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


  1. Thee write something that one many cannot understand.. Thy should make it simpler for the common man.. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!!!

  2. I'll come back to this blog.
    I agree with you hands down....good going Vinitha :)

  3. @Vineeth: I can't understand what you have written !

    @ Quest to Quench: Thanks! Do come around. :)

  4. *smiles*

    I agree with everything you have to say.. I HATE it when people use short forms. We always have time to type out proper words. Maybe they should admit they are just being lazy bums when they refuse to do so.

    From management point of view for SMS lingo:

    High efficiency, low quality.

  5. I actually read the whole blog. It's well-written and deserves to go to print. Try sending it somewhere. Good going and I'm glad yo have returned to writing for once again. Let your fans have their time :)

  6. Parents don't lurch, they usually lurk. Well written post.

  7. good work.
    i am not an expert in english.
    i need to develop an english blog.
    u are good in d language.
    i hv an english slot. but it did not work well.
    can u help blogging in english.
    pls hav a look in my blog if u read malayalam

  8. Oh boy!! Another grammar Nazi - somehting my kids *endearingly* like to call me!! Loved the post, it being a complete guide to how NOT to write. But honestly, I am a mother of teo school going kids; and it is apalling the way language has become the least concentrated on! Thank you for the post!

  9. @ Nirvana: Glad to see another 'Grammar Nazi' ;)
    I also wonder about the future of the language, in the hands of the future generation. Ah well, only time can tell us. Thanks for stopping by here! :)

  10. Look.
    As a teenager, I have NEVER used such language while texting.
    All my friends keep using such lingo and I am the odd one out since I have always wanted to preserve my sanity and dignity.
    But, yes, the English language is deteriorating thanks to the SMS lingo.
    One of my friends actually thought it would be alright to write his exam paper in SMS lingo.
    I am a Grammar Nazi and always will be one. To this, my friends say-"LOLZ" :|

    Featured post, please read & promote-

  11. Yash,
    A man's gotta do, what a man's gotta do. So keep doing what you think is right.
    So what if your friends say - "LOLZ"? We know who'll have the last laugh!

    P.S. If you didn't get it, that will be us.



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