March 07, 2008

lytdybr continued

I received some interesting e-mails following up on my post on the "lytdybr" encoding based on Cyrillic keyboard and QWERTY keyboard key locations.

One reader noted the similarity to "phone numbers written with letters instead of numbers (like 1-800-MATTRES), where one set of characters is replaced by another set with a shared mapping". I haven't heard from anyone about QWERTY-words showing up in other languages. The closest is the interesting phenomenon that Richard Earley wrote to me about, where new lexical items are entering English slang thanks to the T9 (and similar iTap) predictive text technology on cell phones:

Richard Earley:

I wanted to share with you a similar source for linguistic creation among English speakers: the T9 dictionary on a cell phone.

In case you aren't as compulsive a text messager as are the huge majority of today's teenagers, the T9 dictionary speeds up text composition by allowing users to press only one key to enter a character. As each key contains three of four letters, the T9 keeps track of a sequence of keystrokes and then suggests an intended word by matching the possible combinations of those three or four letters to the words in a dictionary.

It's a remarkably efficient system, but it does have a few problems where two words can be produced from one sequence. Some simple examples are 'of'/'me' and 'if'/'he'.

There are also some more amusing ones, mostly caused by the limitations of the T9 dictionary particularly with regards to brand names.

For instance, the name of Vodka brand Smirnoff is rendered as 'poisoned'. This has become a slang term among some young people, normally bringing a laugh of recognition the first time it is brought up. Misspellings can also cause confusion, and I have heard people talk about their 'plans for unoppo', which is what results from forgetting the m in 'tomorrow'. Thanks to the prudes at Nokia and Samsung similar problems arise with swear words. The first suggested word for 'bitch' is 'chubi', which has
gained some popularity as a word on its own. There are many other examples that I could give you, but I will finish with the term 'book' meaning 'cool' which is something I used to hear a lot in London.

I find it an amusing parallel that a device that is so often used to communicate without the knowledge of a teacher has also birthed an RIAA parental advisory version of several swear words and probably helped confuse older generations even with no cell phone in sight. Conversely, and quite contrary to the probably first reaction of most 'grammarians' to this, I have to confess that before I started using a T9 dictionary I could never spell tomorrow, and now I have no problems with it. So might text-speak actually improve people's English?
Elizabeth Moffatt wrote from New Zealand:
I just read your post about encoding of Russian using the Cyrillic alphabet. I was wondering whether perhaps were talking about this?:

"Volapuk encoding (
Russian: кодировка "волапюк", kodirovka "volapyuk") is a slang term for rendering the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet with Latin ones. Unlike Translit (there characters are replaced to sound the same), in volapuk characters can be replaced to look or sound the same."

I've just read Spook Country by William Gibson, which is where I was introduced to the term.
I checked it out and realized that its another interesting encoding but a different one. In Volapük you look for letters that LOOK alike in the two languages. Here's an example from the Wikipedia article:

• COBETCKIJ COIO3 ("advanced" Volapük)
• SOVETSKIY SOYUZ (transliteration)
• Soviet Union (English)
To which I add

UPDATE There's an inverse of Volapuk known as Faux Cyrillic, described here. Hat tip to Douglas Sundseth.

Bill Poser sent me a nice alphabet-related anecdote that is neither QWERTY-code nor Volapük.

Years ago I went away for some time and one of the grad students, Jennifer Cole, stayed at my place in Palo Alto. She wasn't there when I returned and had left a note on the door. I assumed that it told me where she had left the key since for reasons I now forget I had not taken a key with me. The note was in Cyrillic letters, so I attempted to read it as Russian, a task in which I was unsuccessful. At first I interpreted this as due to my lousy Russian and despaired that I would have to search for the key or break in. Fortunately, further contemplation revealed that the note was not in Russian: it was in Japanese. I think that her assumption that few burglars would have understood the note was correct.
Bruce Rusk adds:

Your LL post today on T9 cussing (bussing?) reminded me of this video on that very topic.
It's a lovely sendup of benign dictatorial prescriptivism.

Posted by Barbara Partee at March 7, 2008 08:23 AM