bethemedia (bethemedia) wrote,

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Saussure, Predictive Text, Cycling Awake and the word 'Book'

From its inception, I have been a massive fan of T9 predictive text messaging. For anyone still not familiar with T9 (which stands for Text on 9 Keys) here is the Wikipedia description of its direct effect on typing functions and for further Info on the model see HERE.

I know that when you first come to T9 the effect is almost unanimously terrible - you still hammer the same button 4 times to get the letter S, look up and find 3 letters in a jumble instead with a question mark (on a Nokia phone I get SPR? - phone language for "There's no word that has SPR as its beginning and then either a P, Q, R or S after it, so what are you spelling there?")

The new behaviour of hitting each button once, even if the traditional selection process was based on multiple pressings, takes a lot of time to get used to, but once you have, you can type quicker than with a keyboard. However, with this shift from multiple to single, an extraordinary impact on our language is being made, and I think it's an extremely positive one.

First off - because T9's point of least resistance is correct spelling, kids are learning to use the full word rather than tricky and non-predictable shortcuts. (it is easier to type "Later" than "l8er" - try it on any phone) - so actually children are learning correct spelling because machines have made it quicker to use the elongated input - something hitherto unprecedented anywhere by anything (type "abbreviation" into a phone - how quick was that?!)

However, the most important shift has not been a grammatical one, but one of associations of words with their meanings (and each other, as I will explain in a minute), and their place within Saussurian theory- i.e.: the way in which language works.

Normally the idea of 'chair' or 'table' is connected to a 'signifier', the actual word "Chair" or 'Table' - the connection is random (simply look up several other languages from round the world and in some cases the words are so different you have to admit we decided through wholly unrelated reasons to say 'Table' while Swahili uses "Jedwali" for what is essentially the same 'signified' - the ideal, the notion, the common conception of what we mean by "Table".

Swahili Translation courtesy of the Yamusi Project at Yale:

Traditionally, through psychology more than direct linguistics, we also learn to associate words - for example, as I did above subconsciously, many will associate "Table" with "Chair" - of course because in the physical world the 2 items are very often related in use; we use the phrase "table and chairs" or similar associative uses; they are of course, both notions of furniture. Their meanings also account for roles in discussion - you table a meeting; you also chair it.

With T9, things are now happening that are completely new to language - we are now beginning to associate some words with other words that have no logical ideological connection between them, and, one step further, we are now substituting words with others, despite there being no idea-bridge between them.

First off - I now consciously associate the word cycle with the word awake. Why? They have nothing in common idea-wise. Ok - you have to be awake to cycle, but that's not a meaningful connection in the same sense that we associate Table and Chair.  Yet my mind has built a connection between the words, a little bit like Walter Benjamin's comment about his personal library - a book next to another book gains a context because of physical association. Joyce's Ulysses has sat next to Jane Austen's Emma for 2 years now - and if you ask any English lit person about the connection in the book, it's fair to comment that there's not much of one.

But there is if you visually associate them. Similarly, Awake and Cycle have few things in common - yet they have 5 letters each, and, coincidentally, on the 9 Key phone, all the letters are on the same buttons (2-9-2-5-3) -so Cycle comes up first (theoretically because the word is used more) - hence I am confronted visually by 2 different words with the only connection that they are on the same 'bookshelf' - and thus a meaningful commonality is forged by technology in place of a human (albeit one with a private library to hand.)

Here are some others that amuse me:

My brother finds it hilarious that his Motorola thinks that instead of trying to spell the word Portsmouth, what my brother is ACTUALLY trying to do is write the word Post-pontui to me. What does it mean? Nothing. But now, linguistically, I live in Post-pontui (Post is pronounced to rhyme with Ghost, by the way)

if you talk to my brother about Cardiff (where he studied until recently), he will mention a place called Barehed. Google Barehed and see what you come up with. Yes, 17 results.

You'll get this blogger, who is way ahead of me:

or the person who claims to have coined Barehed (half-seriously of course, any Cardiff student in the last 5 years will know what you're chatting about)

(The entry is under another brilliant word - Zonino - Text misprediction for WooHoo!)

My sister Anna's new nickname is Bomb. Type it find out. You probably guessed already.

And kids (and Media Types from London) are telling me my blog is totally Book. WHAT? Here's the great new thing. Because 'Book' comes up before the word 'Cool' on T9, effectively kids are now re-associating the 'Signified' - our perfect Platonic notion of 'Cool' - with a signifier that shares no traditional meaning derived from existing language, but jumps to another (almost) randomly associated signifier - simply because of T9 associating them through structural similarities.

Language is set to evolve a new way - around technology, and with marvellous effects. And random association and correct spelling look like they will be preserved in the process.

So screw Postpontui, I'm off to Barehead - ZONINO! That's totally Book!
Tags: language, saussure, t9, text messages, texting
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