Belmont Club


Fox News describes the forthcoming summit on Texting While Driving.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will convene a summit of experts to figure out what to do about the problem of texting while driving, a practice studies and a growing number of accidents show can be deadly. … “The bottom line is, we need to put an end to unsafe cell phone use, typing on BlackBerrys and other activities that require drivers to take their eyes off the road and their focus away from driving,” LaHood said.

If LaHood thinks a summit will solve his problem he’s in for a surprise. There’s an even worse potential problem: texting while walking. JS Online reports that “the American College of Emergency Physicians went so far as to issue a warning recently about texting while walking, driving, in-line skating or engaging in some other activity. … Illinois is considering a ban on pedestrians using wireless devices while crossing streets.” When that’s been solved doctors will suddenly discover than an unusual number of people have choked at the dinner table because they were texting while eating.  No activity is safe from the sinister encroachment of the cell phone keyboard. It has even been identified as a contributing cause to starting riots and associated with corrupting international speech. The New Yorker argues that what it calls “thumbspeak” is forcing the world to use American linguistic shorthand.

Under the constraints of the numeric-keypad technology, English has some advantages. The average English word has only five letters; the average Inuit word, for example, has fourteen. English has relatively few characters; Ethiopian has three hundred and forty-five symbols, which do not fit on most keypads. English rarely uses diacritical marks, and it is not heavily inflected. Languages with diacritical marks, such as Czech, almost always drop them in text messages. Portuguese texters often substitute “m” for the tilde. Some Chinese texters use Pinyin—that is, the practice of writing Chinese words using the Roman alphabet.

But English is also the language of much of the world’s popular culture. Sometimes it is more convenient to use the English term, but often it is the aesthetically preferred term—the cooler expression. Texters in all eleven languages that Crystal lists use “lol,” “u,” “brb,” and “gr8,” all English-based shorthands. The Dutch use “2m” to mean “tomorrow”; the French have been known to use “now,” which is a lot easier to type than “maintenant.” And there is what is known as “code-mixing,” in which two languages—one of them invariably English—are conflated in a single expression. Germans write “mbsseg” to mean “mail back so schnell es geht” (“as fast as you can”). So texting has probably done some damage to the planet’s cultural ecology, to lingo-diversity.

Untold billions of text messages are sent each month. One of the unexplored questions is what people have suddenly found it necessary to talk about. The famous mathematician John von Neumann was said to have read books while driving. But while von Neumann’s constant need for mental stimulation might be put down to the hyperactivity of genius, there is something new in the modern need to be constantly connected. Perhaps future generations who no longer remember a time when one simply walked, drove or ate — and did nothing else — will wonder what humanity did before texting was invented.

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