B 4 U txt

By Dan Dunkle | Aug 18, 2010

I sometimes wonder about the next generation.

This concern is motivated mostly by self-interest. When I'm old, who is going to make sure the civilization continues to function?

I'm not sure the recent interview with Justin Long on Jimmy Kimmel was comforting in this regard.

Long, you may remember, is the young guy who pretends to be a Macintosh computer in commercials. He went into a long discussion about text messaging on the late night talk show. While home sick, some teenager or "tween" as he put it, texted him by mistake using a series of abbreviations and (check out this hip use of lingo) emoticons.

"R U thre?" or something like that.

Having nothing better to do, he responded in kind, using the text generation version of abbreviated English. In a series of text messages, he and his young victim massacred the language. It's hard for me to reproduce because I haven't learned how to do it.

I learned online today for example that <3 is a heart and that </3 is a broken heart. Apparently people are really emotional on their cell phones because almost all of the lingo was useless stuff like that. TTYL is "talk to you later" and L8R is just plain "later."

Long was pretty creative. I remember at one point he put a silent "g" on the front of "now" during the text conversation. But his counterpart corrected him only once when he spelled Justin Bieber's name wrong.

At this point in the show, I turned to Christine and said, "So are English teachers all over the country just banging their heads against their chalkboards?"

On the surface of it, to someone with an English degree, text gibberish seems like the coming of the apocalypse. The Internet age has also created much debate in newsrooms where copy editors issue death threats over a slew of new verbs including texting and googling.

As with any great debate, there are numerous articles online arguing both sides.

Linguists point out that the English language naturally evolves and adapts with the times. It's hard to argue to the contrary. I can remember in high school when my English teacher made us memorize part of the "Canterbury Tales" in "Old English."

Having grown up going to church, I figured that by old English she meant something like the wording of the King James Bible, which was tough enough, but still recognizably English. I was very, very wrong.

Comparing old English to new was kind of like comparing a poodle to a timber wolf. It was Germanic and impossible to decipher without subtitles. I learned later that modern English is something of a fusion of this older Anglo-Saxon language with the French of the invaders who took over England in 1066.

This is all a very nerdy way of saying, language changes over time. We all remember sitting through "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or some other Shakespearean play in high school, picking our way through a linguistic minefield of "haths" and "doths," antiquated innuendos, and obscure mythological references.

It's great stuff once you learn how to read it, but bears little resemblance to the English you find in the newspaper in 2010.

Perhaps in my knee-jerk distaste for text message slang I'm just being too uptight. My generation had its own slang. Everything was "awesome." Everyone was "dude." Probably the strangest term in the Generation X lexicon was "gnarly," as in difficult or extreme. You might say Spicoli from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" caught a gnarly wave surfing before he was late for Mr. Hand's class.

It was popular to overuse "like" and "totally."

"He like came over and totally broke the VCR!"

Like the maître d' in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," our parents wept for the future. For the most part, however, we all grew up, got jobs and kept civilization moving along.

The greatest selling point for the English language is the fact of its versatility. Rigid languages die off, but with English we always have choices. For almost any thought we can use several words expressing similar ideas, but offering slightly different shades of meaning.

We journalists can say the car struck the tree, hit it, crashed into it, slammed against it, collided with it. But we don't say it percussed the tree, even though the dictionary says that word means to strike or tap.

A few novels that I've read over the years illustrate how far you can warp the language and still be understood. "A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess is probably the best example of a linguistic adventure.

Consider this from the first chapter: "There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening."

The whole book is narrated by a disturbed teen from the future in nonexistent future slang. The first chapter is rough going, but by the end of the book, you're reading about droogs engaging in horrorshow ultraviolence with ease.

Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting" also jumps to mind. The book is written almost entirely in phonetics demonstrating a thick Scottish accent.

Here's the first line: "The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis jist sitting thair, focusing oan the telly, tryin no tae notice."

As if this weren't making things difficult enough, the story shifts point of view from one narrator to another from chapter to chapter and almost all of the aforementioned narrators are drug addicts.

So perhaps it's merely snobbery to approve of altering the language to prove how clever you are while looking down on massacring it to save one's thumb muscles.

And these little emoticons, like @|---- for a flower, could be works of art.

An article in the London Evening Standard online notes that as far back as 1867, a poet put pen to parchment to create the following line: "I wrote 2 U B 4."

So Justin Long and his tween pal aren't so novel.

The problem comes when texters are too cunning to be understood.

Perhaps Shakespeare put it best when he said in "Julius Caesar":

"It was Greek to me."





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