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The Victorians put the OMGLOLROFL in poetry

By Harriet Staff

Book Southern Africa points its readers to a video at Carte Blanche examining the similarities between English-language SMS-speak and experimental Victorian poetry. Both of these make use of what British Library curator Roger Walshe refers to as “emblematic poetry,” where one writes in a combination of numbers and letters. This was so common in the era, in fact, that the British Library currently has an entire exhibition devoted to the form.

Roger: “This is a book from 1867, and what’s unusual about it is that to our eye now it looks very much like ‘text-speak’ and I think this illustrates a really important part of the exhibition. What people also did was to invent new ways of communicating, of being creative with the language.”

As an example, Walshe points to the first few lines of the poem “An Essay to Miss Catherine Jay.” Though he admits to not being able to parse the meaning of UTK, the poem is fairly readable and straightforward to modern eyes.

‘An S A now I mean 2 write
2 U sweet K T J,
The girl without a || [parallel],
The belle of [U T K]’

Rajend Mesthrie is a linguistics professor at the University of Cape Town who is interested in how creativity and slang play out in the development of languages and sees a direct lineage between yesterday’s slang and today’s common usage. Indeed, Walshe points out that there have been dictionaries of slang as far back as the 17th century, so those delinquent teenagers who text each other while refusing to get off your lawn aren’t up to anything new. English has evolved from many, many sources and the further it travels, the more likely it is to pick up the influence of other languages. While SMS-speak has a time and place (Mesthrie wouldn’t expect to see it in a paper from his students or from someone speaking to his grandmother), it may only be a matter of time before it’s rolling off everyone’s tongues, grandparents and professors alike.

Add to English words from former colonies like Jamaica, India and Nigeria and you have a growing, rich language — with nothing to worry about, because nothing needs fixing.

Roger: “For those people who try to ‘fix’ the language, and get very upset about fact that things are changing – this shows that that process has always gone on and will always evolve, will always keep changing and all you can do is capture it and maybe celebrate it.”

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Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, May 10th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.