The English language changes all the time and on its own terms through shifts, mostly gradual, in collective usage. But that doesn’t stop people trying to engineer sudden changes in how we write. Earlier this year we discussed a new phonetic alphabet, SaypU, and now Australian restaurateur Paul Mathis has designed a new symbol, Ћ, which he hopes we’ll start using to abbreviate the word the.
To help make his case, Mathis released a cheerful promotional video, though I can’t agree with its claim that the “has never been recognised for its impressive usage” – I think most people know it’s the most used word in the language – and I’m sceptical of the claim that the five most used words in English are the, be, to, of, and and – in writing it’s the, of, and, to, and in. But these are just quibbles; what about Ћ?
Ћ is already a character known as Tshe in the Cyrillic script, which will help the symbol’s availability. (The resemblance is apparently coincidental.) Ultimately, though, its success as shorthand for the depends on whether people adopt it and make its use habitual and normal. And while I wish Mathis the best of luck, I can’t see Ћ catching on very widely. Some people already abbreviate the as de, da, th, t/ or d, though these are effectively restricted to informal contexts such as text messages and Twitter. In Old English a þ (“thorn”) with a stroke was used the same way.
Complete omission of the article is more common. This practice is customary in newspaper headline style, which has helped popularise it. For example, the recent BBC headline “‘World’s oldest calendar’ discovered in Scottish field” would, in normal prose, be “‘The World’s oldest calendar’ has been discovered in a Scottish field”, with both a definite and an indefinite article reinstated. We’re so used to seeing these left out that we register the meaning and hardly notice the ellipsis; many of us automatically do the same thing ourselves in tweets and texts.
SaypU was created with the hope of helping foster world peace and harmony; Ћ is more about communicative efficiency. Mathis told the Sydney Morning Herald he didn’t think his innovation was important or world-changing, but hoped it would be useful by saving the time and character spaces so vital to modern electronic communication. Language reformers differ widely in their motivations, but they tend to be an optimistic bunch. That’s just as well, because any attempt to alter usage wholesale has its work cut out.Email this Post