Monday, April 11, 2011

You, Ewe, Yew, U

Note: This is a blog post in progress. I plan to continue editing and updating this post, so please keep that in mind while reading it.

The other day a 10-year-old of my acquaintance told me that she had noticed texting shorthand had become so routine for her that it had started  cropping up in her regular keyboarding when she writes papers and things for school (well, “papers” seems a bit much, but, like the comedy line from Avenue Q  “but they’re kindergarten, so they’re very short.”) She particularly cited using “u” quite a bit on place of “you.”

Now this is of course not surprising. Texting shorthand has been finding its way into school work at many grade levels for some time now. Slang and other types of shorthand have been finding their way into common usage throughout the history of language.

A first instinct might be to knee-jerk react negatively to the usage of texting shorthand in regular writing. I will admit that an initial thought I had in my head was “tsk, tsk.” Though I’m far from perfect, I do try and pay due attention to spelling, grammar, syntax, sentence structure, etc.  I’m not sure how I would react if a student sent  me a written assignment using all shorts of texting shorthand (unless they were sending it to me as a text message or a tweet at my request!)  However, as I began to mull it over, I saw there is another side to consider.

Being strict about grammar, spelling,  sentence structure, use of clauses, et al has its place, and is of value. Whether or not it is always of value is open to debate.

In a “No Child Left Behind” world in which standardized testing is the yardstick, and we strive to create “Stepford students,” spelling (and grammar, et al) is almost a requirement.  If we leave this already clearly doomed to failure NCLB approach behind, we become open to a world where other things besides having every jot and tittle in its place is important.

Consider how we in Jewish Education struggle with teaching Hebrew to our students. Consider as well that modern Hebrew speakers read a form of Hebrew that, like its true ancient ancestor, does not use vowels! Often, the only way to know what a certain word is is through context. Now there’s a skill worthy of teaching our students.

It seems fairly self-evident to me that, in many cases, texting shorthand used in regular writing isn’t much different. Understanding the context of what is being communicated will help the reader who is unfamiliar with the shorthand understand it. It also helps the reader who is familiar with the shorthand understand it.

Now I recognize the value of spelling, and for a great many words which come from or are built upon Greek, Latin and other language roots, knowledge of these roots and their spelling can enable a student to decipher newly encountered words made up from those roots. (Hmm, sort of like Hebrew again. Knowing Hebrew roots, prefixes, suffixes, etc really is the key to learning to understand Hebrew. Yet knowing the vowels is less so, for one can ascertain with reasonable certainty, the vowels used to shape the roots into meaningful words from the context.) So not every word is, IMHO (as Tom Lehrer once said, the rest of you can look that up when you get home) a candidate for a texting shorthand substitute. I’m not sure what the appropriate criteria might be for determining which texting shorthand substitutions might be appropriate in which circumstances.

I discussed this the other day with a now retired elementary school teacher I know (who also happened to have taught the student to which I am referring in this post.)  She did feel strongly that teaching correct grammar and punctuation was important, and she wasn’t ready to wholeheartedly embrace the use of texting shorthand in school work. She responded somewhat differently when I mentioned a related bit of information. Some time ago, a college professor of my acquaintance, who diligently writes out her notes by hand and shares them with her students, was surprised when one of her students told her that the notes were useless because he couldn’t read cursive writing.

I fully expected the retired elementary school teacher to “tsk, tsk” this as well, but she surprised me by relating that during the last few years of teaching, she had begun to argue with her superiors and the school system about their continued insistence of teaching students cursive writing. She believed there were far more important skills to be teaching to students, and cursive was one we could easily do without.

So I asked her why, when she had little difficulty giving up cursive, she wasn’t as amenable to texting shorthand being used. Unfortunately our conversation was interrupted at that point and I’ve yet to discover her answer.

It seems to me that substituting “u” for the word “you” is not an entirely inappropriate form of shorthand, and could become normative. I can understand how an etymologist might object, but from what I know of the etymology of the word you, there’s little to be learned from the spelling that would give  a modern reader a clue to its meaning. Knowledge of correct spelling and roots might be useful for words like philosophy or anamnesis. I’m just not convinced this is as useful when it comes to words like you.

“What about homonyms?” I hear you cry. To the rescue comes context. However, I probably would not approve of “u” becoming a universal substitute for homonyms of the word you like ewe and yew (though I daresay that context would probably allow this to work in some cases-though not all. The sentence “I love u” is easily readable. What about this sentence: “U took that ram and u and u mated them” ? Not quite as easy to decipher.)

Another frequent and ubiquitous substitution is the number symbol “2” for the word “to.” Purists might argue that we have potential homonym problems here, but again I suggest context comes to the rescue. “Me 2!” is no less understandable than “Let’s go 2 your house.”  Now, turning to the Judaics side briefly, how might you feel about seeing this: 2bishvat ? 2b’av? Now we’ve complicated things. We’ve taken a Hebrew number represented by Hebrew characters (15)  and replaced it with a numeric symbol. It might make getting across the point that “tev-vav” is a representation of the number 15 in Hebrew a bit more difficult and confusing.

Let’s be honest-we’ve been using all shorts of symbolic shorthand for decades, even centuries. Think about mathematical and scientific symbols. Consider abbreviations like “etc. Not all abbreviations are free of potential confusion. Most likely only context would reveal what the abbreviation “St.” is representing in a given situation-street or Saint.

When I say 10KB you probably know I mean ten kilobytes. There’s a fair chance if I write “go check the online KB for that software” you’ll know I’m using KB to represent “Knowledgebase.”

Context doesn’t always come to the rescue as easily as we might hope. I am reminded of the  bit from “The Odd Couple” in which Oscar is ranting about a note that Felix left for him and complains that it took him hours figure out that the “F U” at the end of the note stood for Felix Ungar!

Here’s one for you: He knows that He is the symbol for Helium. No problem figuring that one out, right? I am @ home. Pretty obvious, yes?

Is it problematic if these symbols, forms of shorthand, and abbreviations find their way into common written usage? I’m not sure. Personally, I wouldn’t be thrilled to read a book (even on an e-reader) that rendered Shakespeare as “2 b or not 2 b…”

A common defense used by those who utilize texting shorthand is “everyone , including you, understands what I wrote, so why is this a problem?” A common response form those rigidly insistent on a fixed and static form of written language is that it usually and often makes it harder to understand. It’s a vapid response at best.  For those who understand the new shorthand, abbreviations like “WTF",” “FWIW,” and “ROTFLMAO” can actually be easier to understand and make a more emphatic and pointed form of communication than if these expressions were fully written out.

There is a controversial project, the Evolution of Human Languages project, that is attempting to trace the history of written language back to a prototype system of symbols common to early humans around 50,000 years ago and found at mutliple sites of early human settlment. Some linguists have embraced the idea, others reject even the concept, stating that languages are too fluid to be studied across truly large spans of time (current thinking seems to place the outer limit of useful historical study around 7-8,000 years.) I am beginning to wonder if our technology is bringing us full circle, back to a form of written language that is less formal and structured, easier to write and use.

I’ve devoted a good deal of time and effort in my life in learning to write properly according to established conventions (though I would point out that are variations in the standards-witness the manual different “style manuals.”) The same is true for many of us. A certain amount of jealousy or frustration may be involved in our knee-jerk reactions to the increasing “threat” of email and text shorthand finding its way into common written usage.

Except for the few true curmudgeons among us, most of us are using email, chat, twitter, texting on cell phones, etc. We must admit that the use of shorthand and abbreviations is, to a large degree, not just convenient but necessary. So we excuse our own use of the shortcuts in those situations. Is continued stubborn resistance to any usage of these abbreviations and forms of shorthand in more formal writing truly logical and appropriate. Now, the obvious argument to raise here is the “slippery slope.” If we allow some shorthand, we’ll simply open the floodgates to all.

History has not proven this true.  Telegraphy, radio, television, computers, e-mail – all have been heralded by some as signs of the death of written language. Written language will survive as it always has. The forms it takes in the future may be less familiar, but that is the nature of language – it changes and adapts.

Since I’m writing these words from Amherst, MA I can hardly pass up the opportunity to remind us all that Emily Dickinson was thought of by some of her contemporaries as posing a similar attack upon the conventions of writing. Now her work is view as brilliant.

Then there’s Twitter.  Being forced to say something meaningful in 140 characters or less. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I, for one, am often criticized for being verbose, and I struggle to be concise and on point. Using Twitter is actually helping me to hone the skills required. The same is no less true for digital natives.

I came across this quote on 
while perusing the internet for fodder for this post.

I would actually argue that effective tweeting and texting require a higher level of literacy, because you need to have a solid understanding of the language before you can abridge it.

The author of that blog also makes the point that Twitter and texting eliminate the availability of formatting like italics, bold, and underline that we use as aids to help us convene meaning, tone, and intent. Trying to make your point without the benefits of formatting text is actually more difficult, and helps to sharpen communication skills.

To those who insist on sticking their feet into the mud- you might want to try reading a little poetry. In particular, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias. The mighty edifice that is the form and structure of the English language as it exists today my look as vain and forlorn as the shattered statue of Shelley’s poem.  Changing TELAWKI (the English language as we know it) will not bring about TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it.) On the other hand, due caution ought to be observed. The introduction of email and texting shorthand into common English writing may have unexpected consequences. Or, as Robert Heinlein put it, TANSTAAFL (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.) OMG, I used the word “ain’t.” It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy aka Yoeitzdrian)

Some online links pertaining to this subject:

This discussion from the BBC website is from 2003!

I’ll post more links as I come across them.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Paying It Forward – My 2011 Birthday Experience

[Posted both here and on my Migdalor Guy blog]

Yesterday was an amazing day. It was my 56th birthday, and I spent the morning teaching Jewish music to kids at the SAJ, most of the afternoon on a bus back to Amherst, and a quite evening here with a wonderful birthday dinner and desert.

What made it truly amazing was the many, many birthday greetings I received on Facebook, e-mail, and other electronic fora. I was, frankly, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who sent me greetings. The vast majority of those greetings were not the product of some app, but the effort of an individual friend, colleague, or family member. Most, were, indeed, short and terse, but many were obviously individually crafted and not generic at all. Some of you may believe that’s important. I am no longer so certain that is the case.

Even those who turned over the task of sending me a birthday greeting to an automated app still had to take the time to add my name to the list of those they wanted to included among the recipients.

Sure, I got plenty of automatically generated birthday greetings from businesses like CVS, my insurance agents, financial planners, and from many of the online fora to which I am subscribed. Are those heartfelt? Probably not many of them. Are they just marketing tools?  Probably so. I don’t mind. And the coupons can be a nice bonus. At the same time, I don’t feel as obligated to acknowledge those birthday greetings.

Yet I felt so blessed for all those birthday greetings, that I am taking the time to respond with a thank you to each and every one-and believe me, that’s a lot.

I can already hear some of you thinking “it’s not about the quantity, it’s about the quality.” Like all supposed truisms, even this one has levels of subtle complexity. Quantity is relative, anyway. I don’t have the huge numbers of friends and followers that celebrities do. My numbers of friends and followers are actually pretty small in the scheme of things Facebook and Twitter. Nevertheless, I must admit that the quantity, in this case, did come as a surprise. I received far more birthday messages than I ever expected. So the quantity did contribute to the overall good feelings produced by this mass onslaught of birthday wishes. However, it wasn’t the quantity alone.

Made easier by the technology or not, people who are my friends and colleagues still have to make the initial decision to send me a note on my birthday. That’s quality. It tells me, I think, several things. It tells me that these many friends and colleagues are good people who care enough to send me a birthday greeting, to engage in a simple act of kindness. It also tells me that I must have, at some point, had an impact on their lives in some way.

The diversity of people who sent me greetings is amazing. Yes, that sheer diversity is the product of technology, and the ease with which it makes possible re-connecting with people. I heard from grade school, high school, college and grad school classmates. I heard from people at every synagogue, school, job with which I have ever been associated. I heard from people in every community in which I have ever lived. I heard from students I have taught, and from teachers who taught me. I heard from friends, neighbors, employers, colleagues and more.

The collective effect of all this has been to increase my own positive feelings of well being, and caused me to feel extremely blessed. As I stated in one wall post, I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to friends, colleagues, and family.

Here it is the next day, and I am still basking in the positive, reinforcing glow of this experience. I suspect it will last for a while.

I’ve had lots of nice birthdays over the years. In terms of some of them, this year was far less in terms of actual physical interaction, didn’t have much in the way of a party or presents. (Well, except for the best present of all which is the good feelings I’ve gotten from all those greetings.)  I’ve been thrown some humdinger birthday parties over the years, including ones that reunited me with people I hadn’t seen in a long time. I remember those experiences, and I also remember the relative lengths of the afterglow, the endorphin release. This year’s afterglow seems stronger, more resilient.

While songleading yesterday, teachers had their students sing me a happy birthday wish, and the effect was, indeed, heartwarming. Would that have had the same impact if it were virtual, sent as a video, or some other electronic form? I’m not sure. So there remains a power in face to face experiences. Yet I have discovered here a truly impressive power in a more virtual and electronic experience, and I cannot deny that it was no less impactful than the in-person experiences I had for my birthday.

Something, at least for me, made this Social Media birthday experience different. Many synagogues with which I have been affiliated have done things to acknowledge birthdays (and have even been using technology solutions for years to generate personalized letters or postcards from generic texts.) For me, those just didn’t have the power of this recent experience. Something is different, and trying to figure out what that something is is what we need to suss out.

So now comes the obvious question. How can we harness the forces of Social Media to help bring this experience to others, in general, and in a Jewish context? I’m not speaking here of the particular effect of birthday greetings, but the positive feelings I experienced as a result.

I’m aware of the risk that analyzing the effect of this experience could wind up imploding the experience for me. Nevertheless it’s a risk I’m willing to take. There’s something here – I can’t quite put my finger on it yet – but it is something that re-affirms my belief that the internet, like the aether that preceded it, carries more than simple bits and bytes, electrons, pieces of data. I could feel the warmth of the good wishes that people were sending me, despite the obvious lack of real-time, in-person interaction. I know the experience is reproducible.

As always, there are cautions to be observed. As a form of media, social media can be abused. I think of all the televangelists who used the power of television and radio to sustain their ministries financially. I was tempted to say “bilked their listens out of millions of dollars.” However, I feel I can’t be that cynical right now. If my theories and beliefs are correct, it is certainly possible that many of those listeners were actually moved and affected by their virtual encounters with a televangelist. Their desire to support those ministries was sincere. It is even possible that some of the televangelists were sincere.

It’s equally possible that some televangelists were masters of techniques and tools designed to produce endorphin release in their viewers. It’s possible my own birthday experience this year is similar, except that it wasn’t the result of a deliberate or intentional effort. So, as we explore the power of technology and Social Media for good, we can’t ignore the risks and perils as well.

It’s not just a matter of a risks vs. benefits analysis.  That can only tell you when something’s good marginally or significantly outweighs its potential for bad. For me, it is a matter of seeking to be as aware of possible of the potential negative outcomes, and structuring what you create the minimize or even eliminate them. I’m not so foolish as to believe we can really know and predict every possible outcome, but we certainly have the tools and experience to enable us to work towards the good.

Help me turn my good experience into something good for others. Let’s explore the possibilities, potentials and pitfalls together.

-Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy, aka Yoeitzdrian)

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester