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Some Srs Bsns: Are Words Without Vowels Rlly More Efficient?

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How is language evolving on the internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

Vowel-less words, like srsly, thx, k, pls, rlly, srs bsns, and o rly, are a well-known feature of internet language. They save time and space in typing, but are they really more efficient? Why do we use these abbreviations and not others? How is it that we can actually understand them? And are they just straightforward abbreviations, or do they pick up additional meaning?

First of all, why would we omit vowels rather than consonants? Well, there are a couple reasons. One is that while words tend to contain a fairly even split between sheer numbers of vowels and consonants, there are far more kinds of consonants than kinds of vowels: your odds of guessing the right vowel are 1 in 5, while your odds of guessing the right consonant are 1 in 20 (ignoring y). So it's easier to tell that cnsnnt is "consonant" with the vowels removed than that oe is "vowel" without any consonants, especially if you have some clues from the general topic of conversation.

In fact, if you look at writing systems around the world, not all alphabets even include vowels: in Arabic and Hebrew, for example, you don't normally write the short vowels because they only have three of them (a, i, and u), so it's pretty easy to figure out which to say where from context. But there aren't any languages where you only write vowels and not consonants.

What's going on with these internet slang words is actually slightly more complicated: a lot of these "vowel-less" words aren't exclusively missing vowels. Rather, it's something like any "less important" letter. For example, double letters get dropped in srs bsns and o rly, thx loses its 'n' and combines its 'ks' into 'x', and the 'y' in rlly and o rly is kept despite being pronounced like a vowel (not to mention o rly's 'o'). And that starts getting us into other ways you can drop letters — is v. for very a v. tiny acronym, or simply a few centuries of people deciding that the '-ery' simply isn't that important? And the newer p for pretty is p much the same question.

Whether they're strictly vowel-less or just reduced, though, don't these words just mean the same as their longer equivalents? Well, not so fast. Some of them do, pretty much: pls and thx and k are just slightly quicker and more informal than please and thanks and ok. But srs bsns embodies a contradiction: "serious business" sounds, well, serious, and internet slang is anything but — it's not surprising that its primary use has always been sarcastic.

And finally here's a question that I can't figure out by myself: if you use any of these terms, how do you pronounce them in your head? Since it's hard to pronounce a word without any vowels at all, I think I often end up mentally saying the vowels a bit quicker or less distinctly than the vowels in the original words, but they're still basically there. Srs is perhaps only two syllables (ser-russ rather than se-ri-ous), and v. and p get pronounced like the letters. But of course, I can't hear anyone else's voice inside their head, so how would you say them?

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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