Thursday, 7 May 2009

Textual Intercourse

The advent of the mobile phone has had an unquestionable impact on how we communicate. For starters, many new phone-related words have found their way into The Chambers Dictionary in recent years. Obviously there's the definition of mobile phone itself, along with variations like flip phone, clamshell phone, camera phone and smart phone. Other terms that have become familiar include pay as you go, SIM card and even happy slapping. And after many years happily existing purely as a noun, text now acts as a verb as well; "to send a text message".

New words, however, are only the beginning – mobiles have started a whole new style of communication, rife with acronyms, abbreviations and (mostly) intentional misspelling. Twenty years ago you might have been considered mad if you'd written someone a note consisting of "lol. gr8, c u 2nite", but now this is an acceptable part of our new fast and efficient discourse. There has been much conversation about the effect of this language shift and the merits of text speak or textese. Jonathon Green, author behind the Chambers Slang Dictionary, contributes to the discussion concluding "It's just another form of the Queen's English – not better, not worse". Thousands of school teachers across the country disagree, and the debate continues.

Recently I encountered another interesting linguistic contribution from the world of mobile telephony - the "textonym". Two words are textonyms of each other if they are entered using the same combination of keys in predictive text. I'm sure many of us will have sent or received a nonsensical message caused by this phenomenon. I wrote a program to find textonyms within The Chambers Dictionary, hoping to uncover some interesting associations. Some of the these are happily serendipitous, others potentially disastrous, and some yield connections that would probably never otherwise be made.

Employers, be careful if you choose to text your candidates the outcome of their interviews - selection and rejection may be semantically distant, but they are perilously close together in the world of predictive text (keys 735328466). A night out can quickly turn from merriness to messiness, but thankfully it's easy to adjust your message accordingly (637746377). And although there aren't really any words that rhyme with purple, it need be lonely no longer - its textonym supple (787753) is just a key press away. A few other favourites are kiss and lips (5477), satay and saucy (72829), toffee and unfeed (853333) and libido and lichen (542436).

The most prolific combination for textonyms is 7663, yielding twelve words including some, roof, pond, Rome and several other more obscure words. 4663 gets you these slightly more useful eight textonyms: gone, good, goof, home, hond, hone, hood and hoof. The longest textonym in The Chambers Dictionary is 638765378262543742, offering a choice between neuroleptanalgesia and neuroleptanalgesic, though I wouldn't expect to find that in too many mobile phone dictionaries - occasions that call for conversation about "the administration of a tranquillizer and an analgesic at the same time to induce a sleeplike state" are few and far between.

The latest must-have gadgets seem to be favouring a traditional QWERTY keyboard for text input, so the days of predictive text may be numbered (no pun intended!). But although textonyms could be a short-lived phenomenon, the need to say more with less is still very pertinent, and so it looks as though other mobile influences, like textese, will b here 4 a while yet.

David Wark

Thanks to @jimmysixbellies and @Narrenschiff for bringing this to my attention on Twitter.

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1 comment:

JimmySixBellies said...

Hi David.

Thanks for the mention.

My interest in textonyms was aroused when I discovered that 'the kids these days' are using book as an adjective to mean cool. I love this – both as a bibliophile and as someone fascinated with the ways in which each generation plays with words, allowing the language to progress.

I like the way you can go to the pub for a pint, shot or riot in equal measure. Once there you could use your lips> to kiss the barmaid, possibly leading to carnage, and Smirnoff could get you poisoned.

@Narrenschiff has written a similar program. I’ll post some more of my favourite findings here.


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