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.

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