2 b or nt 2 b: d gr8 txt spk db8

Picture courtesy: http://www.mathworks.com

In the Westland office, a week ago, we discussed the ‘words’ we often come across these days in manuscripts – IMHO, LOL, BTW, ASAP, BFF. A few of our titles have gone on to publish some of these, unedited, especially if the style of writing happens to be casual, or the context demands text-speak, or the market includes the young, college-going audience. Siddhartha Sarma’s East of the Sun is an example of a book where textese  appears almost offhandedly. The same holds true for Parul Sharma’s By the Water Cooler.

There have been mixed reactions to the inclusion of text-speak in published books. On the one hand, John Humphrys says, ‘It is the relentless onward march of the texters, the SMS (Short Message Service) vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.’ On the other hand, Dennis Baron avers that technology, and the changes it brings with it, ‘is making us better writers and improving our ability to reach out to our fellow man.’

Even as the debate continues, the international publishing world keeps throwing surprises. In Japan, an author known as Yoshi was hugely successful with his novel composed of text-messages, Deep Love. In Finland, in 2007, Hannu Luntiala published The Last Messages, and the entire 332-page narrative consisted of SMSes. Earlier, in 2004, French novelist, Phil Marso,  published a book written entirely in French SMS shorthand, Pas Sage a Taba vo SMS; the next year, he produced L, an SMS re-telling of French poetic classics. So the President of Goma Books, Masayoshi Yoshino, declared in a manifesto that he was determined ‘to establish this not simply as a fad, but as a new kind of culture.’

It is this culture that  worries John Sutherland of University College London. He believes that the growing dominance of text-speak will lead to the degeneration of language. In his view, textese is ‘bleak, bald, sad shorthand. Drab shrinktalk. Linguistically it’s all pig’s ear; it masks dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness. Texting is penmanship for illiterates.’ Humphrys agrees when he points out, ‘The danger – for young people especially – is that [netspeak] will come to dominate. Our written language may end up as a series of ridiculous emoticons and everchanging abbreviations.’

It isn’t merely the slow decline of language that worries critics. Some suggest that granting text-speak legitimacy will dumb down society at large. Since text-speak relies on brevity, simple word choice and sentence fragments, critics believe it will adversely impact people’s intellectual endurance. Ruth Maenpaa says, ‘Text-speak offers immediate gratification, but learning is hard work. A generation that is  content with five-minute research sessions on the Internet and communication based on sound bytes will definitely struggle with abstract concepts and commitment as they encounter more rigorous educational environments and the expectations of demanding employers.’  Barbara from Phreelance Writers agrees: ‘Complex language structures enable complex thought.  An era of simplicity in thought […] leads to, quite frankly, stupidity. It is hard not to fear that text-speak […] contributes to the inability of people to concentrate over a reasonable length of time, or enjoy the privacy of their own complex thoughts.’

Then there’s the problem of ambiguity, when it comes to textese. Humphrys says sardonically, ‘With my vast knowledge of text language I had assumed LOL meant “lots of love”, but now I discover it means “laugh out loud”. Or at least it did the last time I asked. But how would you know? Instead of aiding communication it can be a barrier. I can work out BTW (by the way) but I was baffled by IMHO U R GR8. It means: “In my humble opinion you are great.” But, once again, how would you know?’

Yet for all this criticism, there are those who view the inclusion of textese in texts as nothing short of blessing. For one, they hold that English’s beauty is that it is infinitely adaptable, open to modification, to variations in spelling and syntax, so the purist’s resistance to change is a disservice to a living language.

For another, they point out that the inclusion of text-speak makes books accessible to a wide audience. Martin Baum certainly belongs to this school of thought. Baum  has re-written Shakespeare’s plays in text-speak, and has now translated Dickens into ‘yoof-speak’, the language of the street. He says, ‘There are many people who love and understand great literature but many more who don’t. My book is the bait to draw them in and get them interested in some wonderful stories.’   Baum’s adaptation of Shakespeare, To Be or Not to Be, Innit, sold more than 1,0,000 copies. “I was criticised by some people for my last book on Shakespeare, but many more congratulated me, and a prison education officer said how useful it had been [… ] at breaking some of the barriers and making some of the text less intimidating while still retaining the beauty of the original stories.’

Furthermore, a few linguists argue, that far from being an over-simplification of speech, textese possesses unusual complexity. David Crystal says, ‘When we look at some texts, they are linguistically quite complex. […] Some of their juxtapositions create forms which have little precedent, apart from in puzzles. All conceivable types of feature can be juxtaposed – sequences of shortened and full words (hldmecls “hold me close”), logograms and shortened words (2bctnd “to be continued”), logograms and nonstandard spellings (cu2nite) and so on. There are no less than four processes combined in iowan2bwu “I only want to be with you” – full word + an initialism + a shortened word + two logograms + an initialism + a logogram. And some messages contain unusual processes: in iohis4u “I only have eyes for you”, we see the addition of a plural ending to a logogram. Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. But it is merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.’

Ironically, the use of abbreviation in literature  isn’t new. Eric Partridge published his Dictionary of Abbreviations in 1942, which contained dozens of SMS-looking examples, such as agn “again”, mth “month”, and gd “good”– fifty  years before texting was born. Indeed,  people have been initialising common phrases for centuries. “Cos” has been found in books dating back to 1828, and “wot” in a text dated 1829. Of course, all of this has been severely criticized. As early as 1711, Joseph Addison complained about the way words were being ‘miserably curtailed’ – he mentioned pos (itive) and incog (nito). And Jonathan Swift thought that abbreviating words was a ‘barbarous custom.’

Such arguments are unlikely to die soon.

What we’d like to know is this:

Do you view text-speak as an assault on English? Or do you see it as a stage in the evolution of a language?

Does the inclusion of SMS-spelling in a book offend you? If yes, why?

Would you consider reading a book written entirely in text-speak? Give us your reasons!

We love hearing from you!

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Reading Tomorrow: The Great E-book Debate

Select Westland/ Tranqubar titles are now available as e-books! In fact, we are amongst the first Indian publishers to upload digital versions of some of our titles. From bestsellers such as Rujuta Diwekar’s Women & the Weight Loss Tamasha, and Bishwanath Ghosh’s Chai Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop but Never Get Off to detective fiction (Sudhir Thapliyal’s Mansuri, Macabre), to literary writing (Mridula Koshy’s If it is Sweet), to memoir (B.G. Verghese’s First Draft) – a range of our titles are available as e-books on Amazon Kindle. In fact, readers can download a free sample chapter before they decide to buy a book.

While we are proud of this development, we are also curious about what such technological changes portend. For one, what happens to books as we imagine them to be – sentient beings of paper, rich with the scent of ink?

The opinion is clearly divided. New York-based Bob Stein asserts that in our postmodern world, books are outdated, almost as obsolete as certain architectural forms: ‘I love gothic churches and I’m sorry we don’t build them anymore, but we don’t. They’ve served their function and so has the novel. […] Humans were not born with a gene that made us gravitate to print.’ Still others suggest that books are likely to become as precious, as rarefied as works of art. Jacob Weisberg of Slate says, ‘As the Gutenberg era draws to a close, books take on greater magic as artifacts. What no longer serves as technology lives on as art.’

Indeed, as early as 1979, Christopher Evans in the The Micro Millennium predicted that due to the electronic media, the 1980′s would  see ‘the book as we know it, and as our ancestors created and cherished it, begin a slow but steady slide into oblivion.’ More recently, Nicholas Negroponte agreed when he averred, ‘The physical book is dead in five years.’

Others are less quick to write obituaries. Christopher Mims says, ‘If the bustling, recession-inspired trade in used books tells us anything, it’s that old books hold value for readers in a way that not even movies and music do. That’s value that no e-book reader can unlock.’

And still others believe that books and e-books can co-exist. According to Brett Osmond, ‘There is a school of thought that e-books may actually create more demand for the paper version. In the future you may simply buy the book and you are able to read it in a range of formats. You might begin with the paper version, then take a chapter on your e-reader while you’re walking the dog or pick it up on your computer.’

While the printed book’s survival chances are being debated, another area of discussion is whether e-books are an evolution, an improvement on the physical, hard-bound novel. Are e-books in fact superior to the printed book?

Several voices suggest they are. For one, e-books are praised for their portability.  Jacob Weisberg says, ‘Among the other places I have been reading Slate, Salon, an electronic version of the Wall Street Journal, and the e-texts of various novels and short stories, in last couple of weeks: aloud to my wife in a car at night; in a taxi, again at night; while brushing my teeth; on a plane without an overhead light; standing on the subway; in bed; while eating Chinese food with chopsticks. These are situations in which reading is ordinarily either awkward or impossible. They present no challenge, however, to my new favorite gizmo, the Rocket e-Book.’

For another, e-books are enhancing the speed and ease of accessing information. Gloria Mark, Professor at the University of California Irvine, says,  ‘It’s the entire experience. […] Hypertext offers loads of advantages. If while reading online you come across the name “Antaeus” and forget your Greek mythology, a hyperlink will take you directly to an online source where you are reminded that he was the Libyan giant who fought Hercules. And if you’re prone to distraction, you can follow another link to find out his lineage, and on and on.’

Then there are the environmentalists who highlight that e-books save trees; there are the readers of say, erotica, who point out that e-books allow them to read titles in public that they would not normally peruse; there are publishers who praise the e-book’s basic inviolability, for each book is encrypted for a single user, and can’t be copied, forwarded, or resold; there is the cost-conscious buyer who avers that e-books are obviously cheaper than paperbacks, for haven’t publishers eliminated expenses such as paper, printing, binding, and warehousing? And finally there are new writers who assert, ‘Unless you were Stephen King or Margaret Atwood, most stores would spend more time[dismissing] your book than carrying it – making it fairly impossible to get your work into the hands of each reader who wanted it. Suddenly, with online booksellers and ebooks, new writers’ work is nearly as accessible as the old established guys.’

But for all the clamour in favour of the e-book, there are an equal number of dissidents. Often, one hears the voice of the sentimentalist, or the reader who shares an abiding emotional connect with books. Pooja Mazumdar says, ‘I still remember the first time I had (note: “had”) to pick up an e-book. […] The soft riffling noise of flipping from one page to another was replaced by carefully scrolling down the page with the help of an irritating mouse, the pages were stark white, and yes they gave me a headache! What’s more, there was no way I could earmark a few pages so that I could turn to them later!’

David Leek emphasizes that it’s almost impossible to live imaginary lives, adopt imaginary countries, while reading an e-book. ‘It’s hard to get lost in an e-book. Often, the print is small and you might be reading on a laptop, phone or other device where you could get interrupted by phone calls or e-mails. A printed book, on the other hand, is actually a great form of escape from the world.’

Still others point out that e-books really aren’t as cost-effective as we’re given to believe. Dan London says, ‘The Kindle 2 costs $359. Each book costs $9.99. The last 6 books I bought at the bookstore cost me a total of around $95. To read those books on the Kindle 2 it would have cost me around the same amount. Add in that I’d have had to pay the $359 for the Kindle and we’d be looking at $455. In fact, the book Reality Check by Guy Kawasaki costs $18.65 for the hardcover and $16.47 for the Kindle version. For two dollars more, I have a version that I can let my wife read, give to a friend, take notes in the margins or even sell.’

And others protest that e-books slow reading speed. Sandra Aamodt, former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, says, ‘People read more slowly on screen, by as much as 20-30 percent. Fifteen or twenty years ago, electronic reading also impaired comprehension compared to paper, but those differences have faded in recent studies.’

But perhaps the most significant argument deals with the impact that e-books can have on language. Seven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies says, ‘There is no question but that the transition from the culture of the book to the culture of electronic communication will radically alter the ways in which we use language on every societal level. The complexity and distinctiveness of spoken and written expression, which are deeply bound to traditions of print literacy, will gradually be replaced by a more telegraphic sort of “plainspeak.” Syntactic masonry is already a dying art. Neil Postman and others have already suggested what losses have been incurred by the advent of telegraphy and television – how the complex discourse patterns of the nineteenth century were flattened by the requirements of communication over distances. That tendency runs riot as the layers of mediation thicken.’

Jacob Weisberg, though, strongly disagrees. ‘The notion that physical books are ending their lifecycle is upsetting to people who hold them to be synonymous with literature and terrifying to those who make their living within the existing structures of publishing. As an editor and a lover of books, I sympathize. But why should a civilization that reads electronically be any less literate than one that harvests trees to do so? And why should a transition away from the printed page lessen our appreciation and love for printed books? Hardbacks these days are disposable vessels, printed on ever crappier paper with bindings that skew and crack.’

Admittedly, no one can predict how the average reader will adapt to technology, or even if she will. As publishers, we can only hope that no matter what the future dictates, words thrive.

We’d like to open this debate to you:

Do you think the book, as we know it, is dead, or dying?

Would you read your favourite novel, or that title you’ve been yearning to read, on an e-reader? Why?

Which do you find more convenient? An e-reader or a paperback? Give us your reasons!

Do you own an e-reader? If yes, what genres do you read on it? If no, why not, and would you consider buying one?

We do wish to hear from you!