Textspeak and the Reform of the English Language
OMG. LOL. No longer the sole domain of texting teenagers, these coinages appear in the OED. (Ahem, that’s the Oxford English Dictionary.) But purists say textspeak will be the downfall of English as we know it. This CultureMap considers what history’s language reformers might have thought of textspeak, including lexicographer Noah Webster, American Revolutionary Benjamin Franklin and 19th-century poet Charles Bombaugh, who might B N clined 2 conclude this sen 10’s like this.
Textspeak—a.k.a. textese, chatspeak or SMS language—is the digital vernacular common to modern text messages. The abbreviated slang and initialisms we’ve all come to know were coined to fit within the narrow character limits allowed by mobile phone service providers. America’s first lexicographer, Noah Webster, also strove to streamline the English language. His pursuits in the field of orthography—the art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage—culminated in the now authoritative line of Merriam-Webster dictionaries. In his Dissertations on the English Language (1789), published 17 years before his first dictionary, Webster proposes a radical new spelling system based on the “omission of all superfluous…letters”—including those ever-contentious silent ones that make English spelling unnecessarily complicated. Thus, bread becomes bred, give becomes giv, friend becomes frend, through becomes thru, daughter becomes dawter and so on. According to Webster, such economy would save printers about a page in 18—prviding a prfct modl 4 txtrs of the futur.
Two decades before Noah Webster’s Dissertations on the English Language (1789), which promoted a simplified English spelling system that changed, among other words, grief to greef and laugh to laf, American printer and inventor Benjamin Franklin proposed an orthographic reform that tackled English spelling at its root: the alphabet. Franklin’s method, outlined in Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling (1768), simplifies and, most important, phoneticizes English spelling by introducing new letters to the alphabet and omitting some of the dustier, decrepit ones. One letter that gets the euthanasic treatment is C, which fails to earn its keep as its duties are already covered by K and S. Webster dedicated Dissertations to Franklin and often cited or quoted from Scheme in his promotional lectures.
Both men withdrew their proposals after failing to gain support for them. Webster remained in the fields of orthography, language studies and education, publishing enormously popular grammar books, spellers, readers and dictionaries. Even though Webster’s radical spelling system was largely abandoned, traces of it emerge in his dictionaries, as in the American English renderings of favorite and color (which eschew the British U) and traveler with one L.
Newspeak, the language sanctioned by the totalitarian state of Oceania in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), systematically removes words from the dictionary as a method of thwarting seditious notions. “Thought,” so goes the logic, “is dependent on words.” Thus, the words morality, democracy and religion are outlawed because these concepts threaten Oceania’s objective of asserting absolute control over an individual’s life.
Noah Webster, dubbed the Father of American Scholarship and Education, would have seethed at such a destruction of words. His proposals for language reform, however, were likewise intended, at least in part, as political propaganda. Webster recognized America’s need to cultivate national identity following its 1776 declaration of independence from Britain, stirring him to create an American English distinct from British English. He first outlined his reforms in Dissertations on the English Language (1789) and later toned them down for his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) and subsequent dictionaries. A largely symbolic measure, Webster hoped American English would encourage nationalistic thought, drawing Americans’ “attachments home to their own country” and inspiring them “with the pride of national character”—two of the cornerstones, it should be noted, of Oceanic philosophy.
Heeding George Orwell’s warning that “thought is dependent on words,” many fear that textspeak, like Newspeak (the fictional language in Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four), weakens our grasp on language and inhibits our capacity for independent thought. Add to this a culture of isolated individuals staring at screens and a decrease in face-to-face communication, and our world of incessant texting starts to look Orwellian indeed.
Orwell was not a reformer but rather a staunch preservationist of the English language. He advocated simple, straightforward writing over the wordy abstractions favored by more pretentious intellectuals. If he did have a linguistic ideal, however, some critics suggest it would have been Newspeak, which, by its reduction of words, seems to force direct and unpretentious communication. Orwell might have even supported the similarly reductive textspeak. In fact, he foretold it with the abbreviated Newspeak used within the Records Department in Nineteen Eighty-Four. One message reads, “Times 3.12.83 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood…rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling.” Translation: “The reporting of Big Brother’s Order for the Day in The Times of December 3, 1983, is extremely unsatisfactory.… Rewrite it in full and submit your draft to higher authority before filing.”
When Lewis Carroll typed the poem “The Mouse’s Tale” (from his 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) into the shape of a mouse’s tail, he was following in a line of playful bards who wrote pyramid-shaped poems about pyramids, circle-shaped poems about circles, wineglass-shaped poems about wineglasses—all falling under the umbrella (did we mention umbrella-shaped poems about umbrellas?) of emblematic poetry. In 1867 poet Charles Bombaugh cleverly inverted this concept of emblems: One of his verses reads, “From virt U nev R D V 8; / Her influence B 9 / A like induces 10 dern S, / Or 40 tude D vine.”
If that doesn’t make sense 2 U, try reading it like this: “From virtue never deviate; / Her influence benign / A like induces tenderness, / Or fortitude divine.” Bombaugh’s emblematic technique of representing units of speech with stand-alone letters and numbers resurfaced more than a century later in textspeak’s CU2 moro (see you tomorrow) and TLK2UL8R (talk to you later). Think you got it? Try this one, courtesy of Bombaugh: “He says he loves U 2 X S, / U R virtuous and Y’s, / In X L N C U X L / All others in his i’s.”
Why does the G in George sound different from the G in gorge? Why does C begin both case and cease? If you invade another nation, is it conquest, konquest or konkwest? What about qonkwest? And why is it funny when a philologist faints, but not phunny to laf about it? Benjamin Franklin favored a phonetic alphabet. Franklin believed that our inconsistent rules regarding the Latin alphabet hindered English literacy among children and foreigners. In Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling (1768) he proposed a spelling system that regularized English to be phonetically consistent. Additionally, he called for the elimination of the redundant letters C, J, Q, W, X and Y and the addition of new letters for Th, Sh and Ch.
In “A Simplified Alphabet” (1899), Mark Twain likened our alphabet to a whiskey alcoholic in need of reform. Like Franklin, Twain was an ex-printer fluent in the drunken slur of English, so his attitude was understandable. He compared two methods of spelling reform—phonetic and simplified (as proposed by the lexicographer Noah Webster)—and concluded that only phonetic spelling could sober up our alphabet completely.
Mark Twain dreamed of swapping our sloppy English orthography for a new alphabet that would spell words phonetically. His ideal choice was phonetic shorthand, developed by Sir Isaac Pitman in 1837, which uses a system of lines, dots and circles that correspond directly to sounds. But Twain knew an all-out alphabet overhaul would have its opponents, so he focused his reform energy elsewhere. He turned to the simplified-spelling movement—a push in the early 20th century to make English orthography easier to learn by unburdening it of silent and superfluous letters and illogical usage. Twain helped found the Simplified Spelling Board (1906–1920), which devoted itself to reforming English orthography. Governed by the motto “Simplification by omission,” the organization recalled Noah Webster’s method laid out in Dissertations on the English Language (1789).
Another of the Simplified Spelling Board’s cofounders was U.S. Commissioner of Education William Torrey Harris, who carried the Webster torch as editor in chief of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (1909). Harris’s legacy is perhaps slighter than Webster’s: He’s the one who first divided the pages of the dictionary into columns.
In the digital age, restrictive media platforms often demand the use of textspeak. At center stage is Twitter—the microblogging service that enables users to “tweet” messages of fewer than 140 characters (including spaces). Its bite-size format is quick to read, fun to write in and enormously popular. Language purists, of course, detest it.
Bring up William Shakespeare and they’ll sigh wistfully for the golden age of English. But alack!—even the Bard routinely hacked the language. Shakespeare wrote almost exclusively in iambic pentameter (an iamb is a two-syllable unit; iambic pentameter has five iambs, or 10 syllables, a line). Thus he faced the same dilemma as today’s Tweeters: how to communicate within a confined space. What did he do? He made up new words.
In As You Like It, Shakespeare notes a character’s expressionless gaze (act 2, scene 7). Unable to use, “and, looking on it without luster in his eye” (12 syllables), Shakespeare wrote instead, “and, looking on it with lack-lustre eye” (10 syllables)—thereby coining the word lackluster. This is one of thousands of Shakespeare’s neologisms; he also invented afoot, amazement, eyeball, monumental, laughable, excellent and unreal—all to fit within the confines of the poetic line.