Spking fnetics: Bil Brysn’s “Muthr Tung” & txt spk :-o

Image courtesy of Penguin Books, click for link

In 1990, Bill Bryson’s comprehensive book about the history of the English language, Mother Tongue was published. In it, Bryson analyses the origins and evolutions of the English language from its conception to the date of publication of the book. Throughout the book, he places emphasis on the mixed etymological origins of many words and phrases.

Bryson notes various spelling anomalies in the English language. Some include the use of gh as an f sound, for example in enough, or the use of silent letters, such as the s in aisle. Much of the reason for many of the obscure spellings occur due to archaic spellings from  mixed cultural origins, for example debt‘s silent b, with origins in the Latin word debitum, or the French origins of the spelling of debonnaire.

Although the solid standardisation of English spelling began with the invention of the printing press in the 14th Century, many groups throughout the last 700 years have tried, and predominantly failed, to convert spelling practices. Changes in standardised spelling cause for changes in a wide array of printed material, and would also call for a re-learning of the written English language, and as a result these changes have not been adopted en masse. That standardisation may have taken a massive hit ten years after Mother Tongue was published, when another invention, the mobile phone.

At this point txt spk (academically “SMS language”) had become the common written communicative language in most young teenagers. The main proponent of the commonality of txt spk was the shortening of messages (msgs) to get a point across in one SMS instead of several. In txt spk phonetic spellings of wrds (incl numbers substituting wrds) and dropped vowels became commonplace 4 mny common wrds.

Before the invention of the printing press, English spellings were wildly erratic. Bryson notes the liberal spelling by a courtier of King James I where he spells clothes with two separate spellings in a single sentence; “…more corpulent though, in his clothes than in his body, yet fat enough, his cloathes being ever made…”. Post printing press, a standardisation of English began. London was the core of this standardisation, and as a result many London pronunciations were used for the spelling of English words that would be pronounced particularly different in a different area of England. Even today dialects and accents are wildly different throughout English speaking areas (as with New Yawker’s erronous spelling of their own city’s name), but the spellings that we inherited from the 17th Century are primarily London-English (with plenty of exceptions…).

William Caxton brought the printing press to England and in doing so helped to introduce standardised spelling. Image courtesy of Wikipedia, click for link to Caxton.

The idea of phonetics is still conceptually central to books like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, which was written in a Scottish accent (a sample quote: “Funny scene, likesay, how aw the psychos seem tae ken each other, ken what ah means, likes?”). Another Scottish author, Iain M. Banks, released the science fiction novel Feersum Endjinn in 1994. The entire book is written phonetically, making it a slog in condensed sections, for example: “Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday?”. Many other authors use phonetic spelling to emphasise accents during sections of dialogue.

There have been constant revisions and attempts to streamline and categorise English spelling from the days of the printing press on. Many groups have spawned and died who were dedicated to the idea of a simpler spelling system, with little success. In America some spellings were altered, like catalogue (catalog) and programme (program), but there has still been limited alterations of the obscure spellings in English (e.g. words like cough or laugh have not adopted phonetic spelling, for example, to coff or laff).

The issue has sparked heated debate at times, calling for rewriting of dictionaries and resulting in heavy funding being poured into spelling simplification programmes (or programs) to little avail. Bryson notes “In 1876 the newly formed American Philological Association called for the ‘urgent’ adoption of eleven new spellings”, including words such as liv, thru, tho, ar, hav and giv. The later revision of the spelling of catalog seemed to be the only success of the group’s urgent goals, although txt spk has naturally adopted many of the others, including all those listed above.

The interesting thing about txt spk is that it was created quite intuitively. I remember the folly of sending entire words in messages, and how this was swiftly eliminated as more and more people became accustomed to txt spk. Some abbreviated spellings stuck, others didn’t. Writing from experience, there was lots of experimentation, but eventually some spellings just seemed to fit. Lik, hav, giv etc. came naturally, as did “Y” or “U” for “why” or “you”, both of which were used in Feersum Endjinn.

Bryson also comments on spoken language’s tendency to abbreviate words. He accentuates the use of the schwa, the sound we make when we don’t pronounce a vowel (as in the i in animal, mostly pronounced an-mal). Txt spk tends to eliminate unnecessary vowels regularly, creating shorter words that still express the same meaning but read more like the spoken form (as in tnx for “thanks”). Another interesting feature of txt spk is that it introduces pictograms, similar to Chinese or Japanese writing, usually used to express emotions or symbolise tone in a message when the limited words may be unclear. Smileys 🙂 would be an example.

So Y is it so ez 2 undrstnd abbrviated wrds thru txt spk when it is mor difcult t’reed fonetics or mispellings? The case returns to upbringing. The generation of txt spkers around now (although I am not a txt spkr, I can proudly boast to being able to decipher even the most complex of txt msgs due to my outstanding teenage education) hav spok txt since they wer kids. Phonetics dnt matter, familiarisation does.

From a brief series of paintings dealing with the mobile phone as a communication device.

Txt spk is more or less intuitive. The more it is practiced the more simply it can be understood. Mother Tongue shows how common usage can eventually evolve a language to different spellings or pronunciations. Reading this makes me wonder whether words in txt spk could eventually be common usage. Although dictionaries were originally written with London English in mind, there are now many dictionaries with wide variations, some even including a variety of txt spk words. Depending on the generation now growing up, txt spk may become commonplace. I still see people my age update statuses on Facebook using txt abbreviations.

There is opposition to the further development of txt spk from many quarters, both as a “dumbing down” of English and as a deviation from the creative aestheticism of the older language. However I see no reason why txt spk English wouldn’t be amalgamated into regular English just as previous perversions have influenced English. It may be swift and we may not realise it’s even happening, but after another generation txt spk may become the most accepted form of English just by being consistent and understood by the masses.

4 me tho nglsh wll rmain as th language i grw up wit.useful as txt spk is,its no replcment 4 propr nglsh in terms of a descriptiv, analyticl language.


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2 thoughts on “Spking fnetics: Bil Brysn’s “Muthr Tung” & txt spk :-o”

  1. Very interesting article … I’ll have to get hold of Bill Bryson’s book! I think any aritifical attempt to change language, spelling etc. usually fails for the very reason txt spk has flourished: language is intuitive, fluid and integral to our need/desire to communicate. =D

    1. Thanks for popping by and glad you enjoyed 🙂

      Yes, this book is fantastic – it’s an entertaining beginner’s guide to English etymology, and it’s side-splittingly funny throughout. I agree completely, language is intuitive, and that’s one of the most interesting things about it. I’m always fascinated by the origin of words, they’re such spirited little things…

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