Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Radical Compression of Language (aka TLDR.it will rule us all)

In honor of tldr.it, I’m reprinting my Toronto Star article about the radical compression of language:

The long and the short of naming things
Toronto Star | September 3, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

Four years ago, Toronto journalist Andre Mayer wrote about very long song titles as the latest trend in music for CBC Arts Online. Offenders included and Sufjan Stevens (“To the Workers of the Rockford River Valley Region, I have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament, and It Involves Shoe String, a Lavender Garland, and Twelve Strong Women”).

But the wordy excess detailed by Mayer now appears to be a relic of the pre-Twitter era. The first single from M.I.A.'s new album is called XXXO, and none of her other song titles are longer than 17 characters. (Compare that with the aforementioned Sufjan Stevens song, which exceeds Twitter's 140-character limit by a whopping 20 per cent).

This brevity tendency is not limited to music, either. As Stephanie Strom reported in The New York Times on July 11, “The organization previously known as the Y.M.C.A. is henceforth to be called ‘the Y.' ” When a four-letter acronym is too time-consuming, we've clearly entered the era of radical compression, when the abbreviated convenience of URL shorteners like Bit.ly is now being applied to offline phenomena.

Perhaps the best, (if not funniest) example of this trend appeared in The New York Times Media Decoder Blog on March 23: “Stefano Tonchi, the editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, has been appointed editor of W, the fashion magazine published by Condé Nast.” Given that magazines are generally in the business of delivering a bushel of words, it seems strange to mute themselves with such nondescript titles. And while T and W might be isolated letters, they aren't isolated examples of publications with barely there names. There's a Toronto-based technology magazine called UR (full disclosure: I'm an occasional contributor) along with a couples magazine called 2.

Which is not to suggest that a single letter (or number) cannot contain multitudes. In his 2008 book X-rated!: The Power of Mythic Symbolism in Popular Culture, University of Toronto semiotician Marcel Danesi argues that symbols like the letters X and V “tell us more about the state of the world than do theories and sophisticated academic debates.” Along with V (a feminine symbol) and X (which blends the sacred and the profane), Danesi uses X-rated! to discuss the ubiquitous lower case “i” prefix attached to anything remotely technological (iPad, iTravel, iSandwich).

But rather than panic about our one-letter future, Danesi points out that humans have an inbuilt tendency toward language efficiency (or laziness, depending on your perspective). Referring to the work of the late Harvard linguist George Kingsley Zipf and the law that bears his name, Danesi notes that “the more frequent, necessary, or popular a form becomes for communicative purposes, the more likely it is to be rendered compressed or economical in structure.”

Tom McCarthy, a British writer and artistic provocateur, appears to have taken Zipf's Law to heart with his upcoming novel, entitled C. Although it won't be in stores until September, C has already made the Man Booker Prize Long List. Unfortunately, Danesi has nothing to say about the letter C, nor does he provide insight into L, which is what Montreal writer Ian Orti titled his recent novel. Although, to be fair, the full title of L includes a parenthetical: (and things come apart).

Since bookstore browsers might find it difficult to judge Orti's book by its sole letter, I will offer a quick review: sly. If my review leaves you wanting, it's only because I'm emulating filmmaker and illustrator Sarah Lazarovic, who in June started posting three-character book reviews via Twitter. Examples include: Ugh. Ha! Meh. Yup. Those, respectively, are for The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis, The Bedwetter by Sarah Silverman, The Ask by Sam Lipsyte and The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.

Of course, given the ever-shrinking book coverage in newspapers, it's probably dangerous to draw attention or otherwise legitimize three-character literary reviews.

Instead, I'll conclude by praising a children's book from 1968 whose four-character title appears to have anticipated text message shorthand. I refer to CDB! by New York illustrator William Steig. Re-released in 2000, a few years before Steig's death, CDB! (see the bee) is a book where “letters and numbers are used to create the sounds of words and simple sentences 4 u 2 figure out.”

So, for example, the book contains an L-F-N (elephant), an L-F-8-R (elevator) and a boy saying I N-V-U (I envy you).

CDB!'s word puzzles are a perfect mix of charming and goofy. Or, in keeping with the three-character review format, fab. And given the current climate of compression, Steig's publisher should consider reissuing the book yet again. The way things are going, it's sure to be a bestseller.