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Abbrevs are Def Totes Legit. But How Do They Get Their Spelling?

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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.

You've seen them: Legit. Jealz. Rad. Totes. Def. Obvs. Probs. Whatevs. Proj. Tomorrs. Ridics. Fav. Dece.

But you may not have known that there's a word for them: abbrevs. (And abbrev is itself an abbrev, obvs.) Linguist Rebecca Starr points out that while there are some earlier abbrevs, like commish (from commissioner) from 1910 and delish from 1920, the current abbrev trend has been increasing since the mid-2000s.

The interesting thing about abbrevs is that they're based on sound, not on spelling. Just think about how we have to respell certain words when making them into abbrevs, such as delish, presh, profesh, unfortch, and sitch. And with words like funksh (function), relash (relationship), fuche (future), natch (naturally), or sosh (sociology), you might not even be able to tell from the abbrev what the original word was.  

But the worst one for spelling is the abbrev of usual. Try it:

"What'll you have?"

"Oh, just the...use? The uzh? The yooz? The usj? The yoozh? The yooj?"

You know how to say it, but the sound that the "su" makes in usual normally comes from isn't one that we've got a good way of writing in English. Same goes for the abbrevs of casual or pleasure which end in the same sound. Caj? Plezh?

What all these respelled abbrevs have in common is that they contain a "sh" or "ch" or "zh" sound that wasn't originally there in the history of the word—as we can still see in the spelling. But when generations of people pronounce a t or an s or a z sound right before a y sound very quickly, the two of them stuck together into that sh/ch/zh—just like how "got you" becomes "gotcha" or "did you" becomes "didja." Which would be fine, except that the second half of the word that's contributing the "y" sound gets cut off when you abbrev it, hence the spelling changes. (And Lane Greene at The Economist suggests that this weird sound change is part of the appeal for many abbrevs.)

But how do you decide what to cut off in the first place? After all, a lot of abbrevs are one syllable, like jeals, rad, totes, def, obvs—but some of them are two syllables, like delish, legit, profesh, and abbrev itself. And you can't just swap them: radics, totals, defin just sound weird, while prof, abs, dels, leg might be abbrevs of something, but they sure don't correspond to delicious, legitimate, professional, or abbreviation.

It has to do with stress. Think about how you say the word "totally"—TO-tal-LY, not to-TAL-ly—it becomes "totes" by clipping off that first, stressed, syllable. But when you say "legitimate," you say le-GI-tam-ATE, not LE-gi-TAM-ate. Clipping off the unstressed syllable at the beginning just isn't enough—you need something that's stressed too, so the second syllable comes along to make "legit."

The stress thing explains why some words just don't abbrev: "interesting" should cut off at "int" but that's just not different enough from "intense" or "internet" or a whole bunch of other words that begin with int-, so we don't even try any of them. And it also tells us why there aren't any three-syllable abbrevs: English words get some kind of stress every other syllable, even if it's just secondary stress.

Perhaps the best part of abbrevs is how they intersect with other slang, like acronyms. Most of the time, you just add an s or a z to the end of the acronym without actually abbreving it at all, as in lols and omgz, but acronyms with w are special. The best known are BTdubs (from "by the way" via BTW), dubsTF (from WTF), and FTdubs (from "for the win" via FTW), but I also found people on Twitter using OMdubs ("on my way" via OMW), BMdubs (BMW, as in the car), and even one guy who uses FWIdubs ("for what it's worth").

The "dubs" abbrevs really put the lie to the idea that people abbrev just because it's easier, since all the w acronyms are actually shorter than their "dubs" versions. It's more about the fun of creash, natch.

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters
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According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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