Speaking the lingo

Text language has become popular and an accepted form of communication outside of text messaging. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Text language has become popular and an accepted form of communication outside of text messaging. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Language is constantly being redesigned in terms of its look and meaning, Leigh Paterson writes.

OMG, I hv 2 gv sm thnks 2 my OP students! 

In the study of communication design we use image and text to create: they are our tools. Language and how it is used becomes incredibly important to consider when designing.

So when words and phrases are used in printed material, these really are our nuts and bolts.

When words change their meaning designers notice and when letters are removed from words we also notice.

In recent years, text language has become popular and an accepted form of communication outside of text messaging. It is not uncommon to see "2'' standing in for "to'', or "4'' for "for'', letters removed from words and shortened forms of longer words in advertising and signs.

For this reason, studio discussions with design students can be fierce and fascinating around how we use language and how something that is designed might be read and understood by the public once it has left our studios.

Some illuminating discussions with students have included what exactly is "throwing shade'': not the actual throwing of colour and light, but rather the action of being disrespectful towards someone.

It is important to keep up with language trends, as words are no different from a seasonal colour or fashion trend. They change. Language is constantly evolving.

The word "gay'' for example has had many meanings over time, as has the word "swag''.

In the 1800s it meant stolen property, now its contemporary definition means a type of confidence.

It's not just words alone, but often how a word looks, its common usage and its history that can be teased out through the practice of communication design.

Language is a tricky business; it is an abstract glue that attempts to bring people together in the hope we understand each other. But when we use a word or phrase that is foreign to someone they can become lost.

One of the best examples of this was from a past student who spent some time visiting Los Angeles and shared an experience of an incident with an LAPD officer and a New Zealand passport.

A redesign of the official document has seen the inclusion of the te reo Maori name for passport on the front cover: uruwhenua. The officer translated this as a text message: U R U WHEN U A.

In a cross-cultural mangle, he killed some excess vowels and consonants and asked "you are you when you are in America? Or you are you when you are in New Zealand? ... What does this mean?''. He waited for an answer to why there was a text message on our passport.

The officer was clearly confused, but it did illustrate how text language has crept into contemporary culture, so that the shortening of words is increasingly visible and accepted almost everywhere.

Misinterpretations happen: WTF for example, does not mean Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

PTO is not potato and when someone says "Shut the front door!'' it can be a strange substitute for a stronger declaration requesting silence.

Not to be outdone, after binge-watching a lot of the US reality show Jersey Shore, I decided to Google-search an unknown acronym that was being used ad nauseam. It turned out to be extremely X-rated. I blushed.

This type of minimalism and the coded aspect of language might highlight how we are collectively trying to be efficient in the manner in which we communicate with each other; a reflection of tone and taste through language and symbolic use.

However, it is important to note that many people would never choose to substitute "4'' for "for'', so this could be viewed as a matter of style and tradition.

Many people have shared with me that they understand "text speak'' but would never use it in their writing.

The reduction in letters and other forms of vernacular and slang are not new, but noting how and when they change or become passé or even when this practice might become a threat to national intelligence is essential.

NZQA has struggled with this for some time in setting a base for educational standards and has in the past had to deal with bad press in relation to the potential relaxation of English education standards.

Does it really matter if a student uses text language in an essay? Is it any worse than policing the use of the "z'' and "s'' distinction in US and UK spelling of words?

Technology has enabled the practice: media platforms such as Twitter have restricted the use of characters so individuals work within these frameworks. Information is fast and flows in and out of our lives in the same way.

David Crystal in his book Texting: The Gr8 Db8 comments on texting stating: "Texting language is no different from other innovative forms of written expression that have emerged in the past. It is a type of language whose communication strengths and weaknesses need to be appreciated''.

He goes on to discuss how we collectively understand appropriate use and meaning.

Crystal also gives historical examples of individuals who have experimented with language using wordplays, morphing and reconstituting language, such as Lewis Carroll and Queen Victoria.

Language is a living thing; maybe it is important to test the boundaries, where possible, for the sake of creativity.

Language that lives within the unbridled frontiers of technology perhaps reflects this creativity through the ever-changing speed and nature of delivery, giving us the means to continue to abbreviate and experience acronymic play.

In light of all this, an RIP must be given to Prince who popularised the use of shortened words b4 there was text messaging.

Songs like nothing compares 2 u and I would die 4 u are not only gr8 bt md way 4 txt cx*. <3! BFN!

*cx has many meanings but in this context is shorthand for culture.

- Leigh Paterson is a lecturer in communication design at Otago Polytechnic

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