OMG, Vikings did it too!

Oct 4, 2010 by

Many of the people concerned about the changes in the English language (allegedly) due to computers and other modern technologies feel especially worried about the proliferation of three-letter acronyms like LOL (“laughing out loud”), BFF (“best friend forever”) and — yes! — OMG (“Oh my God”). But are such abbreviations really all that new or an English-only phenomenon?

While acronyms like CD-ROM, MP3s and HDTV are all very recent, the concept of letter- and even number-based abbreviations is not. They did it in the 19th century –- only then they called it emblematic poetry, and it was considered terribly clever. The exhibition currently on display at the British Library (London) illustrates this with examples such as the poem from Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, published in 1867. In it, 130 years before the arrival of mobile phone texting, Charles C Bombaugh uses phrases such as “I wrote 2 U B 4”. Another verse reads:

“He says he loves U 2 X S,
U R virtuous and Y’s,
In X L N C U X L
All others in his i’s.”

Beautiful, isn’t it?

But abbreviations go even further back than that. One finds abbreviation of commonly used words in medieval manuscripts and especially carved inscriptions. After all, carving into stone is not any easier than pressing buttons on one’s mobile phone. Take for instance the Kirkdale sundial, embedded in the wall of Saint Gregory’s church in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire. The sundial’s inscription is in Old English but shows influences of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings who settled and ruled in Yorkshire in the 9th and 10th centuries. The text of the inscription carved into stone contains such abbreviations as SCS (“saints”), CNG (“cyning” or “cyng” for ‘king’) and PRS (“priests”); the latter appears in the lower left corner in the picture below.

An abbreviation in Old English is typically marked by a line or a tilde over it. The same notation was used to mark words not spelled out in full in medieval manuscripts in other languages as well. For example, one finds such abbreviated spellings with a line over them in Old Church Slavonic and Old Russian manuscripts. For example, did you know that the Russian word tsar’ is an abbreviation of … tsesar’ (‘Ceasar’)? Most commonly abbreviated Old Church Slavonic words include VLKA (“vladyka” for ‘lord’), CHLK (“chlovek” for ‘man’) and even a double abbreviation ANGL BZHII (“angel bozhii” for ‘angel of God’). Among the most common abbreviations in Old Church Slavonic are BG (“Bog” for ‘God’), IS (“Isous'” for ‘Jesus’) and XS (“Xristos” for ‘Christ’); the latter (in Cyrillic) is found in the upper right-hand corner in the picture below.

The function of such abbreviated nomina sacra (the names of Divinity) is not only or not even primarily to save space. Rather, spelling such words in full has long been considered equivalent to a blasphemy. Avoiding this sin is also how the fish became a Christian symbol: the Greek word for ‘fish’, ichthos, is an acronym for iesous christos theou ouios soter, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”.

The Hebrews employed abbreviations too. For instance, the name of God was abbreviated as a sequence of two letters, yod and heh. The Hebrews also used the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to write down numbers, and since the numerical value of yod is ten, it was used to encode the “-teens” (e.g., yod-alef meant 11, yod-bet — 12 and so on). However, the sequence yod-heh — because of its use as the abbreviated name of God — was not used for 15. Instead, 15 was encoded as the sequence tet-vav (9+6), commonly read as [tu]. From this comes the name of the Jewish holiday Tu-bi-Shvat; it is literally a date, [tu] (or 15) in the month of Shvat.

So the next time u really r annoyed by acronyms and abbreviations, recall that even the name of the Hebrew Bible, the tanakh, is an acronym for torah nevi’im ketuvim, “Torah, prophets, writings” (after its the three main sections).

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