Monthly Archives: August 2013

A new way of writing

We’ve all seen things written around the Internet that seem like veritable Newspeak from Nineteen Eighty-Four. For example, a rather typical (i.e., not extreme) writing sample appears in this Yahoo Answers question:

He tells me he loves me allllll the time and its always very nice things whenever he talks to me. But he always says ” i hope u feel the same way about me”. I feel like my life revolves around him and im not liking it. Someone help me please? :/

As you can see, the user has neglected to employ commas and apostrophes, she doesn’t capitalize in all obligatory cases, she’s created a face using symbols at the end and she’s spelled all with far too many ls. This type of writing—academically called neography—is often criticized for not conforming to the orthographic standards of written English, and many people think that people who write like this are causing the decay of our language itself. Just look at all the grammar nazi Someecards out there.

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But recently, scholars like Mark Sebba and Alexandra Jaffe have shown us that these nonstandard orthographic practices are not naïve; they’re socially conditioned, and they can shed light on speakers’ attitudes and perceptions. Above all, this type of writing demonstrates that a speaker feels their context is not academic or official in any capacity—it’s a place they can flout the orthographic norms of their language and express a particular identity.

For example, in Spanish, the letter k is very rare, but the letter c is very common. Among the Spanish youth, it’s very popular to use k instead of c in unregulated spaces like Twitter and SMS messages.

In “Spelling rebellion,” found in the 2003 book Discourse Constructions of Youth Identities, Mark Sebba points out that this is due to the feeling of otherness that the letter k, in its rarity, evokes. Teens who want to express their own “otherness” may use the letter k to do so. Another example in Spanish is the digraph tx, which is used instead of ch in Basque. Some Spanish speakers have taken to using tx instead of ch in Spanish as well—for example, writing mutxo instead of mucho—to express their Basque origins or align themselves with the Basque ideology. (Although it should be noted that using simply x is much more common than using tx; the use of x is likely tied to the same feeling of otherness that the letter k exhibits.)

In effect, speakers can use neography in written language to express nuances of meaning that they couldn’t before, which is quite remarkable. It becomes a problem, though, when they haven’t yet learned where neography is appropriate and where it is not.

Therefore the “problem” of neography in teen writing should be looked at as an issue of manners, not knowledge.

Does ALL CAPS always mean shouting?

We don’t think about capital letters too much. We stick them on automatically at the start of sentences and proper names, and that’s about it. We see them on signs and newspaper headlines and generally think nothing of it. But there’s one place where they do call our attention: on the Internet.

ONLINE, IF WE SEE SOMETHING WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS, ESPECIALLY IF WE KNOW IT WAS WRITTEN BY A PERSON (NOT A MACHINE), we tend to think of it as shouting. On some level, this seems intuitive. It’s a visual metaphor: If shouting is talking with a big voice, then shouting in text would be writing with big letters. (Anyone figure out how to whisper?)

But is that the end of the story?

I investigated this question in my master’s thesis, and I found another important motivation for writing something in all caps: semantic highlighting. For example, if I write “I just wanted to say thanks for the PRESENT you got me,” it’s unlikely that I’m shouting the word “present.” Instead, I wanted to highlight that word’s meaning—and often in text boxes the only way to do so is by using capital letters.

Furthermore, I found that there is yet another use of all caps that has nothing to do with shouting: It’s to be colloquial. This usage is most often seen among the elderly, some of whom apparently enable caps lock so that they can see the letters more clearly—after all, they’re bigger.

But in Spain, for example, where I carried out my Master’s research, this behavior is much more deep-rooted: Written Spanish uses accent marks to distinguish certain sounds, but for a long time these accent marks were considered optional above capital letters. Therefore, people began to write in capital letters when they wanted to type faster and more casually, leaving off the accent marks. Hence all caps for colloquial writing.

This all goes to show that there can be multiple explanations for even the things we most take for granted—and that things, especially visual conventions, change across cultures.

Do complicated writing systems make smarter citizens?

The Japanese language probably has the most complicated writing system  in the world. (If you know of a more complicated one, I want to hear about it!)

Japanese uses three scripts in concert. The first system is called kanji, and is comprised of the logographic characters borrowed from Chinese.

The other two systems are syllabaries (like alphabets, but instead of representing single sounds, each character represents a syllable) that were independently derived from the Chinese characters in order to spell out Japanese words for which there was no dedicated symbol. Katakana, the first syllabary, was derived from the classic characters, and hiragana, the second syllabary, was derived from the cursive characters.

Each of these systems is capable of representing the Japanese language on its own (except kanji, which would admittedly have a few gaps if the syllabaries didn’t exist). Even so, the three systems are used together, according to particular rules:

  • Kanji is used for vocabulary when there is a dedicated character available and known by the writer. Many (most?) kanji characters have multiple pronunciations, depending on the words they appear in. For example, the character 人 means person. Sometimes it is pronounced hito, sometimes it’s nin and sometimes jin. 一人 (one person) is pronounced hitori, but 三人 (three people) is pronounced san-nin, and 外人 (foreigner) is pronounced gaijin.
  • Hiragana is used for vocabulary items that have no kanji or when the writer does not know the kanji. This syllabary is also used for inflection and particles. These show what part a word plays in a sentence. For example, the English ending -ology means the word refers to a field of study, and -ing means that the word refers to an ongoing action.
  • Katakana is used for foreign words or when the pronunciation is to be emphasized.

All in all, a literate Japanese speaker must be competent in all three writing systems. A tall order!

Given all this craziness, it is surprising that Japan boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and that it excels in IT, math and science. Does the dominance of a complicated symbolic system contribute to higher intellect in other areas? 


David Crystal writes in Internet Linguistics:

Strong positive links have been found between the use of textisms and the skills underlying success in standard English in pre-teenage children. Interestingly, the more they used abbreviations, the higher they scored on tests of reading and vocabulary. The children who were better at spelling and writing used the most textisms. (2011, p. 5)

That is, children with stronger knowledge of the written standard were better able to modulate written language to their liking in environments that allowed creativity. If we can understand “textisms” as a separate writing system that is used in concert with the standard English writing system, we have a situation not so unlike that of Japanese. And we see that students who can manipulate two writing systems do better on some standardized tests. Perhaps these creative thinking skills bleed into competencies in other areas on an even grander scale.