Dall’Economist del 25 marzo 2000

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Dieci anni fa – precisamente il giorno del mio compleanno di dieci anni fa –uscì sull’Economist quest’articolo che spiegava cosa fossero gli SMS. Oggi pressoché chiunque sa cosa sono gli sms, ma una decade fa erano il nuovo dispositivo della tecnica che si affacciava prepotentemente nel mercato della comunicazione. C’erano gli allarmismi sulla distruzione della lingua che avrebbero portato quelle abbreviazioni – fra dieci anni leggeremo “xke” sui quotidiani, vi ricordate? – e c’era chi cercava di spiegare che, come per moltissime novità, il terrore del nuovo faceva sopravvalutare i rischi.

Il paragone con la forzosa brevità dei telegrammi e delle piccole modifiche che aveva portato la necessità di risparmiare – Meriterebbe un posto negli aneddoti del lunedì, non fosse di dubbia veridicità, la storia del generale di Sua Maestà che per comunicare di avere conquistato la città indiana di Sindh scrive soltanto una parola, in latino, “peccavi”: ho peccato, in inglese I have sinned, che suona come I have Sindh; O ancor più difficile, per agglutinazione, con Oudh: Vovi, Giuro, I vow.

Dice che gli SMS erano una timida speranza perché i giovani riprendessero a scrivere. Avevano ragione, e leggerlo ora fa anche un po’ tenerezza.

(online non c’è il pezzo per intero, lo copio qui)

Linguistics: Short Message, New Language

2moro & 2moro & 2moro

ONE of the sad consequences of the death of the telegram was the disappearance of brevity as a communications skill. Because part of the cost of sending a telegram was a charge per word, senders grew ingenious at finding ways to write economically.
Journalists, for example, prefixed words with “un” to mean “not”. Thus went a celebrated ex­change between a foreign editor and a lazy correspondent: “Why unnews?” “Unnews good news.” “Unnews unjob.”

The Victorian generals who captured Indian towns famously telegraphed the news in Latin puns:

‘Peccavi―I’ve Sindh’
Wrote Lord Ellen, so proud;
More briefly, Dalhousie
Wrote ‘Vovi―I’ve Oudh.’

Now, brevity is reviving, in an unexpected quarter: the mobile telephone. Most operators offer a short messaging system (sms), which allows people to send messages tapped out on the telephone keypad. Because 160 characters take up as much room as a one-second voice call, such messages are cheap. They also protect the garrulous, but impecunious, from accidentally running up huge bills. And they can―like e-mail―wait until it is convenient for the recipient to read them.

For all these reasons, sms has turned out to be wildly popular, especially with the young. Europeans send each other one-billion messages a month. In Finland, where almost every 12‑to‑18‑year‑old has a mobile phone, Petri Vesikivi, head of business development for messaging at Nokia Networks, part of the famous Finnish mobile-telephone maker, says that teenagers are far and away the largest group of users. The pattern is being repeated around the world: as soon as more than one in five youngsters has a mobile telephone, sms use starts to bound up by 10% a month.

But typing messages on a miniature telephone keypad is hard, even for nimble little fingers and even with “predictive input” (a sort of software that allows the telephone to guess what you are writing and try to finish the word for you). In every country, use of sms requires ingenious linguistic compression.

Not many countries need ingenuity as much as Japan: kanji characters each need twice as much capacity as the roman alphabet. Luckily, the argot of Japanese schoolgirls already compresses words: the bizarre vocabulary of kogaru words (“ko” means “little one”, “garu” is the Japanisation of “girl”) involves dropping most of the middle characters in compounds and then dovetailing the first and last sounds together to form a whole new word. So in the case of “Totemo kawaii desune” (“A very pretty [little girl], isn’t she?”), contraction and use of the blunter Chinese pronunciation, instead of the softer Japanese, leads to “Cho kawa” (“extreme pre”). Such elisions have the added advantage, where telephone messages are con­cerned, of being incomprehensible to anybody over about 25.

For English-speaking users, the neatest contractions combine letters and numerals―in fact, a major British mobile provider is called One2One―and Vodafone, the world’s biggest mobile-telephone company, even offers a guide on its Internet site to such brevities as SPK 2 U L8R (“Speak to you later”) and BCNU B4 2MORO (“Be seeing you before tomorrow”). The whole panoply of punctuation doodles from 🙂 to 🙁 that decorated e-mail in its early days is also being revived on keypads.

New uses for sms are blossoming: in Finland, telephone companies make a tidy business from using the service to send customers tunes to use as ringing tones. The age of the clientele can be gauged from the fact that the current top pop hit sold by Sonera, the country’s main telephone company, is South Park’s “Uncle Fucker”.

Short messages may not exactly be a new literary art form. One day soon, it may be swept away as the Internet goes mobile. But, for those who once assumed the young would never learn to write, it is a modest reason for hope. And, for those who miss telegramese, it is XLNT.

2 Replies to “Dall’Economist del 25 marzo 2000”

  1. Davvero bella quella del generale inglese, che non conoscevo. Piccolissima annotazione: vovi è perfetto, cioè ‘giurai’, cioè ‘I vowed’. Così si rende, per l’appunto, “I’ve Oudh”.

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