Inscriptions, language, and txting

Yesterday Mark Liberman over at the Language Log posted a short comparison of abbreviations in ancient Latin inscriptions, and the shorthand comminly used (and much reviled) in text-messaging and instant-messaging today (article titled “pont max tr pot lol“).

While this article is light-hearted and only skims the surface of issues such as space saving, the ability of a fluent community to understand abbreviated jargon, and the potential ambiguity of messages sent in this way, there may be a serious point in all this. Is there value in the comparison with other cultures of condensed writing (including but not restricted to text messaging and 1337-speak) as a tool in the teaching and the study of epigraphic and palaeographic abbreviation?

Why do ancient scribes abbreviate? Is there any evidence that abbreviation ever led to ambiguity and misunderstanding of important documents? Is epigraphic abbreviation a completely different phenomenon from digital shorthand, or is there something to be learned from comparisons of this kind–or contrasts?

(Thanks to JLavagnino for pointing out this web log.)

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4 Responses to Inscriptions, language, and txting

  1. Chris Weimer says:

    Hey Gabriel,

    Scribes abbreviated to save space – most abbreviations tho are on coins, where one only has a limited room to glorify whoever is on the piece. Abbreviations have led to some ambiguity, though as far as I know never to such an extreme degree. Things like R could be taken as Romanus or Rex, but context usually clues on in. I made a post about Latin abbreviations some time ago on my blog here:

    All the best!


  2. Tom Elliott says:

    I have no doubt that Chris must be right in that the ratio of abbreviated to whole words is much higher in Latin texts on Roman coinage than on Roman inscriptions. Still, abbreviations are rather common in the inscriptions, and all intros to Latin epigraphy include treatment of the phenomenon on the (valid) assumption that competent use of epigraphic texts as evidence requires facility in dealing with the abbreviations. I hope someday to do a comprehensive statistical study of abbreviations in Latin inscriptions, but that has to wait until nearly all published texts are available in (or readily converted to) EpiDoc ;) … meanwhile, this old thing may give some indication to interested parties of the range and variation of abbreviations in a sample of Latin texts from the Roman period:

    Now, whether the cognoscenti admit emoticons (like the one I used above) as leet-speak or not, I wonder if we’d consider that scrolls, crosses, chi-rhos and such are analogous to emoticons …

  3. Hugh Cayless says:

    I don’t think “saving space” can be the sole reason for abbreviation–there must be other reasons as well, and this is where there may indeed be some correspondence with text messaging and other electronic communication.

    Words that might seem important, like IMP(ERATOR) and AVG(VSTVS) are quite commonly abbreviated. I wonder whether this isn’t just a space saving device, but also a means of making the import of the inscription more accessible to a semi-literate audience. IMP would be a more easily recognized symbol than IMPERATOR, for example. A study like the one Tom mentions would be fascinating and it’s one of the reasons I look forward to the day when the majority of the inscription-based data is in a more crunchable format. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the abbreviation, especially on monumental inscriptions, was for the purpose of broadening their impact and making the inscription more impressive.

    Emoticons and abbreviations like ‘lol’ have a rhetorical purpose too (though obviously a very different one). They attempt to adjust for the lack of richness in the medium by conveying emotional state. A smiley can turn an apparently insulting comment into a joke.

    Crosses and chi-rhos clearly indicate the character of an inscription, so I don’t think the comparison is off base, though again, the way they are used is quite different.

  4. I think there must be a variety of motivations behind abbreviation, partly dependent on context and medium, but to some extent universal or at least comprehensible across contexts.

    (1) Do I abbreviate just to save space, as Chris suggests? On coins, surely yes, in part. With repetitive formulae such as Imperial titles on official inscriptions, no doubt also. But when the most abbreviated words are written large and in ornate letters, taking up more space than full text would. This is clearly a rhetorical function, as Hugh points out. (Question: in prose inscriptions, do abbreviations cluster at the ends of long lines in the same way that ligatures and cramped letters sometimes do?)

    (2) Do I abbreviate to save time or effort in writing? That’s more of an issue with modern abbreviations, I imagine. (I write ampersand rather than ai-en-dee to save time, not space.) Again large and ornate abbreviations argue against this, but it must be the case in less intricate and more cursive texts.

    (3) Do I abbreviate simply because the abbreviation has come to mean more than the full word (Hugh’s “lol” example)? In English, “Dr.” means something slightly different than “doctor” (the one is a title, and the latter an occupation, and the overlap is not complete in either direction–not all Dr.s are doctors, nor are all doctors Dr.s). The abbreviation “txt”, while expanding to “t(e)xt”, has very specific reference to either an ascii format file, or a message sent by SMS. Could an abbreviation such as “DMS” or “PM” be said to have a slightly different denotation than its expansion?

    (4) Do I abbreviate out of habit, because the abbreviation has become the more common form of the word? “AVGG” is just what I always write for AVGVSTI DVO, not to save space or to save time or because it has a different denotation, but just because that’s what I always write. I can’t remember the last time I typed the word “Macintosh” out in full; or “et cetera”; or “Digital Versatile Disc”.

    I think this is an important discussion. I’m very interested to see more results of Tom’s abbreviations indices. As a small supplementary body of evidence in the meantime, there are two indices of abbreviations and expansions in the Inscriptions of Aphrodisias online publication.

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