Can you read 19th century txt spk?

@guardianstyle on Twitter points to an article by Mark Brown announcing what sounds like a wonderful exhibition the British Library is preparing: Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices (Nov 12, 2010 – Apr 3, 2011).  There’s even a second piece, by Alison Flood.

British Library exhibits are reputed to be large, well-made and almost over-abundant (I’ve only been to one, Taking Liberties, and it was of this style.) If the Guardian is to be believed, usage controversies get a large place in Evolving English, which makes it particularly relevant to this blog. The press has its favourite topics, and one is text-message style abbreviated writing — which is only the latest manifestation of a type of language play that is of course much older. Here is a 19th century example, from the first article:

There will be examples of the linguistic games people played, and a poem from Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, published in 1867. In it, 130 years before the arrival of mobile phone texting, Charles C Bombaugh uses phrases such as “I wrote 2 U B 4”. Another verse reads: “He says he loves U 2 X S,/ U R virtuous and Y’s,/ In X L N C U X L/ All others in his i’s.”

I think that modern txt spk would spell XLNs. Also, note the apostrophes in “wise” and “eyes”.

So modern snakes eat dinosaur eggs?

From the article “Prehistoric snake gobbled-up dinosaur babies” by Jeremy Hance, which was published on on March 2, 2010:

A fossilized snake has been discovered inside a titanosaur nest in India, leading researchers to conclude that the snake fed on newly-hatched dinosaur babies, rather than their eggs like modern snakes.

The thought process is quite clear, though probably even in its long form simplistic:

  1. This prehistoric snake ate freshly hatched baby dinosaurs.
  2. Modern snakes evolved from prehistoric snakes.
  3. Birds evolved from dinosaurs (though there’s some fuzziness around the edges of this statement).
  4. Birds (and most reptiles) lay eggs.
  5. Modern snakes eat eggs.

But here, it got telescoped into an over-shortened version in which the pronoun “their [eggs]” carries the entire weight of referring, simultaneously  to  dinosaurs in the prehistoric case and (unnamed) birds in the modern case.

And who, exactly, are you?

I spent the last weekend, plus days before and after, in Portland, Oregon (at the 22nd annual convention of the usenet group soc.motss). This is a city that, even by the high standards of the urban European, has a truly impressive public transport system. Not only is it complete and fast, it’s also intelligently priced, ie, low, with free rides in the city center, and bike-friendly.

One bit of linguistic interest is worth mentioning here: The announcement made on some of the MAX light rail/streetcar/tramway (pick your term) lines to indicate at which side to get off the train at the next stop. Announcements in these trains are made by an automated, prerecorded voice, first in English, then in Spanish.

The text of the announcement, after indicating the next stop’s name?

Doors to my left.

This is a bit startling. I can see why an overly nit-picky planner would want to avoid “Doors to your left” — after all, passengers may be oriented every which way in the carriage. But saying “… my left” is presuming we have a speaker here. It’s not the driver. But someone or something speaking in a disembodied voice.

Now while there is indeed a well-defined left and right relative to a moving tramway, the problem is to ascribe a sense of agency to it that would allow it to speak to us in the first person.

I have not quite succeeded in finding out if the sentient tramway is restricted to the English — I thought I heard “puertas a la izquierda”, ie “doors to the left“, but this page claims it’s “puerta a mi izquierda”.

Portland, the City of Roses and sentient, anthropomorphic streetcars.