Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I send approximately two text-messages per month, always to the same person, a family member. It takes me quite a while to construct and send a text-message because phones now are apparently designed to fit in the paws of very small rodents, not in humans' hands.

I gather, however, that the text-messaging language, if it can be called that, has become quite extensive. I tend not to abbreviate much, but I might use 2 in place of to and 4 in place of for. In other words, I'm a text-messaging dinosaur in this respect, too.

A colleague in philosophy posits that within 100 years, almost everyone will be illiterate by today's standards. I think he means that only eccentric groups of people will read books to any great extent and that people who do write will mostly rearrange digital-screen icons or compose short messages in a language rooted in today's text-messaging language. That is, what we think of as an abbreviation or an acronym will be a word unto itself, and those using this language won't think in terms of parallels between the abbreviated and the abbreviation.

I don't disagree with him, but on the other hand, it's almost impossible to predict what will happen with literacy and language. Language especially is such a protean, independent force that you pretty much have to sit back and just see what happens. As a teacher of writing, what I've noticed happening for a long time is the disappearance of the possessive apostrophe. I can "correct" the "mistake" until I'm blue in the face, but basically the apostrophe is toast. It doesn't exist in German, and will cease to exist in English. "Quote" as a noun has replaced "quotation," and I think at some point "alright" and "alot" will be accepted into Standard Written English. These are trivial examples, but they're also place-holders for much larger shifts of language that happen because the amorphous group of people actually using the language have decided, without deciding, that the language works better with these changes. Sociolinguists have a much better handle on how this happens than a mere writing-teacher, of course.

But people already speak of a "post-literate" society, by which is meant, I think, a society more comfortable with screens, images, and icons than with old fashioned chunks of written language--sentences, paragraphs, pages, documents, books.

I gather that OMG--which apparently stands for Old Mother Goose--and WTF--which apparently stands for Wild Truffle Foundation--are common acronyms in text messaging. Gee, I do hope I have the proper translations here.

I remember hearing Brad Comman reading a poem, many moons ago, composed entirely of three-letter acronyms much in use at the time. The art came from the juxtaposition, as I recall. For example, "LSD" and "CIA" were cheek by jowl--as well they should be, for the CIA experimented with LSD as--what? An interrogation tool? A reward for good spying? Who knows? A list like Brad's would be much different now, I reckon, but CIA might still be there, along with OMG, WTF, WTO, DVD, SDS (in revived form), and WMD. (I invite you to make your own list.) Interestingly, referring to presidents by their three initials--LBJ, JFK--has gone the way of the apostrophe. Headlines routinely included JFK and LBJ during the respective presidencies, but I don't believe I've seen GWB even once. OMG!
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