Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Ћ letter : The perils of trying to tinker with English

THE is the most often used word in the English language. We are wasting a substantial amount of time by typing it out. So there is a suggestion of a new symbol for use on our keyboards, that is Ћ.

Paul Mathis, the well known Australian restaurateur, is laying out substantial amounts of his money - almost $40,000 of it - to replace the spelt word "the" in English. He has a problem, the amount of time we waste typing out THE, the most frequently used word in the English language. So he has invented a new symbol for use on our keyboards Ћ. A combination of T and H - and dubbed the "tap" because of its shape - Paul hopes the letter will make typing more efficient. He said, "I'm not about changing the word 'the', I'm simply enhancing it."

He proposes that we would write "ћ" instead of "the", and so save much energy, printer's ink, bytes and key strokes. "ћ" is a combination of "t" and "h", and so is symbolically neat and suggestive of the word "the".  In fact, "ћ" already exists, more or less. Something very similar is the Serbian letter for the sound "ch". But that's just a by-issue. At first blush Mathis' idea looks attractive. The word "the" is the most commonly used word in English. About 5 per cent of English texts consists of "the", and "the" is nearly twice as common as the next most frequently used English word, "be".

If you write a million words a year, and many of us do, then that's 50,000 times t+h+e, or 150,000 letters. You could in theory save 100,000 letters by writing "ћ" once each time. There is a precedent, the 5th most common word in English is "and", and it has a symbol, the ampersand "&". A recent flowering of "@" for "at" in email addresses provides a partial further proof of the idea in practice, although we only use "@" in ordinary prose when imitating computer-speak: "I will be @ home this evening if you are free." 

There is, though, the long and fateful shadow of failed attempts to reform or tinker with English spelling. George Bernard Shaw left in his will funds for a prize for a competition for a new improved English alphabet. The competition was run, a winner awarded, and the result was hardly heard of again.  But Mathis' idea is more focused and pragmatic. We would have to redesign well over a billion keyboards on computers and mobile devices like smartphones and iPads. That's daunting but not impossible, and certainly more feasible than asking the Americans to go decimal in their weights and measures.

But where would you put "ћ" on the keyboard? The ampersand is SHIFT-7, or two keystrokes. Gazing protectively at my familiar QWERTY, I imagine that "ћ" would have to be above one of the numbers also, thus sacrificing the hash "#", perhaps, which is over the "3" key. That would mean that "ћ" would require two key strokes, SHIFT-3, and hash would have to go elsewhere. So we save only 50,000 keystrokes a year. But perhaps we could put "ћ" where the backslash "\" is, so reducing the keystrokes by another 50 per cent because there is no SHIFT key involved. On the other hand, the backslash is right at the edge of the keys to the right, requiring special effort normally only demanded for uncommon and special characters. 

Replacing the backslash with "ћ" would be conceivable on a QWERTY keyboard, but not on a smartphone, where "ћ" would have to be on one of the subsidiary keyboards. We are back to multiple keystrokes, not good for 5 per cent of the words we type, or just three strokes if we write "t-h-e" on the top keyboard on a phone. I calculate three key strokes for "ћ" on a phone: one to access the subsidiary keyboard, one for "ћ", and one to get back to the top keyboard again. The smart mobile devices are overtaking computers and ordinary keyboards, any potential advantage of "ћ" is being overtaken by the relentless progress of technology, the small size of our screens, and the cramped keyboards which they torment us with.  

It would take conjoined and proactive support from major dictionaries and companies like Apple and Microsoft and now Samsung. English doesn't have an academy of the language, but all major publishers, media outlets and education systems would have to come on board. This is like trying to herd a bunch of angry cats through a narrow gate. Secondly, I believe that voice recognition technology will overtake keyboard input in the next 10 years. We have spent more than 4,000 years learning to write, and barely 150 learning to type. Digital technology is likely to reduce handwriting to calligraphy, a hobbyist occupation and art form. Typing will become redundant. RSI will be no more.

The general demise of handwriting and typing will make "ћ" otiose. We will talk, and our digital devices - Siri and her children - will obediently write "t-h-e". Which is, for me a pity. I like writing, manually and keyboard-wise. They have rhythms which mesh with the ways I think. For me they are also ways of thinking. I also like talking. But if we have to talk for all our composition, we might get tired of our own voices.

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