Monday, 17 February 2014

Textspeak as Newspeak


Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’, is possibly the best known dystopian novel (although largely a rehash of themes from the disgracefully overlooked ‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin), with many of its terms entering the common lexical. Big Brother, Double-think, and perhaps to a lesser extent ‘Newspeak’, which was the language to replace Oldspeak (or standard English). This new language was designed with the intention of diminishing the range of thought of its speakers. It did so by limiting the words that a person could use, any words irrelevant to the ruling government ‘Ingsoc’ political doctrine were erased, it was all about reducing the vocabulary available to a person and in so doing limiting the range of thought available to them.  Many of the themes in Orwells novels did have a prophetic quality, such as the inherent flaws in Communism, the big-brother society and some would suggest we can now also include ‘newspeak’. Or should I say text-speak. R Shd I sa ‘txt spk’.

Text-speak seems to evoke a certain level of hostility in some people. The hostility towards text-speak seems to be based on the argument that not all change is necessarily a good thing and in this case the underpinning emergence for ‘text-speech’ is that of economy of character. It is about the ability to write your message in as few as characters as possible. It has nothing to do with expanding or developing meaning of words, as with the previous changes, but is simply about brevity. Text speak is a mental laziness and so can only be a bad thing. It critics see it as Newspeak in action. 

The origins of the English language are generally accredited to the Anglo-Saxons, and this ‘Old English’ which was spoken up till the Norman invasion of Britain, is closer to modern Danish or German as opposed the English we speak today. Since then English has evolved into the language that we speak today so why should ‘text-speak’ be seen as something outside the norms of the evolution of language? A 2008 study suggested that the fear around texting maybe unfounded, as children who used greater textisms in their messages tended to perform better on verbal reasoning tasks and spelling tasks.

The reason for this finding may be that it's critics have been too hard on text-speak, confusing efficiency with laziness. Some text messages are linguistically quite intricate, it is a puzzling, novel and fresh approach to language that engages people. It also requires an understanding of how your language works before you start to employ abbreviations , it is people been linguistically creative. 

And this is the point where the ‘newspeak’ comparison to textspeak fails. Orwell was speaking of a language change being imposed from the top-down, an authoritarian design enforced upon the plebs. But what he really opposed wasn't the number of characters or range of words a person uses but rather the sincerity contained within their message, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink” (1948).  It would seem then that Orwell may have been a fan of textspeak. 

Because of the nature of language it is hard to imagine how a Newspeak type system would organically emerge, language is constantly evolving and this is a part of that process. It doesn’t mean that those who text more are limiting themselves. Besides textspeak is nothing new, a young Thomas Hardy wrote the following in 1862, ‘I wish you wd tell me how u. r. when u. write’, before he had written anything about any Mayors of Casterbridge or any girl called Tess. LOL. 

6 comments:

  1. I'd agree with you that text-speak can be linguistically creative and sincere - brevity is the soul of wit and all that. Creating decodable and communicative abbreviations is an impressive and economic manipulation of language. I think the hostile should look to predictive text for their 'mental laziness' target.

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    1. So Smart-phones and their predictive texts could be less smart to the user than they old Nokia 3210's?

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    2. Predictive text is another tool for memory substitution - in this case the need to remember how to spell. Semantic memory is largely defunct as long as we have a connected device close to hand (or indeed embedded). As we discussed previously with the advent of the printing press and obviously more so with the internet our semantic memory was reduced to an index telling us where we need to look for the relevant information. With the advent of Google, the index aspect has become defunct too.

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    3. Real Life Narrative: I was in work the other day and one of the chefs turned around to me and said 'Olivia, you look like the type of person who can spell.' Me: 'What do you mean, how can I look like I can spell?' Chef: 'You just seem like a person who would know how to spell, like how do you spell 'jealous'?' I spelt it and with an 'Ooohh' he realized he had known it all along. He has recently sold his Iphone, so no longer has the tools of 'swipe' or predictive text. 'Mental Laziness' most definitely should focus on predictive text as in most cases you don't even have to write more than 3 letters before it writes it for you, the rest of the word becomes a blur!

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  2. I wonder if court stenographers would ever be the subjects of the same level of hostility or intellectual disdain as those who use text-speak. Part of the function of much English language writing is beauty. It rarely is in a court transcript which must consider it's context - efficient and accurate transcription

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    1. Some groups do seem to be excused, "f u cn rd ths, u cn bcm a sec & gt a gd jb w hi pa", this ran as a advertisement for Legal secretaries in the 1960's,so the ability to say a lot in a little was seen as a skill by some circles. And besides Hemingway was a great fan of the efficient use of language, managing to compose a 6 word short story, "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn".

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