Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Technoglyphic Musings

Instant messaging, texting, and chat rooms are fueling the invention of an entirely new “written” language, one designed specifically for keypads and keyboards and miniscreens. This is the context of real-time, live communication via electronic device and screens measured in millimeters, be it laptop or telephone. In this context, brevity is celerity. The fewer inputs you need to make, the more quickly your communication goes out and the “conversation” continues. The fewer inputs you receive, the more “words” can appear—and be comprehended—at one go. Brevity is also a plus when your thumbs are flailing like demented drumsticks over the tiny keys of your smartphone.

About a year ago, I coined the word technoglyph to describe the variety of symbols used to facilitate this new form of written communication. I am ready now to assert that we need this word and attempt to define it.

There are many ways to shorten and compact the standard written forms of words and phrases, and technoglyph is an umbrella term that includes all of them. Chief among these methods is abbreviation, but of a new-fangled sort. The old-fashioned rule was that abbreviations formed by taking the first letter of each word should be capitalized. The multiple steps required to obtain a capital on dumbphone keypads and mini-keyboards have shut this rule down, leaving us with ttfn, j/k, lol, and many others. The capital I of the first person is also being left to the lower case, and the use of an i for an I qualifies as a technoglyph, as it is not standard English (although it may become so if this habit becomes ingrained). Many of the new abbreviations common to texters are for social phrases that acknowledge the live connection in as few letters/inputs as possible (ttfn, for example).

Soundalikes also qualify as technoglyphs. For example, “c” is a technoglyph for the word see, as “u” is for you. They are not abbreviations. I cannot comfortably call them homophones, because they aren’t strictly words, although the definition of homophone has been extended to include single characters. As a puzzle enthusiast, I see them more as rebuses, symbols or pictures representing a soundalike word. Furthermore, in the texting context, “c” and “u” are more than simply homophone or rebus; they are not interchangeable for other soundalikes. For instance, “c” also sounds like sea, but I doubt a sailor is going to text “Set out to c 2day.” Likewise, a shepherd will not text anyone “Lost u 2day,” because it will be misunderstood. The “c” and “u” are not so much symbols or soundalikes as mnemonics for specific standard English words that occur constantly in interpersonal communications.

Numerals are also used as soundalikes/rebuses/mnemonics for common English words and sounds. They can occur alone (2 for to, 4 for for) or in conjunction with letters or pieces of words (2nite, l8er). As time and input savers, they work splendidly for very common words and expressions, not so well for the more exotic, un42nately.

Emoticons were among the earliest technoglyphs. There is an entire glossary of these punctuation-based faces, winking and frowning and sticking out their tongues. Three finger strikes (a colon, a hyphen, and a closing parenthesis), and we have communicated “I am smiling/happy/pleased.” That’s a lot of punch for three strikes! (Actually, I suppose the shift needed for the parenthesis would make it four strikes, but still.)

The use of @ to stand for at greatly broadens the application of an old handwritten symbol once confined to matters of math and commerce. Also on the upsurge is $ to stand for money in general as well as for dollar specifically. We don’t use ₤ for pound because it isn’t available on a keyboard, never mind a keypad. That fact allows me to classify $ and @ as technoglyphs.

Now let me attempt to define technoglyph. It may be an abbreviation, but one designed for the limitations and niceties of real-time communication. It may be a soundalike, but only for words in common use for personal interactions. It may be a rebus, but it will have only one solution. It may be an old handwritten symbol revamped for vigorous new-age use. It may involve nonstandard use of a standard word, as an i for an I. In each case, I believe the word that best describes the reduction process is mnemonic. Each of these symbols, abbreviations, rebuses, and soundalikes is intended to remind us of a standard English word or phrase with the fewest possible key strikes.

Here is one possible definition: A technoglyph is a mnemonic for a common word or phrase, devised specifically for communication (especially real-time live communication) via keyboard or keypad in applications such as instant messaging, chat rooms, and texting.

This is article 21 in a continuing series. © 2011 Christine C. Janson

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