August 24, 2011 Edition

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Speaking in code

Vivian Heyl
Staff Writer

The other day my phone gave its characteristic chiming sound indicating I had a text message. I picked it up and read r u @ wrk or r u otwh? Interestingly enough I actually understood what I read. On occasion though there's one that stumps me, such as, 411 that was 511. Never mind what I had said, but I was being told, "for my information that was too much information."

As more and more of us have turned to our phones for our primary source of communication, we have had to learn text speak as a second language. There are always those times when we need to communicate something to someone and it is quicker and easier to type it and send it than to call and communicate it verbally. Especially if we are not sure the other person is in a situation where they can take our call.

Text speak is not really new. It's been around for a while. In fact we could actually say text speak got its start in the 1800s. How on earth can that be? Consider the invention of the telegraph. For the first time people could communicate in a timely fashion across the country or even the ocean but it cost so much per word that it was prohibitive to many people to use it. Thus telegraphic code was invented. A typical message could be nothing more than a string of letters with each letter standing for a whole word. If you think text speak is difficult to understand just try to decipher one of those messages.

After the advent of the phone the use of the telegraph for fast communication became less and less and as the years went by and communication continued to improve most of us forgot about the telegraph.

With the advent of computers our lives changed yet again. E-mail was fast and easy and most of us learned about instant messaging and chat. Messaging and chat are the real ancestors of phone texting. To be efficient in chat many short cuts were developed. Words were shortened and sentences were reconstructed. Sometimes phrases became acronyms instead of individual words. Some of these early texting phrases include BRB, BTW, TTYL and LOL, which translate into: be right back, by the way, talk to you later and laughing out loud. Some phrases became so prevalent that they made their way into our verbal communication. How many times have you heard someone say FYI in place of for your information?

If, like me, you are not thoroughly up to date on text speak the current vocabulary may boggle your mind. There is a vast amount of it and it now requires its own dictionary. My high school English teacher was appalled by our language back in the 60s so I imagine today's idea of composition would leave her aghast.

I don't know how much texting will affect our spoken and written language in the long run. Many fear it has already corrupted our ability to write. I have optimism though, because I see people busily typing everywhere I go. I think texting might actually improve our ability to communicate. At least when the words are being typed there is some conscious thought put into what is being said. A vast improvement over just vocalizing the first thought that comes into our minds.

Perhaps Pythagoras foresaw texting when he advised us to not say a little in many words, but a great deal in a few.

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