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Language Remix

June 16, 2003 15:15 IST

Is messaging and email changing the way we write and speak?

"K tx wl cl bk ltr." If you can decipher this message, you have probably arrived on the world of text messaging. Translated into plain English, it reads: "Ok, thanks. I will call back later."

Is this the beginning of a new language or is this the death knell for written English? Emails revolutionised spellings and threw grammar out the window. Instant chats made communication just that - instant.

With the increasing use of mobile messaging, emails, and instant chat people are becoming less concerned about correct spellings, grammar and punctuation and more interested in getting their message across. There is no time for commas and full stops, no time to frame sentences or even words. Words are spelt phonetically and sentences are telegraphic. For the unaccustomed eye such messages may be Greek and Latin, but for the young hip-hop generation that's the way communication is going to be.

'Enrte Cu in 10 min' (which means 'am enroute to venue, will see you in 10 minutes') is a typical message sent by Devika Prabhu of SET India Pvt Ltd, who is an avid SMS user. She says, "I use abbreviations all the time especially for personal communication, as I'm prone to sending long messages." According to Shan Kurian, a sales professional with a reputed firm in Mumbai, what is important is to get the message across. He too drops the vowels and uses abbreviations while messaging. However, in formal communication, he ensures that he writes correct English.

E-learning content designers Vanessa Fernandez and Rohan Kohli use predictive messaging; in other words, they make use of the inbuilt vocabulary of the mobile phone. Although they use abbreviations and cryptic text, they haven't let messaging affect their professional writing.

However, Anagha Mulay, a college student from the Mumbai suburbs, feels that it won't be too long before many of these shortened forms made an entry into formal English. She says messaging and emails have opened up communication and broken the elitist walls of grammar and so-called 'correct English'. She dreams of the day when students will be able to write their examinations without fear of slipping on grammar and spellings.

In fact, there are a few sites like dedicated to developing a whole new range of phonetic spellings. The site prefers akomodate to accommodate, axident to accident, and becoz to because. These spellings are crisp, easy and are fast replacing the old ones in the dictionary of instant messaging.

On a more serious note you have the Simplified Spelling Society, which was founded in 1908 to promote the cause of reforming the spelling of English words. Since the pronunciation of English has moved farther away from the spellings, they believe that there is a compelling need to change the spellings to match the pronunciation. They illustrate, for example, how the "ee" sound is spelt in various ways as in: seem, team, convene, sardine, protein, key, debris, etc. Now, who can blame anyone for mispronouncing these words? The society has several e-mailing lists for members to encourage discussion around topics that range from general spelling reform to the details of particular reform schemes.

According to Jack Bovill, Chair of the Simplified Spelling Society, their main interest lies in improving literacy by adopting a more phonetic spelling. He believes that the time and energy wasted by students in mastering the English spelling could be profitably put to use in other ways.

Are all these pointing to an entirely new trend in English language? Will this lead to a distortion of the language or is it just another fad? According to Varalaxmi Subramaniam, a doctorate in English language, who takes classes on media at Ruia and MD colleges, there are two sets of people: the English speaking urbanite with definite language skills and the non-English speaking crowd who forms the majority.

For those who are comfortable with English and have their language basics right, such shortened forms of expression do not make much of a difference. They are comfortable either ways - be it cryptic messaging or proper writing. Besides, there is no danger of unlearning what they have learnt, as they are conscious of using the language at different levels-with their peers, with elders and in official correspondence.

On the other hand, people with minimal English writing-speaking skills are finding this form of language a significant leap in communication. They are now able to use English - a language that carries the label of respectability - without fear of being ridiculed. They believe that the aim is to pass on the message and are not bothered about spelling or grammatical errors; besides these could also pass off as simple typing errors. The net result is that people are gaining confidence as they enter the English-speaking domain, and they may even end up using the language fluently in the long run.

English seems to be the only language to be affected by this trend. "English as a language had a problem right from the days of its evolution," says Dr. Varalaxmi. Unlike the other European languages such as French, Spanish and Latin (or Hindi and Tamil for that matter), which are phonetically written, English is a mixture of Nordic languages and are not phonetically written. Under the Norman influence, English developed more consonant sounds than vowel sounds. As a result, if the words were to be spelt phonetically, they would lose their originality.

Dr. Varalaxmi says that the trends in language brought about by text messaging signals the never-ending evolution of language, and it should be respected for what it is. Such trends throw open debate and public opinion, but it can't be decisive. They can't sound the death knell of English language; the final say in such matters rests with the institutions empowered to take decisions.

However, Jayshree Anand who teaches English language through the online medium, says that messaging indeed will have a long-term effect on the English language, as every language changes according to requirements. For instance, Americans have developed their own style of English, and today it's an accepted style. Jayshree also bemoans the death of the art of letter writing, brought about by emails and messaging.

So what is going to happen to the language skills of the new generation who are being fed on this free style? Dr Varalaxmi feels it's a fad. "It really doesn't matter as the kids won't surely end up writing their exams in the way they message to their friends." Hopefully.


Sherin Mammen