am not taking the moral high ground here and decrying the lack of concern people have for the language. But well, I am quite a stickler for spellings, grammar and pronunciation (people who have been at the receiving end of boring lectures from me can testify!). And I write this purely out of personal concern. But if I do seem to go overboard with my accusations, blame it on my love for the language!
Saying that SMS revolutionized the world would be an understatement. Ask the English teachers, professors or lecturers. "U rite like dis in exam, u’ll get 0" screamed the headline of an article in the newspaper. Unable to decipher the answer scripts, Bangalore University (BU) authorities have decided to ban Textese or SMS lingo in exams! It is touted to be the first university to ban such language. As one Professor succinctly put it, “Students write ppt for both precipitation as well as power point presentation; est for estimate, estate and establishment. Now, how can teachers understand what the student intends to say?” 
The most quoted example of textese is the "essay" written by a 13-year old Scottish girl! Figure this out:
“My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 kids FTF. ILNY, it’s a gr8 plc.”
What it means is: "My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York. It’s a great place.” 
So why has it become such a hit? 
The internet, for starters. Instant messaging (or IMs, as we know it) became a rage. People were introduced to the world of 'chatting'. My first taste of chat starts with my cousin introducing to me a chat messenger called ICQ (itself an acronym for I Seek You... get it?). Soon enough, typing complete words (or sentences) itself became passé. In the desire to communicate faster, and more "effectively" (ahem), people started kicking out letters, or shortening the words. A whole new code arose on the internet. Chat afficionados would probably get what "lol" or "lmao" means! 
But the real inducer was the arrival of the SMS. When mobile phones were introduced, a call was costlier than an SMS. This automatically  led to the flow of creative juices in people, who had to cost-effectively communicate to others within 160 characters! 
So what do you have? The birth of a whole new kind of language. One which might be intimidating or intriguing at first. But then, it's easy to get hooked. People who don't have the patience to type, or the money to waste joined the bandwagon. Today is, what I call, the world of Digital Shorthand.
And I must grant it; the creativity involved in Digital Shorthand is just phenomenal. Let me give you a sample of how creative it gets:
  • Vowel-less English - What's common in 'ppl', 'txt', 'msg', 'brkfst' and 'plc'? The vowels are missing. It's amazing to see that words can still make sense when vowels are removed. And so, people have quickly adopted this kind of English. Any word can be trimmed of its flab by removing the vowels. 
  • Alphanumeric Code - 'gr8', 'w8', '2nite', '2mrw', 'l8r', 'b4','db8'..... well, you get the drift. Condensing words couldn't get better.
  • Puncturing Punctuations - 'Wasnt', 'doesnt', 'isnt', 'its'.....What's more, there are no more commas, full stops or capital letters after a full stop, in this language. I'd say that punctuations have become redundant in textese. Or rather, they have found newfound usage. Understand these?
                                           :-)     ;-)     :|    :D   :@   :B    :*    :S    
  • Acronyms - This one takes the cake. Whole sentences have been compressed into crisp 3- or 4-letter words (not of the other kind), which can even express sentiments you can't show through SMS or chat. Take for instance 'lol' (laugh out loud), 'lmao' (laughing my ass off), 'g2g' (got to go), 'ttyl' (talk to you later), 'kit' (keep in touch) or 'tc' (take care). Then there's the dangerous 'sos'. You would think it's a harmless 'save our souls'; but it stands for 'someone over shoulder', which kids and teenagers conveniently use to warn their chat partner if their parent or family member is lurching near their PC!
  • Speaking phonetically - Many people spell words by how it sounds. For instance, 'gud nite', 'bcoz', 'shud' etc. The ultimate of phonetic spellings is when single letters symbolise words in themselves; like 't' (tea), 'q' (queue), 'b' (be/bee), 'y' (why), 'u' (you), 'r' (are), 'c' (see), 'v' (we)... And then we have 'd' (for 'the') !
But the craziest version of this is when people spell "movie" as "muvee", or "was" as "wuz".
Oh c'mon! It has the same number of letters. What are you showing? That you are from another planet?
  • Merge and Spell - This is not entirely out of the SMS/chat world. But words like 'gonna' (going to), 'wanna' (want to) and many more have evolved.
  • Misspelling - This one doesn't make much sense. But it's still prevalent. What difference does it make if you spell 'cool' as 'kool', or 'uncle' as 'unkle'? You have just managed to forget what it was really like ! Sheesh! Or should we be blaming Ekta Kapoor and Karan Johar for the 'K' syndrome?!
  • The only excess use of characters in this lingo is for emphasis! For instance, when I say, "yyeeesssssss!!!!!!!!!"...... you get how emphatic I am !
Great creativity, but makes lesser sense. Before you laugh off my concern as pointless, it's maybe time to see what impact it has on people. At least you and I know how to actually spell words. There is a whole new generation learning to spell in SMS lingo, even before they learn to spell words correctly. What's worse, the reading habit is on the decline. Add both, and what you have is disaster looming large.
A study in UK indicates that teenagers are becoming unemployable because they have a vocabulary of just 800 words; whereas they should have developed a broad vocabulary of 40,000 words by the time they reach 16 ! The top 20 words used by teenagers, including 'yeah', 'no' and 'but', account for about a third of all words used. No laughing matter, this.
There is no harm in using this language, as long as you know that is not the right one always. Language does evolve to suit the speakers, and textese is an indication of the changing times we are in. And it's better to use this cryptic form in SMS or chat. Who has the patience or time to type punctuations and correct spellings?

But sadly, it is  increasingly manifesting in exams, speeches and job interviews. As it is, people cannot make out the difference between "to" and "too", "where" and "were", " its" and "it's".
The spillover of textese into normal and formal communication is where the problem lies. Formal communication will never be replaced with textese. Increasingly, we are becoming the  Auto-spell check generation. It's amusing to see how casually people rely on Microsoft Word to correct spelling, grammar and punctuation! 
Education systems worldwide are recognizing this trend. Many colleges and universities discourage using objective questions or multiple-answer questions. As the student does not have to write long answers, the use of written language is restricted. Encouraging reading is another option on the rise. The digital age has killed reading; or so, many claim. All I can hope is that this age does something to encourage it; e-readers like Kindle, etc. have hit the market. The impact remains to be seen. There are many in the West, who advocate cutting TV/Browsing time for the youth, so that conversations at home take place, encouraging people to communicate more and use English language as it is.
Let's face it; reading SMS lingo all the time can be really boring. Imagine text books, articles, and newspapers in textese. Sure, it will save reams of paper (what with words so condensed), but it's such a pain! So all I hope is that the English language survives the torment of technology. Let's give Shakespeare something to cheer about!

Thought for the day: "Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work. " ~Carl Sandburg, New York Times

Monday, January 04, 2010

All Izz Well?

No prizes for guessing what this is about. Nothing but the talk of the town (for reasons good, bad and ugly!) - Three Idiots!

Here's a movie which hit theatres on a Christmas day, and all hell broke loose! It was amazing to see the kind of rave reviews it got within a day of its release. People updating their status on Facebook and Orkut; tweets galore on how great and a 'must-watch' the movie is. 'Word of mouth' endorsement never had it this good. And with all the hype, rises expectations. So did mine. And that's where it fails.

I am not saying that 3 Idiots is bad; but it's 'not bad'. And as Raja Sen of rightly said about the movie, "when did 'not bad' become good"? I think it had to do with the low expectations from Bollywood movies. And so, it's not a case of the movie being great; people didn't have 'great expectations' to start with.

Now, to briefly put what is good about the movie. The movie does have its moments: the "balatkar - chamatkar" fiasco, ragging methods (which is known to many people, by the way), the Joy Lobo and his chopper incident (followed by his suicide), the 50s 'black and white' melodrama of Raju Rastogi's family and so on.

But, the problem with the movie is that it tries to marry madness to matter.
It tries not to be didactic about the Indian education system, which converts students into 'memorizing machines' and pressurizes students to learn by rote. To an extent the movie succeeds; but in parts. For instance, when Joy Lobo quits on life; or when Rancho teaches 'Virus' how to teach through inventing words such as 'Prerajulization' and 'Farhanitrate'. The movie caricatures the typical student through Chatur, who's an excellent example of conventional learning, where matter goes through his head, but not through his brains. His balatkar speech was just a hyperbole to drive home the fact. The makers also stick to the tried-and-tested formula of having a mantra (much like Jadoo ki Jhappi) in this film too: All Izz Well, which is a rage already.

At the same time, the movie strays to become a breezy entertainer, and thus a lot of comic elements and Bollywood-esque melodrama is thrown in for good measure!

Take for instance the caricature that 'Virus' is. It is quite alright to make him a typical khadoos principal. But the 7.5-minute power nap, the shaving that happens in between and his mannerisms are too much of an exagerration. Deforming that character to such unwarranted proportions made him a joke, more than anything.

The movie heavily relies on the email forwards or mobile jokes (case in point: the astronaut pen and the mix up of answer scripts). So much so that it left those who know them bored. It was even more unbelievable to see that some impostor could go through college masquerading as someone else, only to be conveniently dislodged once the degree certificate is attained! Another scene which is quite astonishing is how Raju is revived from his coma - by promising him to marry his sister off to Farhan for FREE! Not to forget the melodrama in the scene where Farhan appeals to his dad; and also Raju's job interview. It's amazing to realize that hamming is still a part and parcel of Hindi movies.

And the one that takes the cake is the delivery of the child by a Vacuum Cleaner (version 2.0)! The makers of the movie like to call that scene "the most emotional moment of the film". Sure, it did take my breath away. Not because of the delivery, but because it left me gasping in disbelief! And what's more; the child kicks back to life when they chant the mantra: "All Izz Well"! I had thought such fine aspects of movie-making was done and over with. But, well... the Hindi movies never fail to surprise me.

In short, the movie is a glimpse of not what it is, but what it could be. There was a lot of potential in developing an honest film - just as the Munnabhai series. But, the Bollywood masala was a tad too much and it spoiled the dish!

Going beyond the movie

The movie tried to send a message, and it has been totally lost in transit. The movie urges its viewers to have a re-look at the education system and how learning takes place. The fact is, all who I know came back from the movie saying that it was 'fun', a 'cool concept', 'must-watch' and so on. It remains just that - an entertainer.

Blaming the system alone is not fair. After a point of time, students are happily using the pretext of the system and justifying why they are not applying themselves while studying. I, for instance, can see that happening even in my own B-school. At post-graduation level, no one essentially tests your 'by-hearting' skills. We get to do case studies, situational analysis, learn frameworks and so on. But ultimately, my experience tells me that marks is all what matters to people, at large. I have seen people haggling for a mark or half, cheating, fighting, fretting and so on. People are quick to say it was 'out of syllabus' or 'it was not taught to us'. And it never ceases to amaze me how people can't shake off that mentality; even at the post-graduation level. Even when we are all educated and mature enough to know that the grades on your sheet is no indicator of your success in life: be it placements, professional or personal life.

Until the change happens from both the sides, learning will happen as it has happened always. Effort has to be be put in both by the system and the students that are a part of it. And using the education system as an excuse for not applying one's mind and REALLY trying to learn is just hogwash.

It reminds me of a classic definition which seems to suit this thought.

Lecture [lek-cher] noun, verb, -tured, -turing: An art of transmitting information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student, without passing through the minds of either.

Until then, we can fool ourselves, like Aamir says, by keeping a hand on our hearts and saying:
"All Izz Well !!!"

Thought for the day: "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." - B. F. Skinner


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