WTF Internet acronyms, predictive text and txt spk say about the Lexical Approach

Do we, someone texted me the other week, actually use u r in text messages any more? Or are these Internet abbreviations a bit old fashioned?

This question got me thinking both about how the medium we use shapes language and also, the nature of language itself. It also is very much linked to the reason why it was so infuriating when people used to sneer at text speak, or when people now don’t recognise the sheer genius of some of the tricks people use online for getting their message across.

But my answer to the question is that u r is indeed a bit old hat.

This doesn’t mean some people won’t use it, but them some people also insist that it’s ‘may’ and never ‘can’ when we make a request and frankly, this is a line of argument up with which I will not put. I mean, I am a reasonably non prescriptive sort of person, so I think you can do what you like with language by and large. Just don’t try to foist your antiquated and completely irrational random quirks on other people, is what I say.

Except about ‘however’ being used to join two ideas in one sentence. That’s just wrong.

The reason why u r, and gr8, and so on came into existence or at least widespread use was that at one point texting was done on phones where the number and the letters had to share the same buttons. To get to some letters you would be tapping the buttons multiple times. Which is why this method was called, wait for it, the multi-tap.

Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

‘E’ for example, required three button pushes (I think. It’s been a while).

Add to this that you were restricted to 160 characters, and each further text would cost extra, or eat into your texting limit for the month, and it’s clear that finding abbreviations was the way forward. In much the same way that shorthand allowed secretaries to keep up with a spontaneous flow of speech for taking dictation. No time to write out ‘therefore’ in its entirety, use the three dots instead.

Texters, of course, were limited to the alphabet and numbers, so shorthand itself was out as adding in all the characters used in that would just make the button pushing more not less time consuming.

So what prolific texters in the 90s seem to have gone for is a greater relationship between sound and spelling than is usually allowed for in English, and leaving out vowels (hence, txt spk). As well as some acronyms like OMG.

OMG, incidentally, is not an Internet acronym as such. It seems to have been first used in the telegraph era at the beginning of the 20th century, another time when the fact that you needed to pay by the word encouraged people to start taking liberties with how they phrased their messages.

Of course, that doesn’t make txt spk easier to read. It’s basically like learning a whole new writing form, because we do not really read letter by letter, sounding each one out in our head laboriously until it matches the spoken form we recognise. Don’t get me wrong, it’s how we teach kids to read, but that’s really about getting them used to the basic sound spelling relationship. When they get good at it, they merrily take in whole words, whole groups of words at a time. As long as they are in forms they are already familiar with.

Txt spk, if you weren’t used to it, disrupted this process. I would put money* on it being a lot less prevalent in online chatrooms of the same era, when people had access to proper keyboards and wanted their interlocutor to understand their message with ease so they would be able to fire back a response as quickly as possible.

Except for some phrasings that were so widespread that they themselves became word formations which people would understand it at a glance, without the need to consciously decode.

If you want to see why, here is a famous couple of sentences from a ‘back to school’ essay supposedly written by some teenager back in the day (probably apocryphal): My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :-@ kids FTF. ILNY, it’s a gr8 plc.

Ow. I mean, it’s possible to puzzle it out, but it’s not a quick thing to do. Which is why it was suitable for 160 character messages, but not much more.

What did for this sort of very full on text messaging language was that mobiles started to be able to include full keyboards as part of their key pads. And, of course, predictive text. It’s harder, in fact, to get your phone to write ‘l8r’ than ‘later’ right now (5 taps vs 4, including having to switch from letters to numbers for the former).

So why bother, especially as it doesn’t actually add to comprehensibility for many people?

In fact, modern texting is a lot more like telegraph speak. Although the 90s keypad limitations have disappeared, we do still want to be concise because we are composing on the fly.

What I find interesting is that the Internet acronyms that have survived, proliferated in fact, are not the clever sound play abbreviations (youngsters don’t seem to know what BCNU means any more, for example, although you can work it out if you say the letters aloud), but the ones that reduce well known phases to their initial letters.

In fact, a lot of the shorthands we use regularly now are just chunks of everyday phrasing that it would seem inefficient to write out in full. IDK, YMMV, IMO. Etc.

See what I did there?

What’s interesting is that in this they do rather mirror the point made by adherents to the Lexical Approach, that language is less about grammatical formulas into which we drop vocabulary, and more to do with combinations of words in fixed phrases that we store in our heads in their entirety. And then bang out in prefabricated chunks when we are trying to get our mouths and our brains lined up at speed and do not have time to be thinking about fabulous new combinations.

It’s not that we cannot play with language, it’s just that a lot of the time we don’t.

Computers helped us really solidify our understanding that this is really how language is put together. They allowed us to see just how may times ‘tall’ went with ‘woman’ instead of ‘high’; that ‘terrible’ and ‘horrible’ are not exact synonyms because of the words they tend to be used with; that ‘have you ever…?’ is followed by one of only five verbs fifty percent of the time; or even that one meaning of ’cause’ takes ‘a’ and another takes ‘the’.

This is also what allows predictive text to work.

I mean, we all enjoy the hilarious results of the game where you complete an opening phrase and allowing autofill to do the rest. But the fact that what comes out is recognisable, and usually some very fixed if banal phrases is the point. It doesn’t just work because you have typed in the first two or three letters of a piece of vocab and it’s coming up with the most frequent ways those can combine into a word for you to choose from, it’s working it out based on what you have said so far in the sentence, and what words frequently come after that.

Because that’s how language works.

And why we don’t feel the need to write it out in full, even if, sometimes, with Internet acronyms unfamiliar to us, it does still take us a while to work it out when we are reading it.

Text on image including internet acronyms: James Wong: [...] (Full disclosure: It took me ages to work out what 'cba' means.) Eve Simmons: I know baking bread is self care etc, but if you frankly cba, don't worry [...]

Amusingly we seem to be going full circle. I’ve caught my kids saying ‘press the ok button’, where ‘ok’ is pronounced as one word to rhyme with ‘clock’. Is this a Russian thing (it’s not the first time I’ve heard it here), or a young people thing (all the people who have said it to me are considerably more youthful than me)?

Genuinely want to know the answer to that, if anyone has any further data

*I haven’t actually come across any studies where they’ve compared the two mediums, and I’m too lazy to go searching.

5 Replies to “WTF Internet acronyms, predictive text and txt spk say about the Lexical Approach”

  1. OK pronounced as one word is a Russian thing!
    Another lexical oddity was in the Twitter post above, James’ comment made reference to cba and I didn’t have a Scooby what it meant. Yet in Eve’s post, in context, it was effortless. Lexical priming?

    1. Maybe. Although a vote in favour of guessing from context a bit too, maybe. I’m really bad at guessing Internet acronyms actually. I either know them or I don’t. I think this says more about how we decode the written word than the nature of language. It’s like sounding words out being super unnatural after a certain point.

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