Ancient and medieval manuscripts taught us to be economical. They taught us to make the most of limited resources. Stone and parchment were expensive, scarce, and hard to write on, so we learned to shorten our words, however long we wanted our prose to be. We invented abbreviations, ligatures and acronyms. Why write ‘et’ when ‘&’ can do it for you? Why ‘Iesus Christus’ when ‘IHS XS’ can save half the space? Why ‘contrafactum’ when Ↄ̄factū frees up 6 letters? Put these together in a paragraph and you’ve saved up a whole paragraph space. The downside is that you’ve created code and you need the ability to decode it – unless you think that all language is code (which is actually true). Learning to read is also learning to expand shortened text.
Paper and printing dislodged this ancient way of writing. It did, but only up to a point – and, most interestingly, only for a while.
Some scholars believe that our Internet age may be a (re)turn to pre-modern forms of textuality. One of these is a rediscovery of the lost world of abbreviations. The interesting thing about this is that it is driven by the same need for economy. Until very recently, SMS communication was constrained by economics: limited, and costly, SMS messages per GSM deal. When Twitter was launched back in 2006, we didn’t really mind the 140-character limit (relaxed since then) because we’d been used to to the 160 characters per SMS limited by the GSM networks since 1992.
Now we’ve matured in our ability to find increasingly new and fascinating ways to shorten our digital communication, by abbreviating or adopting a lapidary style. And we depend on others to decode our missives.
The proponents of the ‘secondary orality’ theory (the scholars alluded to earlier, chief among whom is the late Walter J Ong, if you must know) understand that the turn to the pre-print model is not a return, and this applies well to our practice of shortening text. But what makes us more oral than our modern, pre-digital predecessors is the way we abbreviate our Tweets, SMSs and other types of short messages: our conventions and ciphers are not ‘literate’, but ‘oral’. They don’t depend so much on morphology than on phonetics.
And that is why we write ‘Y R U here’ and ‘b4’ rather than something else.