Verbal Energy: Predictable chaos on our cellphones

'Predictive' software and the way language works

Early in the morning the other day, I awoke to a BBC commentary by an earnest young man from New Zealand. The problem he was elucidating was that the predictive language feature on his mobile phone is not properly attuned to the Kiwi slang he likes to use in his text messaging.

New Zealanders, he said, are big fans of text messaging, or texting. But he gets frustrated when the software on his phone, which is supposed to save him keystrokes by anticipating what he's trying to say, leads him down other paths instead.

The problem, he had determined, is that the dictionary built into his phone is from an American company, and so is based on American English, which is not what he speaks.

Why should a handful of people in America decide on the dictionary that goes into his phone, he asked.

His plaint is a reminder that it's a great big world out there, and that English may be ubiquitous, but that it comes in many varieties.

Last June, PC World magazine explained the "T9" system the Kiwi was complaining about in an article:

"Tegic Communications Inc., in Seattle, developed the T9 interface in 1995 to simplify the typing of text messages on mobile phones. Rather than press 9-9-6-6-6-8-8 to spell the word 'you,' T9 users can type 9-6-8 and let the software predict which word they are trying to spell. T9 software has been embedded in 2.5 billion phones … although many of those may now be in landfill."

The name "T9" refers to "text on nine keys," by the way. And a lot of people are having fun with those nine keys, it seems. A recent Reuters piece explained, "A new language is being developed by mobile phone-addicted kids based on the predictive text of their treasured handsets.

"Key words are replaced by the first alternative that comes up on a mobile phone using predictive text – changing 'cool' into 'book,' 'awake' into 'cycle.' "

It seems to be especially cool, or book, I should say, to adapt the standard exclamation "woohoo!" into "zonino!" That does look more exciting, although six letters seems like a lot for a single word in a text message.

This kind of wordplay was something the New Zealander on the BBC reported doing, too. And suddenly the penny dropped when I realized why he kept talking about a place called "Bucklane" (Auckland). I have to acknowledge, I wasn't fully "cycle" myself as I heard it.

According to Reuters, these replacement words are "technically paragrams, but commonly known as textonyms, adaptonyms or cellodromes."

The Reuters reporter found a professor in Wales to comment reassuringly on the phenomenon: "Everybody plays with language," he said. "Playing with language isn't new. It's absolutely normal for kids to experiment like this."

Hmm. Does anybody remember pig Latin?

As I considered this particular form of cultural imperialism – an American dictionary embedded in phones going around the world – it occurred to me that we have been here before. We may be living in a global, virtual age, but we are still rooted in place.

When William Caxton (1422-92), England's first printer, returned to his native country from several years abroad, he found the English language much changed from his youth and in a state of chaos. English was spoken in very different forms across the country, and Caxton is widely credited with standardizing the language. At some point, he had to pick one form and go with it. And that probably meant doing something equivalent to cramping the style of some Kiwi's texting.

But that's how language works. There are forces for standardization – like printing and dictionaries and software that spells out words for you automatically. And there are forces for creativity and innovation, like the Kiwi and his texts.

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