May 29, 2015 by T. Gregory Argall
Twenty-five or thirty years ago, about half the population of Corner Brook, Newfoundland lived in Brampton, Ontario, and I worked with some of them. (I have no idea what the current stats are, but they’re probably similar.) Once I was told a story, a brief parable, about two Newfoundland fishermen who passed each other each morning; one was heading out on his boat as the other was coming back in.
Their conversation, as recounted to me, was thus:
The translation of that conversation was something along the lines of:
“Good morning, Rolly. Did you have any luck with the fish?”
Sadly, no, Fergus. The fish just weren’t interested in being in my boat. I’d have a better chance of catching something at a whorehouse, with three cents and half a breath mint in my pocket. Better luck to you.”
The point of the story (if there actually was one, which I doubted at the time) was that neither fisherman had the time nor the inclination to stop and chat, and through practice and familiarity they had developed a sort of verbal shorthand. I was assured that such conversations were quite common down east and, in fact, all of Newfoundland had developed this verbal shorthand.
“Also,” the storyteller concluded, “we just can’t be boddered sayin’ all dat same t’ing day after day. So we talks lazy.”
(Awkward segue to present times.)
On rare occasions (okay, about once a week), just before leaving work to go home, I’ll send my wife a text message saying, simply, “‘Za?” She’ll reply with, “K.” Then I’ll go home and we’ll order pizza.
As you can probably infer, the subtext of those two messages are basically, “Should we order pizza tonight?” and, “Hell, yes! Why is that even a question?”
Earlier this week, while running through this brief ritual, it occurred to me that with the aid of technology we had developed a shorthand of our own. In the interest of brevity and/or laziness, we had barely used half a syllable each. Our smartphones had brought our communication process to the level of disinterested fishermen who have better things to do with their time.
Of course, in our case, that only applies to questions and statements that are consistent, regular, and predictable. I mean, what other possible answer could there be to the question, “Do you want pizza?” I didn’t even look at the response until I got home. By the time my phone pinged the messages arrival I was already driving and, dammit, road safety is everyone’s responsibility.
For unique, new, or one-time-only messages, I will thumbtype full words and complete sentences. Cell text messages are no longer constrained by a Twitter-esque 140 character limit.
However, for a lot of people, once they got into the habit of compressing messages for space, they stuck with it. An average text message (or as the kids call it these days, “txt”) is a jumble of abbreviated words and ill-considered acronyms. Much like the Welsh, we have essentially abandoned vowels in their written form.
Homonyms are quite prevalent in texting and Facebook status blurbs, as well. In fact, using numbers in place of words has become the cyber-equivalent of Cockney rhyming-slang. But we can’t really hold the internet responsible for that; the roots of that particular writing idiosyncrasy go back a bit further, to the 1980s. I think we can all agree that Minnesotan songmeister Prince is 2 blame 4 that.
The problem with this continuing trend is that it leaves every half-spelled thought and idea open to wild misinterpretation. Twitter and Facebook are packed full of people just waiting to misinterpret something and launch a righteous screed of indignation to prove a point that asked not for proof.
I have a friend, Todd, with whom I have written some of my favourite plays. Todd’s basic approach to communication is, “Why use three words when you can use twelve?” It takes Todd three paragraphs to say that the sky is blue, but after those three paragraphs you know exactly what shade of blue, how Todd feels about that particular shade of blue, how it compares to other shades of blue that comprised the sky on previous days, and probably something about daylight navigation techniques used by sailors centuries ago.
There is no ambiguity with Todd. His point is clearly laid out with a truckload of verbiage. He doesn’t just say things. He communicates. If he ever had to immerse himself fully in Tweet-speak and assimilate to the clipped-word style of ‘net-talk, I think he would implode.
The world needs people like Todd, to remind us that words are more than just random clusters of letters; words deserve respect and proper, reverent use.
Remembering that is important.