Sunday, October 28, 2012

Texting before Telephones

The following quotes are from an article written in 1902, entitled "Telegraph Talk and Talkers: Human Character and Emotions an Old Telegrapher Reads on the Wire" (L.C. Hall, from McClure's Magazine, and available online here). It is easy to see parallels between the written culture that developed around telegraphers and what we see today with texting:

For "telegraphese" is a living, palpitating language. It is a curious kind of Volapuk, a universal tongue, spoken through the finger tips and in most cases read by ear.  In its written form telegraphese, or "Morse," as it is called in the vernacular, is rarely seen.  Yet as a vehicle of expression it is, to the initiated, as harmonious, subtle, and fascinating as the language of music itself...

Expressed in print a laugh is a bald "ha ha!" that requires other words to describe its quality.  In wire talk the same form is used, but the manner of rendering it imparts quality to the laughter. In dot-and-dash converse, as in speech, "ha! ha!" may give an impression of mirthlessness, of mild amusement, or of convulsion.  The double "i," again, in wire parlance, has a wide range of meaning according to its rendition.  A few double "i's" are used as a prelude to a conversation, as well as to break the abruptness in ending it.  They are also made to express doubt or acquiescence; and in any hesitation for a word or phrase are used to preserve the continuity of a divided sentence.  When an order is given in Morse over the wire, the operator's acknowledgment is a ringing "ii!" which has the same significance as a sailor's "aye, aye, sir!" The man would be put a poor observer of little things who, after "working a wire" with a stranger at "the other end" for a week, could not give a correct idea of his distant 'vis-a-vis' disposition and character.  And it would be quite possible for an imaginative operator to build up a fairly accurate mental image of him, whether he ate with his knife, or wore his hat cocked on the side of his head, or talked loud in public places...

You could write about the scholarly distinction between 'lol' and 'lmfao' in the same way. I mean, if you really wanted to.

A telegrapher's Morse, then, is as distinctive as his face, his tones, or his handwriting and as difficult to counterfeit as his voice or writing. Of this individual quality of telegraphese, the old war telegraphers tell many stories.  A Confederate, for example, encounters on the march, a line of wire which he suspects is being used by the enemy. He taps the wire, "cuts in" his instruments, and listens.  His surmise is correct; he "grounds off" one or the other end, and, trying to disguise his style of "sending," makes inquiries calculated to develop important information.  But the Southern accent is recognized in his Morse by the distant manipulator, who, indeed, may have been a co-worker in the days "before the war."  So the intruder gets only a good humored chaffing.  "The trick won't work, Jim," says the Federal operator.  "Let's shake for old times' sake, and then you 'git' out of this." 

Shibboleths! Sweet. This is sort of similar to how people can tell I'm from Texas when I text them because I frequently refer to objects and events as "wompy-jawed." 

To continue in the same vein, here's a article from the Atlantic, Radio Free Cherokee: Endangered Languages Take to the Airwaves. There's a lot of interesting stuff about language revitalization efforts through community radio stations throughout the world.

And finally, there's the Indigenous Tweets Project, which gathers texts from the web written in indigenous and minority languages. 

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