Text like an Egyptian 2010

Every time one of my teenage daughters uses the icons and initialisms  to express her thoughts, she is reviving the ancient Egyptian language system based on icons, pictures, and sounds.

The Huffington Post
Published : 2010

Contributor: Dr. Galit Ben Tovel (Dayan)


Last week, I received a text message from my 13-year-old daughter that took her 30 seconds to write, and took me 15 minutes to decipher. Once I uncrossed my eyes, the message looked something like this:

yo mom wut ^ idk if im comin to dinner 2nite. Some ppl r throwing a surprise party and evry1 is going.. can i plz go? I want 2 c my friends that i havn’t seen in a long time. I tried calling but u didn’t answer ur fone. O and i’m vcing with Sacha and she said thr is a kb aftr and omg it’s going 2 b so kool. so can i go? kkk g2g ttyl ily Call me 🙂

The following is the English translation:

Hi mom, what’s up? I don’t know if I’m able to come to dinner tonight. Some people are throwing a surprise party and everyone is going. Can I please go? I want to see my friends that I haven’t seen in a long time. I tried calling but you didn’t answer your phone. Oh, and I’m video chatting with Sacha and she said there is a kickback after and oh my God, it’s going to be so cool. So can I go? Ok? Ok, got to go, talk to you later, I love you. Call me. Happy face.

My 16-year-old daughter spared me the torment and embarrassment derived from her younger sister’s message, and wrote me something shorter:

R u gng 2 pick me ↑ @ 4 4 driving lsns? My ss teach wants 2 talk 2 me @ my pp. 🙂 or :(, but I hope :). ‹3

In English, it should have read: “Are you going to pick me up around 4 p.m. for driving lessons? My social studies teacher wants to talk to me about my paper. Could be good or bad news, but I hope it is good news. Love.”

A new global language is being developed, inspired by “new media,” the surge in technology and the ubiquity of new symbols and images that have replaced traditional words. This language is forming as the market demands it, the consumer craves it and will inevitably affect traditional language use as we know it. This new language does not discriminate, but rather, enables greater universal ability and even access to communication. It is a visual vocabulary with great benefits. As you who use the most cutting-edge icon-enabling technology (that the West takes credit for) ask yourself: Does any of this sound familiar? Are you as cool, hip, and innovative as you think?

Let us go back 100 years. How about 1,000 years? As long as we’re reminiscing, we might as well start at the very beginning: 5,000 years ago. Before the rise of the West, the most sophisticated civilization known to man began to convey written language through imagery. Which means every time one of my teenage daughters uses the icons and initialisms (those delightful “LOLs” and “TTYLs”) to express her thoughts, she is reviving the ancient Egyptian language system based on icons, pictures, and sounds. In that 30 second text message, my daughter unwittingly connected the present to the ancient past.

The New Language Revolution

While hieroglyphics may have run their course thousands of years ago, today there is a new visual language that is developing all around us. This development runs on two parallel tracks:

Phenomenon A: Abbreviation of the Language

By omitting vowels and by playing with letters and numbers to create different ways of evoking the same sound of a word, we are shortening our sentences and the original writing of our vocabulary. One example of this is the use of text messaging on mobile devices. The vowels are omitted and whole words are abbreviated, such as tonight (2nite) and after (aftr).

Phenomenon B: Iconology

The second phenomenon is the increased use of and exposure to icons in our daily lives. But it is worth exploring the source of these icons. It is becoming more and more apparent that these icons are being created and disseminated by the communication industry, whether the media, marketers, or branding—all of these, particularly those that involve logo creation—use icons to position themselves in the market. Today, most users are IT, advertisements, and the media (television, wireless companies, computers etc.). They are building the icons that serve them, and teaching us along the way. In the fast-paced world of advertising and marketing, new icons emerge every day. And consumers are becoming more and more literate in the visual language and cues that surround them. Overall, these companies generate icons, and we absorb them. After all, it was this industry that created icon-loaded services that have become a part of our lives, such as Microsoft Word, which during the 1990s raised and educated a whole generation to use images in place of words, such as “Save” “Open” “Print” etc. And today, the latest iPhones and smart phones operate almost entirely by icons, and as a result, advertising continues to rely more and more on icons in order to send consumers messages and grab their attention.

The amazing concept about these two phenomena is that they are truly global. This trend is not limited exclusively to the English language; it exists in various languages, whether English or French or Hebrew. This occurs because globally, we all use the same technology to communicate.

The Egyptian Connection

We already take this new icon language for granted and seldom question its source or inspiration. The fact is that the whole methodology started with the ancient Egyptians – only they were not subject to cell phone bills.

Many still think of the ancient hieroglyphic language of the Egyptians as a secret language used only by priests and elites. For a long time, it was perceived as a secret code by scholars and researchers. This all changed with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Champollion in 1799. The breakthrough revealed that the ancient Egyptian language was not in fact much different from modern languages, especially since it had all of the grammatical elements that we have in English, and more. The only difference is that the letters are pictures.

You might argue that it is impossible to clearly express yourself through pictures/icons alone. Yet the ancient Egyptians not only perfected it, they created a highly sophisticated method in which a picture could be read in four different ways.

Upon first reading, what you see is what you get, each icon represents its meaning. Thus if the image is a bird, the meaning also corresponds to “bird”. In the second, each icon represents only the sound of the word. Amazingly, ancient Egyptians could differentiate between the sound and the meaning of their icons; this allowed them to be able to create new combinations of words and sentences. Today, for example, something would translate as “4sale” instead of “for sale” or “B4” instead of “before.” The Egyptians mastered all of this.

The third included consistent alphabetical icon signs, in which each icon represents one letter. The fourth consisted of the ideogram, in which a group of icons represented a classified group of words that then represented a category itself, such as emotions, animals, people, places, and so on.

The ancient Egyptian read in four different ways, and this stimulated the mind with four different options to decipher the language: for example, one had to decipher whether they were reading icons that represented literal words (“bird”), sounds, metaphors or more.

Given the power and richness of this language, it is no wonder that ancient Egyptians did not want to surrender it and incorporate an alphabet system, as neighboring cultures did. As a result, their culture and language was perceived as primitive. How ironic is it that today, our language is evolving and following their steps. Are we “primitive” as well?

If we analyze the four ways of reading an icon in the Egyptian system, as discussed above, we realize that this system has much in common with our reading today and our observation of Phenomenon A (abbreviation of language) and Phenomenon B (use of icons in place of words). In fact, the Egyptian system combined these two phenomena together into one language, so that the whole system used icons. If ancient Egyptian was still used today, it would be in the form of a text message using only icons.

The similarities with today also encompass the origins of ancient Egyptian icons. Today’s icons, much like those of ancient Egypt, are drawn from our daily cultures and represent real, tangible things; unlike the Chinese language in which the origins of the characters are not visually recognizable. For the ancient Egyptian, his whole world could be captured with its respective icon, and most related to agriculture, nature, or religion. This concept is even new to some Egyptologists that still believe that only the ancient Egyptian elites were literate. I myself was guilty of this misconception, until I realized that today I am experiencing the same process. Just as the ancient Egyptians, we do not need formal education in deciphering icons; as long as they are a part of our surrounding culture and we use them, we can identify them and their meaning. If you are outside the realms of a culture, you will not easily understand the meaning of icons; to you, they will be like a secret code. A thousand years from now, will a future archaeologist discover our computers, cell phones, and text messages and wonder too whether he just discovered an ancient secret language?

The similarity to the Egyptian language exists not only with the system itself, but also through the conditions under which ancient Egyptian icons were created. Over 5,000 years ago, the Egyptian language of hieroglyphics began with a basic need in the market. The world of trade and commerce demanded a written means of communication. Thus it was the ancient Egyptian merchants, not the royalty, nor the divinely ordained priests, who first demanded the written language of icons, and then helped to define it. In general, this teaches us that a language is not created by an elite group of intellectuals, but rather, language creation is a process that is market-driven and based on needs , and more specifically, our needs to communicate messages.

Understanding current market trends helps us gain a better understanding of how language will change and evolve in the future. Thus by observing today’s trends, including the media and the surge in technology, we may conclude that language is moving away from textual words and sentences, towards abbreviations and ultimately, icons.

Predictions for the Future

As a linguistic Egyptologist, it is fascinating for me to watch our language evolve towards this emphasis on icons. It seems as though we are going back in time. This should not be interpreted as regression. In fact a discussion of some of the most important benefits of this language will demonstrate that we end up communicating more expressively, emotionally and effectively. This type of communication will definitely affect the way we think and behave in the future.

When you look at a message written with icons or improper English, you feel for a moment you have entered a playful, innovative, aesthetic world. When I ask my daughters why they write THIS way, omitting vowels, for example, the answer I receive is that it is fun, cool and much faster. They are able to compress three English sentences, for example, into one, using icons and text language. What else can we expect from a generation that only knows instant gratification? But it’s not just a matter of saving time; it’s a matter of globally expanding across physical borders.

The icon language is becoming the universal language of the world today. It used to be that the only icons that were globally understood were road signs, restroom signs for genders, telephone sign locations—in general, signs that aided in direction and services. With today’s technology, we are globally exposed to many more icons that not only enable us to communicate faster, but in a more effective way with different cultures all over the world.

Another advantage of the new language is that it does not discriminate against illiterates or the poorly educated; it empowers them. If, in the past, one had to know a proper language to communicate or to be a valued member of society, in the world of text messages, there is not only less pressure for “proper” language use, but formality is discouraged. In this world, writing with abbreviations and omissions render a “texter” more literate and talented. It is almost impossible to tell whether a text full of spelling and grammatical mistakes is deliberate or not and therefore, whether its author is educated or not. In my case, I am virtually illiterate when it comes to text rules and icons.

If a picture is worth a thousands words, what exactly is the worth itself? The most important factor to note about icons is that they add emotion and meaning to written language, and hence add a whole other dimension to language itself .Writing with images is like aerobics for your brain, in that it stimulates the two sides of your brain simultaneously. The left side of the brain is our analytical side and the right side is our emotional/creative side, and when we read visually, we activate all of our analytical-logical-emotional-creative sides together. It can be compared to the effects of sporting activities on the body; the experience is so powerful that we react emotionally to the process, and this process will stay with us for a long time. It will affect unconsciously and/or consciously the way we think or behave after reading the visual language. That is why this tool is very common in the advertising world, in which consumers see, interpret, feel, react/behave, all in that order. If a message is written in a non-traditional way, its power is magnified. This is especially true if it is visual, it forces the consumer to participate in a type of game that requires interpretation. When we interpret a text message, we feel as though we have deciphered a mystery, a code. The result of this process is that we are more likely to remember the message, and what’s more, we are more likely to remember how we felt when we read it!

Today, there is still room for our changing language to evolve in different directions. It can stay within the framework of the market, as an advertising game for consumers. But it can also evolve into a whole new icon language, which I predict in the end will have all the grammatical elements that a clear and effective language needs.

If we take the Egyptian language as an example of what an icon language can resemble, we can guess that today we are forming our corpus of icons in different fields. I would not be surprised if in the near future, we see the appearance of new icons emanating from industries other than the media. The market also teaches us different ways of reading icons, allowing us to differentiate between sounds and pictures. This is inevitably the key to forming an entirely iconic language. But we are still far from the day when we can form a whole icon sentence; this will most likely occur once we begin to combine our text message language rules (omitting vowels, etc.) with icons, forming one icon system devoid of actual written words.

If we are indeed headed in this direction, it will mean that new icons will emerge in many more fields than we see today. Imagine the advantages of icon language systems in fields ranging from education to medicine. In our world of text messages, we will have more and more options to use icons in place of words, and eventually, the bulk of our sentences will contain icons that represent our thoughts. This trend is already happening with one group of icons known as ‘emoticons.’ This is the first icon group that has entered our text message language. These icons capture their entire mood in one simple icon, such as a smiley face, a sad face, and so on, hence the union of “emotions” and “icons.” For example: “I wish you had come to the party, :(.”

In the future, options that abbreviate words or use icons to capture them will be much more prominent. For example, we can expect to have the following options in texting: an icon for a bee, and an icon for a leaf, which when used together, will denote “belief” or “believe.” Or perhaps the word “save” will be denoted by the Microsoft option of the “save” icon in texting. The possibilities are endless; it is only a matter of having access to them. It is up to the market and cell phone companies in particular, to expand our icon options.

In the future, a maverick may come along and publish an entire book in what I coin the ‘text message icon language’. I can already imagine the critics of such a bold move. They will shake their heads and ask how; we allowed our language to “deteriorate,” taking our culture with it. And the pharaohs of Egypt will smile from their graves and whisper, “wii were here B4 u.”

Galit Dayan PhD

Egyptologyst and Organizational Consultant

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