Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Entropy & D Nu English

“Sm1s lkn HOT!!!!!”  gushed the Facebook comment on a profile picture, the economy of letters so impressive at the beginning, jettisoned in a gust of apostrophes at the end.  Of late I have been befriended by nephews and nieces and in their posts, I see a terse elegance and minimalist language, an English that is being reheated and hammered into compaction through texting and social networking.   Nothing brings the sense of urgency like “nuf  sd”, the superficiality of a “ :-) “, or the delicious longing in the suddenly redundant  “meeeeesss youuuuuuuu!!!!!!!!”.  Writers and poets speak about compressing lines till they express only what is intended, no more, no less.  The poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in an interview on NPR spoke about whittling down a poem, cutting away at the words like a sculpture, till it became a perfect distillation that carried his thought. 

This new language take us further along this minimalist path. From the poet’s task of tightening the sentences by removing words, the objective expands to economizing the letters within the words themselves.  It is like adding a new dimension to the space: words, themselves previously static, now acquire varying textures and shapes.  The communications theorist  Shannon studied redundancy within the English language in the 1940s and found that most sentences could be shrunk down by 50% without losing their import.  Shannon first introduced the mathematical concept of entropy as a measure of the amount of information in a message—something that has had enormous significance in data communications (I thank M for this exposition).  Digging into the English language, he estimated its entropy by identifying the probabilities with which certain letters follow others (such as u after a q which can make u redundant). These posted FB and cellphone missives of today are arrows in the direction of Shannon’s wind, messages stripped down to their bare entropic content, an entropic English devoid of redundancy, whose sparse beauty gains meaning through the principle of minimal expended effort.

This style of messaging is very popular in India-- quite the opposite of what we were taught, a flowery version of English where one adjective was merely the opening salvo.  This was less than 25 years past Indian independence, at a time when little children still wore sailor outfits—the traces of the last century still not quite gone.  Exuberant writing in Indian English took its roots in the 19th century (it is more or less absent now, the last well known Indian English author who wrote in this manner was Sasthi Brata in the 60s).  Here is the famous poet Michael Madhusudhan Dutt writing in English in the 1840s to his friend, upset over an arranged marriage that his father had planned for him (he subsequently converted to Christianity to successfully avert the marriage):

“My dear Gour,
It is the hour for writing love-letters since all around, now, is love-inspiring.  But alas!  The heart that “Melancholy marks for her own’ imparts its own morbid hues to all around it….........It harrows up my blood and makes my hair stand like quills on the fretful porcupine! My betrothed is the daughter of a rich zemindar;--poor girl!  What a deal of misery is in store for her in the ever inexplorable womb of Futurity!  ……… The sun may forget to rise, but I cannot remove it from my heart…..” etc.

Had Madhusudan had the benefit of a mobile phone in 1800s Calcutta, instead of turning to paper and quill, he may have simply texted:

And while it is unclear how Gour responded, had he lived today, he might have countered:

That would be it! There would have been no subsequent body of his poetry and prose in English, no admonition from John Drinkwater Bethune that what was needed was not another Shelley or Byron in English, but one in Bengali, and perhaps no mid career metamorphosis, when Michael Madhusudhan , turning to writing in his mother tongue, emerged as one of Bengal’s greatest poets.

Borrowing from Shakespeare (and as has been noted by others) “2txtrNt2txt tht is d ?”  Do we tarnish our literary skills in this new age of texting? In general, the arguments appear to be pro-texting.  The British linguist David Crystal in his book, “Texting: the gr8 db8” holds that what we are seeing is simply a welcome and natural progression in the evolution of the language.  Similar endorsements abound on the web, along with some scattered curmudgeony resistance.

Part of texting seems to draw from a communication philosophy that is similar to the stoic ethos of speech in the Midwest—depicted with accuracy in the movie, Fargo.  Two farmers stand against a backdrop of flatness, in slanted physical acknowledgement of one another.  Peering at the sky in a drawn and stony silence, one of them finally punctuates the cold Midwestern air that seems so averse to the propagation of sound: “its gon’ rain tonight”.  A brisk “yup” from his companion ends the conversation. Five words, several seconds of silence, and there in front of us lies the brevity of spoken Midwestern English.  There is one part of texting and social networking lingo that draws us in this direction-- peremptory entries and precise information that discourages further engagement.  And alongside this style, looms the other tempestuous, larger than life side of messaging that can expand imagery through the process of compaction ( for instance, “rotflmao”) or lets it all hang out with the rubber band stretching, “ sooooooo beeauuuutiful”.  What it misses between these two end positions of the pendulum, are the mid tones of emotion. Like the photograph that has reduced its grey scales, there is no equivalent in this new language that could grade the emotions inbetween  “  :-) “ and “ :-D “, for instance. 

I have been slowly warming to the use of this new style of communication, though a bug in my instant messaging software on the Mac makes the application crash every time I try to insert a smiley.  As a result, I never smile—and, just so as to even it out and appear not to look like a crabby old guy, I never “frown” either. 

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