a, Science & Technology

Australian restaurateur develops symbol for ‘the’

With the development of social media and communications technology, language is facing external pressures to shift towards a more condensed form, as seen in the current use of slangs, abbreviations, and connotations.

Take, for example, restaurateur Paul Mathis, who is trying to transform the way we send texts and tweets by creating a shorthand symbol for the word ‘the’—the most commonly used word in the English language according to oxforddictionaries.com. He proposed combining a capital ‘T’ with a lowercase ‘h’ sharing a common stem.  Though not much shorter than the original three-letter word, Mathis argues that it will increase efficiency by saving two extra characters every time you tweet.

“The word ‘and’ is only the fifth-most used word in English, and it has its own symbol—the ampersand,” said Mathis in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “Isn’t it time we accorded the same respect to ‘the’?”

However, Mathis’ new symbol did not receive the hype he had hoped for. Its similarity to a Cyrillic character (used by Slavic languages), awkward font spacing, and Apple’s refusal to allow such a symbol to be used on their devices halted its rise to becoming commonplace.

Despite its lack of success, Mathis is not alone in his preference for short forms. Since the advent of Twitter in 2006, the use of acronyms shot up significantly. Expressing oneself in 140 characters is evolving to become very much the norm, and to some extent, an art form.

Acronyms, too, are evolving to move away from their original meanings when they were first used in Internet Relay Chat (IRC) rooms to acquire new connotations. For instance, some of the acronyms employed in text messages are no longer used in their original context. For instance, ‘LOL’ no longer singly stands for ‘laugh out loud’; rather, it is used more often as a standard response in conversations that are not necessarily funny.

Apple refused to implement the "the" symbol on its devices’ keyboards. (laughingsquid.com)
Apple refused to implement the “the” symbol on its devices’ keyboards. (laughingsquid.com)

Hashtags used on Twitter and Instagram— and more recently on Facebook— also represent a shift in the way we interpret these symbols and the meaning that they carry. Showing an Instagram photo littered with hashtags to someone in the ‘90s would definitely have left them baffled by the use of a symbol that meant ‘phone number’ preceding captions of a picture.

However, not everyone is on board with this evolution of the written word. Some puritans of the English language argue that such a change is pulling us away from what is widely accepted as the ‘correct’ way to write and express oneself. For instance, a study conducted in May 2012 by the Pennsylvania University Media Effects Research Laboratory showed that children who recently engaged in text messaging performed significantly worse on a grammar exam than those who did not.

While the benefits of this new type of language are up for debate, evolution is certainly at work. Considering how English changed from Chaucer to Shakespeare, or to the pre-Internet era; this phenomenon is hardly new. Unlike these past changes, which were largely dictated by changes in verbal communication, today there seems to be a disconnect between the short forms used on the Internet and our conversations in person. In the age of texting and tweeting, perhaps we’ll soon all be speaking in hashtag, too.

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