Résumé

Languages of a Blueberry Smoothie

At the end of May I quoted Voltaire in my first transliteracy-related post: “Define your terms, you will permit me again to say, or we shall never understand one another.” It’s been a long process, but I feel I’ve defined a language model of transliteracy to a satisfactory extent. So before I demolish IL in the Information Literacy vs. transliteracy debate, I figured it would be fun to offer a practical example of the language model.

One thing came to mind when thinking of examples: Brian Hulsey’s Everyday Transliteracy video. It’s known as the “blueberry smoothie” video to many; it shows how someone might communicate the same message (a blueberry smoothie recipe) using different websites and other forms of communication, and all in a concise, friendly manner.

Let’s look at the examples through a linguistic lens.

Written Language

Most examples involve some form of written language. In many cases, though, communication via a particular website or other form requires subtle changes of dialect or language variant.

Email

In many ways, the language used in email is most like that of a written letter from perhaps a century ago. If a writer wished to ignore clear, concise business style, he or she could write an email of flowery prose or any other style you might otherwise encounter in written language. To me, the written language of an email is something of a baseline for comparison to other language usage.

Twitter

Linguistically, twitter is an interesting variant. Where you might devote a whole paragraph in an email for a stand-alone idea, the standard on twitter is for one tweet (at 140 characters or fewer) to do the same. As such, someone familiar with the letter/email baseline might develop a workflow for converting their verbose ideas to tweet-appropriate length:

  1. Write a sentence or two. See that it’s a number of characters over the limit
  2. Shorten any URLs (more on that later) to preserve space
  3. Use common abbreviations
  4. Go over entire text looking for places to re-word, perhaps with chat/SMS lingo
  5. Start removing things like pronouns and the vowels from certain words
  6. Remove punctuation that isn’t absolutely necessary
  7. Begin to question whether the idea(s) might require multiple tweets

There’s more to it, such as @replies, but the above workflow is the gist. It’s interesting, anecdotally at least, that tweets and text messages diverge somewhat in linguistic usage, despite their similarity in imposed length restrictions. Whereas it’s common to use instant message-type lingo (lol, brb, stfu, etc.) in an SMS message, it’s at least somewhat less common on twitter. It’s also more accepted to go over the character limit in text messaging, while quite impractical on twitter.

Facebook

Facebook doesn’t formally impose stringent length limits like twitter. A savvy facebook user, however, knows that a long status update will get cut off at a certain length; and the cut off text is only viewable after clicking a “read more” link. This leads to a subtly different usage than twitter. Facebook users are more likely to use full words in full sentences.

The combination of “read more” links and quoting the first three or so words of comments on profile pages means that effective facebook users avoid “burying the lead.” Such users communicate in pithy, concise posts, with their thesis statement within the first few words.

Facebook users may sometimes forgo leading personal pronouns since their name is displayed before their status. This is a less-likely occurrence on twitter, where users are represented by short usernames rather than their actual names.

Blog

Blogs are similar to emails from a written language perspective. There are nuances, of course, but it’s long-form writing with the optional addition of hypertext elements, just like rich email.

Telephone (or face-to-face)

Talking on the phone obviously isn’t written language. However, I think it’s a great basic example of transliteracy. Brian, in the video, reads the necessary amount of orange juice aloud off the screen. This is him reading (decoding) written language and speaking (writing, encoding) the same message into oral language. This is a basic transliteracy that many of us possess that we often take for granted.

A Post-It Note

Similar to long-form written language. For a message longer than originally intended, someone writing a post-it message might employ chat lingo and abbreviations, or might start writing smaller near the end of the message.

Other Languages

URLs

URLs are a written language construct all their own. I learned what URLs looked like, how they worked, and the intricacies of their syntax and semantics from using them, rather than by any formal instruction. However, an internet user can gain a lot from being instructed in URLs.

For instance, Brian was 100% correct to shorten the URL for the recipe before posting it to twitter, as that’s common practice. On the other hand, he didn’t show how he used the full URL for the resource in facebook. It’s knowing usage rules like these that make URLs an important language literacy.

Hypertext

Written language is a special subset of visual language. Hypertext is where, on the web, written language and what we usually consider visual language intersect. Hypertext elements have default styles per user agent stylesheets in the browser, making them visual elements. They are also semantically- defined markup elements per their SGML syntax. So bold text or italic text or a link or a heading appear different from text not wrapped with any markup; the elements' semantics precede their appearance.

A web user who doesn’t know how to identify the common appearance and function of hypertext elements would be at a great disadvantage. Often the appearance of form elements, for instance, are derived from similar UI elements from the base operating system’s toolkit. However, sites will often style or re-implement elements like buttons, so the essence of button-like symbols is a useful and transferable visual language skill.

Note that in the video, Gmail, twitter, facebook, and Wordpress all have similar, but at least somewhat-different, representations of buttons, text fields, text areas, rich text boxes, etc. I think it’s in the subtleties of hypertext visual language that it’s most practical to use the language model instead of the platforms/tools/media model.

Visual Language

Each site uses layout conventions involving columns, proportion, color, contrast, and other precepts of visual language. How they are similar and different is a teachable thing for those we might instruct. Knowing basic visual language of websites is a transferable skill.

Besides site layout, another interesting form of visual language are symbols, often used as icons. The Noun Project is a cool resource for exploring this aspect of visual language.

Conclusion

I’ve written a lot about a little, and have still managed to leave out a lot! The literacies at play when doing seemingly-simple things are often complex and varied.

What I wanted to demonstrate more than anything else is that the language model allows us to talk about all the same transliteracy things, but in a way that actually gets to the core literacies.

I think these language literacies allow us to work from a common set of terminology. They let us proceed quicker to developing more-universal and more useful curricula for instruction.

A point to ponder: Brian’s video, many (myself included) contend, is a wonderful example of transliteracy. It does not, however, focus in any way on the critical abilities normally associated with Information Literacy.