Monday, November 21, 2005

That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane, and Lenny Bruce is not afraid.

2B? Nt2B? What was the question?

In another sign that the world as we know it is ending, a British mobile phone service is planning to condense classic works of literature into ‘text-speak’ claiming that it would be a big help to students. Im sure it will be. We had Cliff’s Notes, they have Nokia. But what I find interesting is that a whole new language managed to emerge right from under our very noses. Oh, I haven’t been living under a rock; I know about text-speak. Ive seen blog pages and Friendster pages written entirely in text-speak. What I never realized is the level of sophistication it has managed to gain ever since I got my first ‘Gud am ΓΌ’ message. (To which I replied, ‘Damn you too, you puwet.’)

For instance, check out this classic piece of literature in text-speak:

Jack-oposnLeadrTaksR'sSuportersAway. MystryBeastOnIslandCauzsPanicBtSimonFindsOutTisOnlyAParachute.
Jtries2kilRbtR's savd ByShipDat c's emergncySmoke.

Entire web pages are written, entire meaningful conversations are being exchanged, using this language loosely based on English. In a way, it's inevitable. Languages have always evolved from more complexity to less complexity. As people draw closer, as technology transforms this planet into one community, shared experiences makes it easier for a language to change from a low context language to a high context language, where meaning is not solely dependent on the words themselves, but on the shared history and experiences of the conversants. Chinese is such a language. Grammatically, it's one of the simplest languages in existence. It has done away with tenses and prepositions, conjugations and inflections. It's a language made of pictographs where a character represents a simple idea and to form complex ideas, all you have to do is put these pictographs together. As a high context language, everything Chinese wants to say isnt in the characters, but in the shared experiences of the Chinese people. They get it because they have a psychic connection with each other. English, on the other hand, is highly complex. It has to be. Being a low context language, the words have to carry the burden of meaning, and you do that by having precise rules of usage. You learn to cook in English by reading a cookbook with all its precise measurements and descriptions. You learn to cook in Chinese by watching a master at work and imitating said master, trying to assimilate his experiences until they become your own.

Which brings us to text-speak. It seems that people who have meaningful conversations using this language have to have by necessity an empathy with each other, and with the cultural context theyre living in. The words themselves don't carry the meaning they wish to convey. You have to supply that yourself, and if youre not empathetic, if youre a words-as-building-blocks-for-logic person, you won't get it. You won't see the connections. Ive blogged about this difficulty once, claiming that text-speak isnt a medium for any meaningful conversation, but perhaps Im just not the kind of person to use it. Im a fuddy-duddy, and Im out of touch with the prevailing zeitgeist. Other people seem to be doing fine. In a way, a weeding out is beginning. Evolution is selecting people who 'get it' for survival. With the greater use of the internet and SMS to get dates, only those who can use it well, those who can find meaning despite the meaning-impoverished text messages, have a greater chance of getting laid.

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