Thursday, July 25, 2013

Are Twitter users adopting "Ћ" as replacement for "the"?

A few weeks ago, The Verge had a headline that posed an interesting question:

"If 'and' is &, why can't 'the' be Ћ?"

The article got a respectable amount of buzz, with more than 1,200 likes on Facebook, 700 tweets, 300 +1s, and 300 comments.

Much has already been said about the Ћ symbol in both the article itself and the reader comments, but I was curious to see what the level of adoption is on Twitter.

After all, with a limit of 140 characters per tweet, if there's any place where saving two characters is likely to be of interest to anyone, it's Twitter.

I used Twitter's advanced search functions to filter out a lot of unrelated tweets (especially tweets in other languages that use the Cyrillic Ћ character) as well as the majority of comments about the phenomenon of using the Ћ symbol in this way.* Basically, my goal was to only see tweets where the author tried to use Ћ as though it was a common and natural abbreviation.

The phenomenon of using Ћ instead of "the" seems to have begun on Twitter on February 10, 2013. (At the very least, it was extremely uncommon before then, and/or perhaps Twitter's language filter doesn't work as well for tweets older than that.)

From February 10 until April 15, the only people using Ћ to mean "the" were from Melbourne, the Autralian metropolis that happens to be the hometown of Paul Mathis, the main proponent of the use of Ћ.

On April 15, there was a minor breakthrough: the first tweet that replaced "the" with Ћ from someone outside of Melbourne. I say "minor breakthrough" because that Twitter user is from Frankston, less than an hour's drive south of Melbourne.

The first uses of Ћ to mean "the" by non-Australian Twitter users came on July 5, when the article from The Verge was published. (This article was written by a Londoner, by the way, who received a tip from a Melburnian, whose source was evidently an article written the same day by another Melburnian for an Aussie site, The Age.)

Naturally, one might assume that the usage of Ћ might see a general rise until the novelty wears off. I'm unsure of exactly how long that period of time might be.

More than a week after the articles from The Age and The Verge, a small number of Twitter users from outside Australia had at least once used the symbol casually as though it were commonplace. These users were from Ireland, Saudia Arabia, South Korea, the United States of America, England, Germany, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and India. (Remember that my search was filtered for English language tweets, which may limit the countries in this list.)

Lest anyone misinterpret this to mean that there's widespread adoption of Ћ across the globe, in many cases there were only one or two Twitter users from each country who had used the Ћ symbol, and many of them used it a mere one or two times. Only a very small number of non-Australians (around 15 or so) seem to be using Ћ frequently in their tweets over the past week. The number of Australians who seem to have been using Ћ frequently during the same time period is about one-third as many.

Given that only 20 people or so are regularly using Ћ in lieu of "the" on Twitter, it seems doubtful that any physical keyboard (as opposed to on-screen keyboard) manufacturers will soon be adding Ћ keys, as Mathis indicated he would be pleased to see happen.

Mathis did, however, acknowledge in an interview that it could perhaps take "500 years" before his symbol finally catches on, at which time he said people might marvel that there once was a time when people didn't use Ћ.

Five hundred years, eh?  Conveniently, Mathis and everyone else now living will be long dead and buried by the year 2513. I'd venture to guess that if Ћ hasn't caught on by then, nobody will care, let alone notice.

Update, 24 May 2014: I just happened upon the Wikipedia article for the Deseret alphabet, "a phonemic English spelling reform developed in the mid-19th century by the board of regents of the University of Deseret (later the University of Utah) under the direction of Brigham Young, second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." This Mormon-developed alphabet also included a single-character variant of the word "the": 𐐜 or 𐑄 (as seen in the inscription across the top of this 1860 coin, "Holiness to the Lord").

Update, 25 May 2014: See also this interesting Twitter conversation I had with Paul Mathis, the person who came up with the idea of using the Ћ symbol as an alternative for the word "the." In our discussion, I asked him for his opinions about the Deseret alphabet character (which, by the way, is called "thee") and the use of the single letter t to represent "the" (similar to the Spanish use of q as an abbreviated form of que or qué).

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*A note regarding this blog post: My investigation into the use of Ћ on Twitter was neither scientific nor comprehensive. I'm sure someone will complain about the methodology I used to filter tweets. Nevertheless, I think it's pretty reasonable to conclude that adoption of Ћ on Twitter is presently very low. It stands to reason that if it hasn't garnered much support on Twitter, it probably hasn't elsewhere, either.

The exact query string I used was as follows:

"Ћ " since:2012-12-31 -symbol -mathis -paulmathismelb -language -keyboard -keyboards -char -character -letter -typing -the -Ћ∂ª lang:en

Here's a link to that query; you can optionally click on "All" to load more tweets than the default "Top" tweets.

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