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The History of Abbreviation

As an undergraduate, one of my lecturers once said that language is a tug-of-war between laziness and comprehensibility. Laziness, and our desire to communicate with as little effort as possible will make language change, but our need for comprehension will temper how much it changes.

Text-language is a perfect example of this – we want to fit as much information as possible into as small a space as possible by pressing the fewest buttons, but it still needs to be understood by its recipient.

The recent introduction of text abbreviations to the OED was met with OUTRAGE! OMG. WTF. W.T.A.F. Because txt spk is obviously a terrible corruption of our language brought on by modern technology. To quote the always excellent David Crystal:

‘The popular belief is that texting has evolved as a twenty-first-century phenomenon – as a highly distinctive graphic style, full of abbreviations and deviant uses of language, used by a young generation that doesn’t care about standards’*

But the fact is, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Writing is always dictated by the tools we use. Runes developed because straight lines are so much easier than curves to carve in stone or onto bone. Roman inscriptions are all in big CAPITALS because they’re easier to carve into stone. When quills and ink were developed, writing got curlier, but it was still slow because, as anyone who’s written with a fountain pen will know, you can’t go up without the ink splattering, so letters were formed carefully using a series of downwards and curving strokes, rather than in one long scrawl (like my writing with a biro, which is possible because of the flexibility afforded by the ballpoint).

In 1890, telegraph operators’ language was dictated by the tools they used to transmit it. This lovely article shows operators abbreviating every word, taking out not just vowels but a lot of the consonants, too.

And then you have medieval scribes. They abbreviated everything they could get their hands on. Although, they weren’t as extreme as scribes in sixth-century Rome whose excessive abbreviation led to so much confusion and error that the Emperor Justinian passed a law regulating its use.

We all know the ampersand, which comes from the Latin et, meaning ‘and’, which elided and morphed to become a single symbol.


 The evolution of et > &. SOURCE

That was, of course, for writing Latin. Old English had its own equivalent, the Tironian Nota, drawn as a ‘7’ (pleasingly, on a modern English keyboard it’s the same key as the ampersand, and I don’t know if that’s intentional or not). And, just as the ampersand has been used to represent ‘et’ in longer words (such as ‘&c.’ for ‘etcetera’), so too was the tironian nota used for ‘and’ in longer words such as ‘andlang’, meaning ‘along’.

Some of the most common Anglo-Saxon abbreviations can be seen here:


Beowulf. British Library, Cotton Vitellius, A. xv.

This is the most famous Anglo-Saxon manuscript page, the first page of Beowulf. The symbol in the middle of the lower red square is an abbreviated form of ‘þæt’, pronounced ‘that’ (the first letter, ‘þ’ is a rune called thorn, pronounced ‘th’), meaning ‘that’ (see how little our language has changed in over a thousand years!). This little symbol is seen everywhere, all over Old English manuscripts, and is no different from the modern texting conventions of @ for ‘at’, or U for you, or 2 for to/too, or 4 for… well.

The top red box is a different type of abbreviation. The line over the top of the ‘u’ in ‘monegu’ means that either an ‘n’ or and ‘m’ has been removed from that point in the word. This abbreviation is even more common than the abbreviation of ‘that’ in Old English manuscripts. Sometimes it’s used as a space-saving device – often near the end of a line to squish a whole word in – but really, it’s used everywhere. It’s used in every genre of text, and it’s used on fancy illuminated pages and in biblical texts, it’s not restricted to informal discourse like texting abbreviations are.

There are, in fact, so many abbreviations in medieval manuscripts that there’s a dictionary just for the abbreviation marks. It’s been put online (start clicking on letters to view it page-by-page). This is, frankly, far more extensive than anything we’ve yet to come up with through texting, and this is in Latin, the language we hold above all others and upon which we base our insane grammatical rules! And in Old English, the oldest form of our language, written almost entirely by monks! This slightly undermines arguments by people scared about language being changed and ‘corrupted’, when actually, language is language. It’s inextricably human and the ways we use it are the same whether we’re writing on parchment or texting on a phone.

Even more than abbreviation not being a corruption of our language, there is evidence that it can be beneficial. This BBC news article shows links between texting and literacy in children, which throws in a whole new line of conversation – not only is texting not corrupting language, it could actually be improving it.

The process of creating a text-speak abbreviation involves being able to identify the various parts of a word and then being able to remove or substitute them. Innovations with language like this require a relatively robust understanding of the language in the first place and the ability to manipulate it meaningfully.

So, not only is texting not a terrible new scourge on our language, not only is it not showing a dumbing-down of the younger generation, but it’s actually helping them! Who knew?

Its users are not, as John Humphrys so vividly puts it, ‘doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago, […] destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary’. They are, instead, continuing a millennia-old tradition of abbreviation and linguistic innovation, and improving their language skills.

* David Crystal, Txting: The Gr8 Db8 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 7.

Some further reading:

– This isn’t a new topic. It’s not widely talked about, but there’s enough that I’m not going to say anything groundbreaking or new here. This article by David Crystal tells you pretty much everything you need to know about text language, and if there’s more you want to know, read Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 which is the full version of that article.

– There was a nice article in the Independent about new abbreviations appearing in specialized spheres:

‘Since acronyms are designed to create brevity and clarity in language, it is intriguing when they become words in themselves which are then expanded and conjugated for fun. In years to come, the OED may cite Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman as the first official use of “rofling”, from the online shorthand ROFL, meaning Rolling On Floor Laughing.’

– Lynne Truss, everyone’s favourite prescriptivist, doesn’t comment on the linguistic issues here, other than to say that she doesn’t do abbreviating herself, and Will Self is fantastic about language change.

– A paper on the history of abbreviation, if you can get it:
Félix Rodriguez and Garland Cannon, ‘Remarks on the Origin and Evolution of Abbreviations and Acronyms’, in F. Fernández, et al., eds., English Historical Linguistics 1992: Papers from the 7th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, Valencia, 22-26 September, 1992 (Amsterdam, 1994), pp. 262-72 (at 266).

 – my own publication on abbreviation use by eleventh-century scribes in a Worcester manuscript: Kate Wiles, ‘The Treatment of Charter Bounds by the Worcester Cartulary Scribes’, New Medieval Literatures, 13 (2011), pp. 113-37, and my thesis, which I’m always happy to talk about!



About Kate Wiles

Kate Wiles
Kate Wiles recently finished a PhD on Anglo-Saxon scribes and manuscripts and is now researching and writing, and blogging in a personal capacity at http://solongasitswords.wordpress.com/. She is the historical language consultant for The History Channel's Vikings series.

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