The Text Generation
By Carol Posthumus, Fri Jul 05 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Short messaging just gets bigger. Recently launched by a Canadian Internet company, the world's first transl8or engine for SMS now joins the SMS lingo fest.

Future generations unlocking a time capsule full of a day's worth of our world's millions of SMS messages would gain the kind of immediate feel for life as it was that we get from rock paintings or hieroglyphics. Their high-tech (hopefully, for their sakes, programmed to "mass-spam-ignore") scans would reveal a lot from our creative textographics.

From our culinary habits - they would turn up frequent transmissions of chocl8 or dinRL8R details - to dating rituals and individuals' unedited personal feelings about their life's events. After all, things that were once said with flowers are now, acceptably, conveyed within 160 characters, in an SMS. On the darker side, humanity has conveyed everything from divorce-by-SMS to bank-robbery-by-SMS in recent years.

If British tabloids are to be held on their musings on what their Queen does with her mobile, future scholars could, stumbling upon such a log of time, for example, learn about past leaders of the planet. Beating crusty history books' presentations - SMS being mercifully concise, direct and often entertaining - the Queen's SMS data (according to the tabloids) sent while walking on royal estates may include some real stuff like "CD U gimme ods on 2.30 nags Asct". (Could you give me the odds on the runners for the 2.30 horserace at Ascot?).

SMS Stream of Conscious

The ever-growing unstructured SMS stream of conscious often represents genuine and direct communication between people - and it could, truly, hold a treasure of "real data" for future generations. Indeed, SMS, with its humble beginnings (like the PC, developers vastly under-rated people's use of it) even calls to mind creative word artists like the G8 e.e. cummings. Cummings, the most famously infrequent user of capital letters before SMS users, wrote "since feeling is first who pays any attention to the syntax of things..." and "life's not a paragraph..."

In addition to consistently impressive numbers - billions sent worldwide each month - SMS has made it, no less, into the Concise Oxford Dictionary (in an appendix for the first time last year) and several guide books have already been published on it.

Transl8it: For Generation Text, Generation Confused

Recently a Canadian Internet company,, unleashed the world's first SMS translation engine onto the web. Transl8it appears a handy tool for people wanting to demystify cult SMS messaging. It could've been a smart thing, for instance, for one cellular operator in Nigeria to harness, whose creatives included the term BOGOF in advertising campaigns. Apparently, they thought this would be interpreted as acronym cool-pop-culture speak for "Buy One Get One Free" - but a lot of people just read a somewhat impolite message. Hitting transl8it, they would have discovered that BOGOF translates to, well, BOGOF, in "plain English". tell us they got a great response to their debut: hits went from a few hundred in the first week to over 100 000 a day in the first month. The translator has members from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Poland, Czech Republic, Indonesia, Philippines, the United States and Canada, amongst other countries.

Expecting Big SMS Swell in North America

Prez of transl8it Dan Wilton, based in Ottawa, says they saw opportunity in a new generation of communicators growing - and also were observing the mobile wave sweeping the world. They feel an exponential growth wave in SMS, similar to that in other markets, will swell, once it truly catches on in North America.

Wilton reckons: "Sitting back watching the world lead North America in the mobile services, we began exploring and experimenting with this new technology, preparing for the storm we knew it will bring in. We knew there were opportunities in the GSM space with ringtones, logos, and so on, but we wanted to operate outside this space and bridge web and mobile services."

He adds: "Our backgrounds told us there was this new generation of SMS users out there developing their own lingo, and all we wanted to do was help everyone understand them. Often referred to as 'generation text', this pop culture generation appreciates tearing apart the English language as an extension of their personality and identity."

Wilton says when they first shopped the idea of transl8it around; there were investors who balked at the idea. "They said SMS is misunderstood and too limiting to be a winning opportunity. On the other side, we have read countless case studies showing how content is limited and carriers are having issues reaching this younger generation. The challenge on the table, for us, was to get the system running and have this demographic of user sign-up and participate. From the initial reaction, we are doing fine here, and everything is being executed according to plan."

Somewhat Revolutionary Use of English

According to transl8it, their membership feel the engine is accurate and is impressed by the transl8it machine's accuracy and the definitions to emoticons, acronyms and lingo offered.

"More recent requests have been made for the addition of slang as well as what online hackers refer to as 'haxor' - this should be operational later this quarter." Observing the changes that SMS brings, Wilton sees the moves as "somewhat revolutionary" for the English language.

Interestingly, the transl8it service not only is a cool machine for youth - but may also be turning the light on for many parents. Those not attuned to terms like LOL, may at last understand all those LOL responses on SMS or email. Parents who thought LOL was a mystical form of endearment or positive response to statements like "I hope you're not skipping class" must be feeling a sense of profound revelation, even if they're not laughing out loud.

IC... Light Dawns

"The youth are leading the changes. There are many standards to this lingo, yet so many people in the older generation feel disconnected and they can't quite seem to understand it. Sometimes it makes me wonder just how long people have been receiving emails with LOL, CUL8R or ;) in them without people even knowing what it was written for."

Word-fatigue and grammar rebellion may also be drivers of SMS, feels Wilton. Some people who elicited "so you think you're e.e. cummings?" remarks from the most inflexible regulators of the English language, when experimenting with the lower case in college papers, are amongst the most ardent users of SMS today. A friend of mine bears such a traumatic brush with the guardians of English in her history, and has recovered well thanks to release from capital-guilt that therapeutic free form email and SMS brings.

rEDN dem out lowd underRstNd?

Comments Wilton: "A certain part of me believes that this text lingo came about because people were tired of typing grammatically correct sentences that Miss Moyes our quintessential English teacher would grade us on. Instead the youth took it upon themselves to write what they heard in the funkiest fashion possible." (so, nw we R L w msgz dat U undRstNd jst by rEDN dem out lowd...Wilton demonstrates)

Transl8it is focusing on SMS-to-English translation. Will they take it into universal translator mode? "A universal translator to SMS sounds great, though I think there will be a few complications in developing an 'inference engine' that could identify universal languages before throwing them over to English and vice versa. Right now, our efforts are tough enough in trying to stay on top of the latest lingo and phrases over a common denominator - being English. Possibly in the future we may introduce to the community a couple of other languages and see what our members will do to help populate it."

Carol Posthumus is a freelance author, analyzing how mobile technology impacts our lives. She lives in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.