Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Fwr Vwls 4 Futr Englsh?

As Twitter and text messages force linguistic brevity, English starts to look more like vowel-free Hebrew

Print Email

Might Twitter and text messaging push vowels out of English? Could the language end up looking more Semitic than Germanic?

I’m used to seeing abbreviations on Twitter, chat programs, and text messages on mobile phones. But I was surprised recently when an editor closed an email with “Rgds.” The “s” on the end helped me guess that it wasn’t short for “Rigid” or “Raged,” or so I hoped. Given the context, I assumed he meant “Regards.”

But I wondered how such a word ended up in a business letter. Did it mean that Twitter-ese is making its way into formal, written correspondence? “Rgds”—a string of consonants, vowels implied—reminded me a bit of Hebrew. While a dot system helps Israeli children learn vowels, the dots eventually come off, like training wheels, and adults read and write without them.

While text messages technically limit users to 160 or 320 characters, the average text message spans only 20 to 40 characters, according to Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University and the author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. So, brevity isn’t forced upon us, it’s more a matter of “how much we want to type,” she said.

Abbreviations are a way “to show that you’re hip, you’re in the know, you’re cool,” Baron said. They’re not necessary. Nor are they new. They’ve been popular for at least a thousand years. “Because if you’re writing on parchment and you’re copying manuscripts [by hand],” Baron said, “you would like to save sheep hides and you’d like to save your efforts.” The advent of the printing press standardized some abbreviations. Still, people—out of either laziness or ingenuity, whichever you prefer—kept shortening words. As is the case today, vowels were often the thing to go.

Baron offered an example from the 18th century, when gentlemen closed written correspondence with “Yr hm srv,” short for “Your humble servant.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, Baron said, friends signed letters with “BFF”—short for best friends forever. I remember B.F.F. from my pre-teen days, in the late 1980s and early ’90s. It was everywhere: on the notes we passed in class; in the saccharine sentences we scribbled into each other’s notebooks; on the heart-shaped pendants that best friends wore. “We do tend to reinvent the wheel sometimes,” Baron said. “But, absolutely, [BFF] existed decades before this.” There’s of course no shortage of references to it now.

And, by the way, “btw” didn’t spring from chat, Twitter, or text message. Nor did “b/c” for because or “b/w” for between. All are, Baron said, “way old.”

According to Carmen Fought, a linguistics professor at Pitzer College and the author of Language and Ethnicity, there is a chance that such common abbreviations could make their way into spoken language. “The word ‘because’ becomes ‘bec’ because people are used to [using b/c],” Fought said, adding that students are saying “LOL” aloud, pronouncing the common acronym for “laugh out loud” like the word “loll.”

This phenomenon is common in the Philippines, where abbreviations are embraced (a little too enthusiastically, some say). For example, a Filipino who has grown up in America, or who has an American parent, is called a “Fil-am.” Overseas Filipino workers are referred to by their acronym: OFWs.

English is similarly open. Fought explained: “It’s like this mutt language, like the dog you pick up from the shelter that’s a little bit of this and that. We’ve got Latin roots, Greek roots, French, German, Scandinavian borrowings. English will borrow from any language.”

Because English is so chaotic, many English-speakers have a hard time learning to spell. And they seem to drift, naturally, toward what looks more like the Semitic system.

“What we do know about children learning to write English is that if they are allowed to spell however they wish,” Baron said, “they leave out the vowels. In English, figuring out which vowel to put is tough. The consonants are generally much easier to figure out.”

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email

Hebrew (or Arabic) is more generous in this respect, because we have roots. English, in spite of its multiple sources, is based more on morphemes. I wonder how far will vowel-less English fare. The Root x Binian structure is complex and thought provoking. It was not devised by the Principle of Least Effort… Sms Nglish s ashrt lngug dvisd fr spd nd spc.

Dick Stanley says:

A lot of it texted English is gibberish to me. I suspect it’s a generational thing.

charles r says:

Hey Mya…what the heck are you doing in Tablet…I know Al Jazeera is your favorite haunt.

If you readers do not know what this gal usual writes, please google her….here is one bloggers succinct summary of our little leftist self-hater that I found among others:

“If you want to know how debased the anti-Zionist left has become, simply follow the supremely callous musings of Mya Guarnieri – whose lazy stereotypes (crude, ugly caricatures) about Israel, and Israelis, embody a movement’s hateful, and simply insatiable, fixation on the sins, real and imagined, of living Jews. “

    mjs485 says:

    Charles, judge Mya based on the quality of her journalistic work and reporting skills. 

    We all come to the media profession with preconceived notions and internal biases. But if a writer can push her political opinion to the side and write in an objective and compelling narrative style, כל הכבוד.

      charles r says:

      Have you seen what she has written? Really looked carefully? And that is your response?  Biased and one sided make for good “journalism”?

      Nobody, least of all me, has any problem with objective reporting…however, coming to an issue with a pre-determined point of view is not what I view as journalism. And as a human being, she is a “shonda for the yeeden”;
      ask your grandmother what that means.

    ruth marks says:

    She is taking a break from Israel bashing at +972. She has a very weasely way of reasoning. It does not matter what it is, she will find a way to sneak in her anti-zionist crap. She is boring like all ideologues. She is part of the cult, you know.
    Ruth

Pretty sexy texting. . . . !

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Fwr Vwls 4 Futr Englsh?

As Twitter and text messages force linguistic brevity, English starts to look more like vowel-free Hebrew

More on Tablet:

Why the Teenage Girls of Europe Are Joining ISIS

By Lee Smith — Because they want the same things that teenage boys want: a strong sense of meaning and purpose