Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Textbook - Section 2

This is a continuation of the thrilling textbook chapters on language and computers. This is my stunning linguistic analysis of texting. It may be best to read section 1 first. Oh, I should say that the standard in linguistics when you mention a word is to put it in italics, not put quotes around it. In a subject that deals with language, this happens every few sentences. So if I want to say that the word pig is a noun, I say: pig is a noun. Pig is the word that refers to pigs. Section 2 (by the way, there are footnotes that are not being copied across with this):

Example 1: omg u talk so diff in txt msgn!!!!! :)

The first “word” is omg, standing for “oh my god” in standard English, an exclamation of surprise. omg is what’s termed an Initialism, since it is composed of the initial letters of each word. Initialisms are quite common in text messaging, but of course they did not originate there at all. People have been calling the United States of America the USA for quite a long time. Perhaps, however, initialisms like omg are confined to more casual discourse, such as between friends or family. Surely, an initialism like omg would never be appropriate in academic discourse or a business environment? This does not seem to be true either. Academics actually love to name their conferences with Initialisms: The GALANA conference is the Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition in North American conference; the CUNY conference is the City University of New York conference. If someone were to form a 2010 Conference Against the Spread of Acronyms, most people would likely call it CASA 2010.

Corporate environments are not free of Initialisms either. I recently ran across a sign that read, “HMA CME FAC MTG RM 200,” which, as it turns out, stands for “Hawaii Medical Association Continuing Medical Education Facilities Accreditation Committee meeting, room 200.” Without knowledge of the abbreviations, of course, such a sign is meaningless, but if they are known, the first sign is far shorter than the second. The first appeared on a single sheet of paper; the latter would likely require a scroll of some sort.

Right there, we can see one reason why initialisms are so prevalent in text messaging: It saves time in entering the message. Full QWERT-style keyboards are becoming more common as of 2009, such as in Apple iPhones or certain PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), but most text messaging has been done on cell phones with fewer buttons than letters of the English alphabet. With both tiny keys on many devices and a requirement to press a button several times for a single letter, there is strong pressure to minimize the number of letters that are texted. What you see then in texting is that the idea of initialisms is by no means new to texting or the Internet, but the logistics of the current technology push people to use them to a greater degree. One can speculate that, as the ease of entering letters increases with new computer interfaces, the number of abbreviations would lessen as well.

Not all abbreviations in texting, however, are due to a desire to save time. Many people simply play with language when texting just as people play with language in speech. One might argue that initialisms like “lol” (laugh out loud) or “lmao” (laughing my ass off) once saved time in expressing amusement at something. However, is “ROTFLMYAO” (Rolling on the Floor Laughing My Ass Off) really a time saver? It’s not clear just how much funnier something must be to trigger rolling around on the floor and losing one’s ass as compared to just losing one’s ass. Instead, people are stretching the abbreviations to see what they can get away with. Of course to “get away with” an initialism like that, the person receiving the message must understand it. Many abbreviations are so common as to be understood by almost anyone with passing knowledge of texting or other Internet communication (such as lol). However, people also like to create special abbreviations that only their own friends or specific community can appreciate. This creates a sense of identity and shared experience with others as expressed through language modifications. JAKE NOTE: I AM ASSUMING THE SOCIO DISCUSSIONS HANDLED THIS; IT WOULD BE GOOD TO POINT THAT WAY SOMEHOW IF THEY DID.

An abbreviation can even be something of a political statement. On American political blogs, you can encounter the Initialisms “IOKIYAR” and “IOKIYAD”. Unless you participate in American political debates, these are meaningless, but to those in the know, they stand for “It’s OK If You Are Republican” and “It’s OK If You Are a Democrat.” They are used when some behavior that was condemned by a partisan when the other party did it is defended when the partisan’s own party engages in it. In short, it’s an accusation of hypocrisy. While each initialism is indeed shorter than the full Standard English phrase, the very existence of the initialism also makes a statement. It suggests that the other party acts hypocritically so often that we had to create a special term for it. Intialisms then both mark out who we are and who the Other is.

The next abbreviation in our text message example marks out a different piece of knowledge, phonetic knowledge. “u” is not created from “you” by chopping off the first two letters. After all, thousands of words include the letter “u”. Instead, the texter knows the letter “u” and the word “you” are identical phonetically. Each would be transcribed phonetically [ju] JAKE NOTE: CAN WE POINT THEM BACK TO THE PHONETICS CHAPTER, ASSUMING THIS WAS COVERED THERE? and so one can stand in for the other.

Another common feature of text messaging is the abbreviation of words by omitting the vowels, here represented by “txt msgn”. However, why does this work? It turns out that it is far easier to remove vowels and retain an ability to recognize the word than to drop out the consonants and recognize the word. In the latter case, “text messaging” would become “e eai”, which is utterly incomprehensible. This actually reveals some rather deep properties of language. Two recent studies have attempted to examine differences between how consonants and vowels are perceived by speakers. In these studies, artificial languages were created where the consonants expressed certain patterns or the vowels expressed the same patterns. The question was whether participants in the experiments could find those patterns. It turned out that when the task involved memorizing and recognizing words, participants only succeeded when the clues were on the consonants; however, when the task involved learning abstract rules about the artificial language, participants only succeeded when the clues were on vowels. There appears to be a special connection between consonants and recognizing words. This possibility is even expressed in the natural writing systems of Semitic languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew. In those languages, the word is designated by the consonants of the word, while the vowels indicate its grammatical role in the sentence. In sum, texters seem to unconsciously know the consonant-to-word connection without ever being told.

To sum up, a careful observation of Internet language can reveal much about human language. We’ve had to take a look at issues of identity construction, ease of language production, and even found tentative evidence for a special connection between consonants and words in our internal psychology. Indeed, what we’ve been engaged in is a very rudimentary form of a subfield of linguistics called Corpus Linguistics. Corpus is the Latin word for “body”, and a linguistic corpus is a body of language data that can be analyzed to discover patterns in how people use their language. In the end, the basic features of text messaging are as old as language; however, the existing tools, such as a cell phone’s keypad, pressure those normal linguistic behaviors in new directions.

From Linguistic Change to Linguistic Preservation

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