Thursday, September 2, 2010

Do U h8 txt msging lingo or do U thnk its just gr8?

I recently did a lesson on the language of texting (SMS) - and Internet slang - LOL, BTW  etc, and got to thinking about how old the use acronyms and abbreviations is. Acronyms, BTW, are those abbreviations that are said as a word. So the UN is an abbreviation (we say the individual letters), but UNESCO is an acronym, we say it as a word. In English we tend to use fewer acronyms, than for example French, where they seem to be able to make every group of letters into words.

 When I was a student sharing a flat, (long before SMS or even the Internet had been invented), we used to leave each other messages like - CU @5 4T, CU L8R etc.
In fact @, or the 'at' sign, now a universal symbol of the Internet, goes back to the first typewriters, and simply means ‘at’. EG: 3 bananas @ 30p each = 90p.

In the days when people still sent letters you might write SWALK (sealed with a loving kiss) on the back of the envelope. A rather more risqué practice was to write NORWICH, a custom apparently popular amongst World War II soldiers. (Norwich is a city in the east of England, but here stands for ‘Knickers off ready when I come home’) - the K in knickers being silent, like the K in know. It was also said that housewives ‘playing away’ (having an affair) would put a packet of ‘OMO’ washing powder in their window to show their lovers when the coast was clear, OMO signifying ’Old man out’. In the UK ‘the old man’ can mean father, boss or in this instance husband.

When checking up on NORWICH, I was delighted to find that top of Google’s list was World Wide Words, one of my favourite websites and a mine of information concerning new words, strange expressions etc. This page has masses of these abbreviations.

Roz Chast, a cartoonist for the New Yorker, gently satirised this sort of language in her cartoon "The I.M.s of Romeo and Juliet", where Romeo complains - "scool sucked 2day", and Juliet a bit later says - "cardoza called home, sez im failig spanish btw both my rents hate U". Now some people get very angry at this.

But people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones - the writer of that particular blog writes - They are also just mis-spelled period as if these kids didn't really know how to spell. They type to eachother about their day and tell eachother how their parents dislike the other. - Now as far as I know we say each other, not eachother. (And my spellcheck agrees with me.)

You can see the full version of Chast’s verse here. (PDF file), and a calendar of the poem here (click on the picture to enlarge). For more of Chast’s cartoons just check out Google images.

There’s another, longer, version of Romeo and Juliet  here.

If some people are concerned that this usage is dumbing down the English language, Professor David Crystal disagrees. In his book Txtng: the Gr8 Db8, he even argues to the contrary, that it is in fact a creative use of the language. This Times review of the book also shows you how to text in various languages. There’s another rather good review at the Daily Mail by James Dellingpole (not normally one of my favourite journalists, I have to confess). Incidentally Professor Crystal also does a feature at BBC Learning English - Keep your English up to date, and has quite a lot of stuff on YouTube

And apparently this practice goes back at least to the 19th century. As the Guardian reports, a new exhibition at the British Library devoted to the history of the English language includes this poem by Charles C Bombaugh:

He says he loves U 2 X S,
U R virtuous and Y's,
In X L N C U X L
All others in his i's.

So the Australian band INXS weren’t exactly being groundbreaking when they chose their name.  

As a final puzzle, when I was at school this rhyme was very popular:

I C U R,
YY 4 me

The secret is in how you say ‘YY’ (there’s a clue in the poem by Bombaugh). To find the answer just google the first line.

A note of warning, a Google search for texting language or Internet language brings up a site called in a high position. Just be careful and check this first. (I have WOT as an add-on to my browser, to warn me in advance of risky sites.)

1 comment:

Warsaw Will said...

You can read more about Bombaugh and this strange Victorian poetry at