Subtext.

It’s a true digital divide. Camped on one side of
the abyss are millions of texters who habitually use “Dito n me” and “Kain n
kau,” and on the other side, scattered pinpricks of backlit phone screens in a
desert of darkness, are the few, the indignant, the
grammatically-and-textually-correct. Stretched across the abyss, in no
particular order, are:

1) the letter
droppers (“Wat u doin”);

2) the fancy spellers
(“Wat u doin ryt now,” “Hus dis pls”);

3) the
visual permutators (“Wat d01n Ryt n0W”);

4) the smiley innovators (“Wat doin
<0>_<0>”);

5) the caps lockers
(“WAT U DOIN M GOIN HOM NA”); and

6) the other
worlders (“WaTD01NmG01nH0mn!!! +_+
!!!”).

The Wikipedia defines slang as
“the non-standard use of words in a language of a particular social group, and
sometimes the creation of new words or importation of words from another
language…(it) initially functions as encryption, so that the non-initiate
cannot understand the conversation, or as a further way to communicate with
those who understand it.” Local textspeak is the accidental child of Nokia
keypads, thumb endurance, Pinoy stinginess and the standard network limit of 160
characters. It is an emerging sociolect, vilified by educators, regularly
employed by the thrifty and totally taken over by teenagers and twentysomethings
in a tribal frenzy, T9 be damned. It has yet to make the leap from screen to
mouth – as Athena did from Zeus’ aching forehead – but it is not too hard to
imagine making social introductions at a party with the nifty phrase, “Hus dis
pls.”

As it is in spoken slang, the
adoption of textspeak (especially in its more colorful variations) signals your
social stance to the rest of your phonebook. Texting “dito na me” tells others
you’re fun, friendly, casual, cute, with it and not socially uppity. This, by
the way, is also a trick in advertising, where Taglish commercials signal to the
masses that the brand being hawked is of good quality (“lish”) but affordable
(“tag”).

In Bahasa Indonesia, you
unconsciously assess your social status relative to the one you’re speaking to,
and adjust your language accordingly. The formal you is Anda. It is the second
voice used in advertising, when speaking to your boss, when speaking to a
stranger. The less formal you is kamu. It’s the one you use with friends, with
colleagues, with people you want to feel close to but you’re not really that
sure of, but you use kamu anyway just in case. A variant is kau, which I heard
used most often when talking to children. In Jakarta, you also get Prokem slang.
You use it freely with people for whom mutual respect and distance is no longer
an issue. You is eloh or lo or ‘loh (letters from my Indonesian friends vary in
spelling, yet another fun aspect of Prokem or of any slang for that matter), and
when a foreigner such as myself uses it, the social ice breaks. “Oh, look, she
doesn’t know anything about our social constructs, isn’t she
cute?”

Textspeak is writ much more
loosely than that. So you send “dito na me” to someone whom you think will
appreciate its entire social subtext, only to realize afterwards that alas, you
and the recipient are not that close. If the recipient is McVie, you also
realize that you never will be, and you are mere blog fodder.

Still, textspeak is a language of
efficiency as much as sociability. “dito na me” takes 16 key presses, compared
to the 18 required of “im here na” and “dito na ko.” Two more key presses are
not going to take much more effort, unlike, let’s say, kneeling on rock salt
with two unabridged Webster’s dictionaries on your head, but we are an impatient
people. We press elevator buttons repeatedly, and cross the street in willful
ignorance of Bayani Fernando’s bright pink billboards proclaiming, “Huwag
tumawid nakakamatay (Do not cross deadly).”

Is being textually correct mere
affectation? Why bother “writing” rather than “texting,” when the medium seems
to have no need for it? Even with the brave assistance of T9 technology my thumb
trembles with fatigue after a long text conversation. Granted it was mass
serendipity, the texting meme generating itself under less than ideal conditions
– come on, let’s cram 26 letters of the English alphabet into 9 keys, like how
we did it in the early 1900s with the rotary dial – but its makeshift beginnings
are barely noticeable now.

How far you
take textspeak is a declaration of who you are, just as much as your fashion,
music and demeanor choices are shortcuts for people assessing how worthy you are
of their company and consideration, be they right or wrong. Fabo, Derrick and
Jay are often suspect in the eyes of our office building security. Fabo gets his
gloriously faded denim bag inspected with utmost thoroughness, while the other
guards stare at his grungy shirts and dusty Vans. He is nothing like their idea
of someone who goes to work at our building.

I will take anyone’s textspeak at face
value, as it is the respectful thing to do. My only request is a modicum of
intelligibility. (In the case of fashion, a modicum of day-appropriate coverage.
At 8 am, I cannot appreciate crack and muffin
top
.)

I skirt the edge of the
abyss, but never cross. Sometimes, when I am in a hurry, I might drop a period.
This causes discomfort for days afterward. Even “hehehe” takes something out of
me, as if I am being not thoroughly myself. I write, not text. It is quite the
same motivation behind the way I blog: I refuse to blog “this day was friggin’
crap ohmigosh!!! man…” and instead prefer to spill my guts out in neat lines
on the floor. I am careful. I use caps and lower case. It is the least a writer
can do.