Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Keeping Our Borders Safe

As tomorrow's day of action happens one element of media reporting has perked my interest.  Repeatedly I have seen attention focused on the striking Border Agency workers.  They make up around 18,000 of the 2.5 million estimated workers to be taking part in the action: some 0.07% of the total.  There are an awful lot of other essential workers going on strike: some 57,000 NHS patients could be affected with operations cancelled, almost 90% of schools in England and Wales will close, libraries, museums, leisure centres, local government offices will be shut, the courts may well be affected, the tunnels and ferries across the Mersey will close etc etc.  There will be a lot of disruption to millions of people in this country... yet, the "threat to our borders" seems to be taking top billing.

Look for example at this from the Guardian (at the time of writing, no 2 story on their website):

This is FAB emotional media stuff.  Any mention of "bringing in the army" is always designed to highlight the absolute seriousness of a situation.  Think back to the riots in the summer and the calls to "bring in the army".  It appeals to the dramatic sense that these are the last defenders of order: we are one step away from chaos, disaster, and only the army can save us.  It resonates with the calling of the Army into Northern Ireland or the imposition of martial law around the world.  When the Police or other public services cannot cope, the army will prevail.  Look too at this, again from the Guardian:

Dirty Bombs, Radiation and Nuclear Material

"Dirty bombs"... "Radiation"... "nuclear material"?  Is this for real? Do people believe this is a serious, credible likelihood of one day's not checking passports? What exactly is going on here?  There are different possible interpretations.  On the one hand this could be seen as an attack on the reckless unions for putting us all at danger of nuclear attack by being so selfish as to argue for a better pensions deal.  Given it is a lefty newspaper, another possibility is that it is seeking to portray the Government as willing to risk the safety of our land and borders because it will not budge.  A third interpretation is that this is simply the classic driver of so much in our lives: FEAR.

Fear sells. Fear grips people.  When I look at the stories about "keeping our borders safe" I somehow imagine Fortress Britain under siege from foreigners.  There are terrifying people seeking to scale our walls - millions of them who would burst in to our country at a moment's notice if we let our guard down for *one* second.  They'd either be bringing in their dirty bombs, or there would be millions of grubby little brown faces storming our fair green island looking for jobs or claiming benefits.  Our borders must be KEPT SAFE and they must be KEPT OUT.

We saw this so clearly during the attack on Theresa May - she had apparently committed one of the worst sins possible: the BBC reported that the Home Secretary admitted she "did not know how many people came into the UK without proper checks".  A bit like the Trojan Horse, instantly we imagine who got inside our safe haven, and is now wandering around, ready to attack us.  Look at this from the Mirror: hundreds of thousands of people may have entered the UK without critical anti-terrorist vetting:

Labour of course took this up with gusto.  They attacked her for giving the "green light for weaker controls" and attempted, in the usual depressing way in British politics, to score political points.  Yes there are very good grounds for having done so on the point about her not being in control of her own ministerial area of responsibility; this however became a more simplistic point about her having put OUR COUNTRY AT RISK.  Such a point of course resonates with voters and there is no doubt the Tories would have done the same the other way round.  The narrative is always the same: there is a "list of terror fanatics" who want to get in and moreover "strong borders" will stop them.  She dropped the ball and now we're all in danger.  Is any of this true, reasonable or balanced however?

What Are Borders?

First a bit of historic background.  Up until World War One it was possible to travel from St Petersburg to Land's End without showing a passport.  The passport, in essence a feudal permission to move away from your immediate place of residence, granted by your overlord, had disappeared and border controls had been abandoned with the advent of the railways.  Despite fears that the "Irish would be moving all over the country" the railways had now caused widespread social breakdown in the UK or elsewhere.  Before WW1 paranoia that German tourists on holiday drawing sketches of the Dover cliffs were actually spies led to the Official Secrets Act 1911.  Similar fears on all sides later led to the imposition of border controls across Europe.

Borders are artificial things.  We humans have drawn them on maps.  The local Dutch and Low German dialects on both sides of the border where my Mutti grew up are the same.  The border between the two has developed artificially, historically and politically.  It culminated at a certain point in a long barbed wire fence and two officials checking a piece of paper that determined if you could cross or not.  I do not need a passport to go from Mossband in Cumbria to Gretna in Scotland, yet I needed one to travel the 10 minutes from Freilassing in Bavaria to Salzburg in Austria.  Arguably the latter two are far closer from a cultural and historical perspective.  A bird flying overhead wasn't stopped, but I was. We've made these things up.  They are, in my opinion, social constructs to control/ check and constrain people's freedom by the State.

If that is true, the next question is to ask if the inconvenience they involve is proportionate, whether they serve their purpose, and where exactly we should have them.   Isn't it a fair question to ask why people are free to travel from Norfolk into Suffolk without the State demanding a piece of paper from me to make sure I'm permitted to?  Let's face it HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of people crossed the River Waveney last month without any anti-terrorist vetting.  That is a fact.  Literally anything may have been transported down the A140 with *no* checks. 

The United States is well over 2000 miles wide.  There are 3.79 million square miles you can travel about in without showing your passport (the whole of the UK is a tiddly 94,500 square miles by comparison).  Liechtenstein on the other hand is 15 miles long and 6 miles wide.  It had its own border controls until very recently.  Because of these passport controls am I correspondingly far safer in Liechtenstein than in the UK, and again far more so here, than in the US?  Think about this critically: at what point geographically do we impose travel checks?  Should movement of 15 miles be controlled? Or 100 miles? Or 500 miles? Or is it okay to have border free areas of 2000 miles?  At what point do we lose a grip on safety and security by not having State check points every X distance?

Am I being a Dick?

You quite possibly think I'm being a dick for somehow belittling the incredibly serious threats that face us. Such threats are much more serious in the modern age than they were before 1914.  You may not question the fact it is entirely obvious we need "strong borders" to keep our threats from abroad: both terrorists and migrants.

I actually, however, have problems with believing that people are queuing up outside Britain, specifically, ready to attack - or indeed to migrate to this land of milk, honey and freely available work and benefits for all illegal immigrants.  I think it is actually a bizarre, unsustainable, fear-driven notion.  I would like to know where the evidence for it is, other than in these sweeping headlines and unchallenged assumptions.  I think that what borders do is to cause real hassle and inconvenience to the hundreds of millions of absolutely innocent, peaceful people who wish to travel around - rather than stopping a tiny minority of people who may or may not be trying to use mainstream ports of entry to come into this country.

With ever increasing numbers of people travelling internationally, attempts to keep up "vigorous checks" are, I believe, completely unsustainable.  The passport lines for EU travellers at Heathrow or Gatwick are unmanageable: no wonder biometric checks on European nationals and warnings index checks on children for the EU were "abandoned" for a period this summer.  So what?  To me it is a massive non-story.  People working in this field, far better informed than I, took this decision because the attempts to man the walls of Fortress Britain in this way are in fact impossible.

Schengen Area

It is in large part the practical impossibilities of controlling the movements of the majority that led to the creation of the Schengen zone.  It covers twenty states including several outside the EU (e.g. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland) and functions like a single state for international travellers.  You are subjected to a passport control when you first enter (just as in the US) and then can travel round an area of 400 million people without a single internal border.

There is a single visa to enter for non-EU nationals that require one: there is no free immigration for everyone: there are still checks for those coming from outside.  Of course anyone applying for a job then needs to show they have the necessary permit, so it is not allowing 3 billion Chinese or Indians to just come over and settle - even if they had the money for the fare or inclination to do so (which seems to be the assumption in all immigration related matters).

Schengen Area in Blue; Applicant States in Green

I recently took the train from Budapest to Vienna.  The first time I did so, in the summer of 1989, we were held at the border: penned in like sheep whilst guards checked our visas, our police stamps, under our seats and in our bags.  Nowadays we simply crossed without a single check and the train didn't stop.  Even between Germany and Holland I remember passport checks very clearly: now there is simply a sign indicating the name of the village and you're in the next country.

Is the whole of the massive Schengen area *really* less safe for the lack of passport checks?  Has this nightmarish anarchistic creation led to millions of people travelling the continent freely committing crime, transporting "dirty bombs", nuclear weapons, radioactive material and/or claiming benefits - or any of the other evils that our "vigorous checks" supposedly prevent?  That is the risk we seem to think will occur if our external borders are left unmanned.  The answer is of course not: look at the evidence of the past 16 years of operation across the countries involved.  400 million of our nearest neighbours live within a huge no-passport zone quite safely, quite happily.

House of Lords Committee Reports

Don't take my word for it either: the House of Lords have twice considered in great detail the operation of Schengen.  The first report was in 1999.  The committee listened to expert evidence from the Intelligence Services, the Police, Border Staff, civil servants and the government. 

Here are some key points:
  • The (then Tony Blair) government had made its position on maintaining frontier checks clearly and repeatedly and left the Lords under no doubt of their conviction on this
  • The Lords said that they did not believe the status quo of border checks "remains a long term option".  The steadily increasing numbers of people entering the UK necessitates closer cooperation with other Governments, "as all our witness made clear"
  • The Government's main arguments for keeping passport checks were they prevented clandestine immigration and prevented crime.  They doubted other Schengen States would police the external border to "our standards" and that our island geography made our case "special" [never mind Iceland of course]
  • The Government however "failed to convince" the Lords committee that "systematic border control as currently practised is the most effective use of resources to control illegal immigration or is focused on the main sources of illegal immigration"
Just look at that last bullet point.  It could not be clearer.  The report considered whether Johnny Foreigner could actually carry out passport checks on non-EU nationals on our behalf and concluded quite clearly:  "We believe that in the three major areas of Schengen - border controls, police cooperation and visa/ asylum/ immigration policy that there is a strong case in the interests of the United Kingdom and its people for full UK participation".

Okay.  The facts here are that we, like all countries, face terrorist threats.  Here's a bit of a scary thought to those who like to keep the idea up of our "strong border" though - I'm pretty sure I'm correct in saying every single terrorist attack to date has either comes from home-grown (i.e UK) terrorists or from the Republic of Ireland (part of our Common Travel Area).  People INSIDE this country come up with these plans and manufacture these weapons.  Border and passport checks do absolutely nothing to stop them.  Alternatively they import weapons from outside, but you can be pretty sure they will get them into the country if they want to.  They do not bring them in their suitcases through Heathrow on a flight from Paris.  In the same way, as the Lords found having heard the evidence, the major ports of entry are not the source of illegal immigration into this country.  They get through anyway.

What keeps this and every other developed country as safe as they are is in fact the work of intelligence services and the Police within the country.  However, the really serious criminals operate internationally, so our own intelligence services require the help also of others abroad.  Part of Schengen is an incredibly detailed and sophisticated pooled resource for gathering information on serious crime.  It is called the "Schengen Information System".  It is far more appropriate to the modern world than one country seeking to stop terrorism on its own, by checking and looking at each and every person's passport at Dover.  The Lords looked at this again in 2007:
  • The Schengen Information System, and its development into a second generation system are matters of the highest relevance to this country
  • We believe this is understood by the police, the prosecuting authorities, and all those involved in the combating of serious cross-border crime.  They appreciate the benefits to be derived from this country's participation in the information system
  • We are less sure that this is fully understood by the Government.  They are content not to participate in the current SIS, and likewise content that the UK should be one of the last countries to participate in SIS II.  We find this hard to reconcile with their stated commitment to fighting cross-border crime
WOW, again, right?

Now what I'm wondering is, how many people reading this blog even knew that the House of Lords had looked at these questions in such detail and come to such clear conclusions?  The Government (then Labour, don't expect the Coalition to be making any changes either) are pandering to the "Fortress Britain" narrative without any actual objective ability to conclude that we are in fact safer for it.  The Dutch relied on cutting the dykes when the Germans invaded during WW2.  It had worked against the Spaniards in the 16th century; the Germans just flew over in May 1940 and dropped in paratroopers.

Just because the populist view out there follows the narrative set out time and time again that "the security of our borders" is the country's top priority and will be protected by systematic passport checks, it does not mean the Government should ignore the evidence for political reasons, does it?


There are 4 things going on here: 1) I have yet to see any evidence that there are in fact hundreds of dragons and foreign armies all around us, singling out Britain, trying to get inside our castle;  2) Even for the odd few there might be lurking from time to time, our castle walls are already screwed: you can walk round the back and so checking everyone at the drawbridge won't keep out the bad guys; 3) We've got our own bad guys from within the castle community, so the walls won't help against them; 4) We're relying on a medieval defence system in an age where we should using the modern tools at our disposal.

The key to keeping our community safe would be to pull down the walls, allow all of us peaceful folk to travel about freely - and rely on our security services, with the best information available to them (which they currently do not have because of the insistence that they waste their time manning the drawbridge) - to ensure our safety.

That is looking at the matter mainly from a Schengen perspective.  From a wider more libertarian type perspective, however, should there be any borders or border controls in this world?  Should the EU still have visa restrictions at least for countries at the same stage of economic development?  Why can't I go and live in the US, Australia or Canada if I can move to Germany or Sweden?  At least why can't I travel there without having to queue up for ages with a silly little passport that an official checks?  As the world becomes an increasingly smaller, more integrated, more coherent whole I believe there is a lot to be said for the great Labour politician Ernest Bevin's view:

"My foreign policy is to be able to take a ticket at Victoria and go anywhere I damn well please."

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday and Germans

I'm just back from our little Suffolk town's Remembrance Sunday service.  The war memorial is brilliantly looked after, with family names of people from the town I recognise, who still live here, on it.  I remember people in the 1980s saying that the whole culture of remembrance would die out.  I'm personally very glad to see that seems to be far from the case.

Our family was/is completely non-religious and we never went to church except today - it wasn't about the religious act, it was about having a forum and an event to remember.  It was particularly important to us as my father was in the British Army and served in three armed conflicts (not including Northern Ireland).  My mother was very nearly a 23 year old widow a year into her marriage because of a mortar attack on my father in Aden in 1964.

Beautiful, well attended Remembrance Sunday in my town
Remembrance Sunday was also very poignant for us precisely because Mutti is German.  My grandparents literally fought on opposite sides in WW2.  My English grandfather had also served in the horrendous conditions of the trenches of WW1, one of the millions injured by German fire and invalided home.  This is quite an odd thing to grow up getting your head round.  It's something I share with plenty of other Anglo-Germans of course.

My German great uncle Walter was in the Afrikakorps and a British prisoner of war (he always spoke highly of the "Tommies" btw).  Another German Great Uncle, Heini, thought the War was a struggle for right and wrong between Germany and the Soviet Union.  He was sure Germany would win and did not want people afterwards to ask what he'd done, and to say "nothing".  He was 18, literally a kid, when he died outside Kiev in 1943.  His last letter home, just before Christmas, told how terrified he was to go out on patrol into the dark winter.

Amongst the first words of Father Andrew at our town ceremony was a call to remember the fallen, to call for peace and to celebrate the "reconciliation amongst peoples" - the former foes.  This has always seemed to me the complete nub of the matter.

The British Press

It's precisely for all of the above I am so sickened and fed up of recent items that have appeared in the British Press.  First we had the Daily Mail talking about the "Rise of the Fourth Reich" and Germany conquering Europe in the context of the financial crisis.  This has been going on for several months now.  They don't even have the historic knowledge to realise that a Gauleiter was a regional, not national, leader when they call Angela Merkel it.

Then came the Daily Express with its "Germany warns of War of Europe" headline, which was the most perverse distortion of Dr Merkel's speech to the Bundestag imaginable.  I don't want to send any traffic to either newspaper to boost their advertising stats: you'll have believe me.  I wrote in passing about the Express two thirds of the way down this blog.  This is a small but typical selection of the reader comments:

We also had the Church of England News publishing that absurd article about the "Gaystapo" and the "Gay Wehrmacht" - utterly devoid of any intellectual value, but so telling that the silly homophobic author chose to frame it in such language.  In passing I'd like to think that gay people will not fall for the same bigotry and prejudice in tarring all Christians with the same brush as the individual who wrote it.

Here we are 70 years on and some British appear still to be fighting a war that ended in 1945.  At school I regularly had kids who would give Hitler salutes.  I had swastikas drawn on my desk in the 1980s in Hampshire.  The fact I was born here, am a British citizen and my dad had actually risked his life serving 23 years in the British Army? Never mind.  When I was 19 at work on a gap year in Schleswig-Holstein the managing director of the company stopped me in the corridor.  Could I explain why the Sun had a headline "We beat them in 1945 and 1966, we'll beat them again" about the 1990 World Cup semi-finals?  I couldn't really and it was actually quite mortifying for me.  A few months later a letter arrived from one of the company's British dealers - it had the words "Did some old Nazi do this on purpose?" in it with reference to a faulty product that had been exported to the UK. Again all I could do was be desperately embarrassed on behalf of my father's country.

As someone who is half English and half German, and who has lived in both countries for many years (the first 12 were almost exclusively in Germany), I have -never- experienced overt prejudice or taunts for being half English in Germany.  All of the prejudice I've had directed towards me has been related to my being half-German and it is British people who do it. 

What is Actually Going On?

What seems to be going on for some/many* British people I think (*delete according to how generous you're feeling) is something like this:

  • We're jealous of Germany.  How comes they still have a manufacturing industry, make excellent cars, washing machines, have a huge trade surplus, have superb high speed affordable trains that work, and are so wealthy compared to us? Also, why DO they always beat us at soccer?
  • The reason we're jealous is actually when it comes down to it, we are well aware of how pants we are.  In essence we feel quite inferior.  Germany is perhaps the only European country we don't actually look DOWN on, if we're honest.  It's not like the rest of the "continentals" whom we can dismiss with some amount of mirth.
  • At the same time, however, we also think/know we're superior.  This is utterly contradictory, of course, but an inferiority complex can quite often be bundled up with a superiority one.  It also doesn't matter, because at the end of the day WE WON THE WAR.
  • Because WE WON THE WAR (but still feel jealous/inferior) we must bring this up at every opportunity to put the Germans in their place. (Never mind that almost 90% of German military casualties were on the Eastern Front and even with our terrible losses Britain suffered 2% the deaths the Soviet Union did - that's not how we teach history and it's definitely not what our movies will show, ever.)
There is quite a fundamental problem with the last proposition however - apart from the fact the Germans are well aware from their perspective where WW2 was lost/won.  It is essentially that the Germans tend to find the British obsession with "the War" actually genuinely puzzling: it certainly doesn't put them in their place to bring it up.  It just makes Britain (for whom most Germans have quite a lot of inherent respect) look faintly ridiculous.  Basil Fawlty needn't have said "Don't mention the War" to be polite: it's not polite to avoid it so much as to avoid a pretty sincere "huh?"

[My Twitter buddy @mynameisedd, who has a refreshingly younger person's take on all this (he's 17), has since put this to me as a young German person would probably react to a WW2 comment in much the same way we would if a French person came running up to us shouting "1066! 1066!" - I rather like this analogy.  Another might be an American expecting us to be offended or put down by mentioning 1776.  Would we care?]

Germans genuinely don't understand why anyone would bring up the War in the context of a sporting event, much less so in the context of their Chancellor making a historic speech in the very serious situation of impending economic meltdown.  Merkel's speech was about the need for Germans to assume their special responsibility, because of their history, and to reach into German tax-payers' pockets, to ensure that conflict doesn't arise again in Europe.  In case you're wondering, that is how many Germans see the overriding reason for the existence of the EU: something the Brits continually fail to see themselves.  For that to lead to the Express headline? Wow, just wow.

It's Not Just the Tabloids

This reaction is not because the Germans have no sense of humour.  The appearance of 'Allo 'Allo dubbed into German was I think a seminal moment for the country.  Similarly there have now been several home grown comedies about Hitler in recent years.  This is a very healthy development for a country that is acutely aware of its special responsibility to learn from the past, but which has moved on and is now in a very different place.

This isn't about humour at all - which of course the British can do brilliantly and which I personally greatly enjoy.  This is about deliberate, nasty, and apparently acceptable racism and prejudice.  And it also isn't limited to the Tabloid Press.  Their regular anti-German attacks are, incidentally, reported on in the German press and are generally met with a weary expression rather than any indignation.

Take a look at this.  It appeared two days ago in the Guardian.  The (slightly misquoted) German at the end is from 1861 (yep, 150 years ago) by the nationalist Emanuel Geibel.   It means the "May the world enjoy the German spirit".  This was a very particular phrase used by the Kaiser in the context of German Colonial Imperialism in Africa (he was of course busy trying to copy the British and French).  It was then employed of course by the Nazis in the context of their racial theories and policies.  The use of "F├╝hrung", in German, has only one interpretation in this context: it makes the reader think of Hitler and the Third Reich.  Angela Merkel's middle name is for the record, Dorothea.  "Hilda" means "Battle Maiden" from Old German.  This isn't casual racism - it is extremely deliberate and educated.

There are valid concerns, and there should be debate, about what is happening in the Euro Crisis regarding the interplay of democracy and economics.  Putting that aspect to one side, the Germans (and Merkel in particular) are damned on the one hand if they do not as Europe's economic powerhouse provide decisive leadership, as called for in particular by the Coalition.  On the other hand, when they do provide it, we do not have to wait long for calculated and spiteful racist commentary from not just the Tabloids, but also the so-called quality liberal press in this country.  Debate the issue, do not resort to frankly pathetic Third Reich jibes.

We Will Remember Them

Our War Memorial

And so we come back to this Day of Remembrance.  I think of the men who left our town in those dismal years of 1914-1918, and since then, who never returned.  I think of the service people who are serving and still suffering.  I think also of the millions of civilians who were injured, raped or died during conflicts: the emphasis is so much on military remembrance it seems, but many more civilians in particular during WW2, died.  I think of members of my own family, from both sides, who were pawns and victims in the divided politics of the 20th century.

And I really, really wish that people in this country could move on, keeping the personal remembrance, the dignity, and the gratitude; but without continually lowering themselves regarding the Germany of today: a country that in 2011 is our neighbour, our trading partner, our ally, and our friend.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Language of Twitter

Language fascinates me.  I grew up bilingually with German and English, and later took French and Spanish for years at school.  I read Modern and Medieval German and Dutch for my degree.  I'm a lawyer by training and profession and therefore well aware of the importance of precision in drafting, and the potentially huge and expensive problems that can be caused by ambiguity in language.

This blog is simply a random set of observations on some of the things I've seen on my favourite medium: Twitter.  I'm essentially fascinated to see how language adapts to new situations and how in some cases it can actually overcome ambiguity with the use of playful new spelling or vocabulary.

140 characters

The first obvious challenge of Twitter is brevity: everything has to be packed into 140 characters.  There is a real art form to doing this: broadly speaking the shorter the tweet, the more likely it is to grab the attention of a reader in a rapidly moving timeline.  I gather the skills involved in writing tweets are similar to those used in telegram messages: the imperative there was cost; now it is about conveying information in a way that is most likely to be read. 

Thrift with words and being punchy are clearly key.  When people resort to Twitlonger I personally have to be really interested in the particular author, or the contents of the first part of the tweet, to open up the link.  My timeline is racing by: there are other things to read and I will skip quickly pass a link.  If there is a complex idea to get across people often instead do this by multiple tweets, one following the other in quick succession.  I've seen people label these as "1/3, 2/3, 3/3" to make it clear they're part of a set.  That way they are more likely to be read than using Twitlonger, where the body of the tweet is obscured.  Tweet 3 might catch your eye, so you go back and read tweets 1 and 2 accordingly.  Twitlonger works fine, however, in a one-on-one conversation where you have a particular reader's attention.

The first thing to go in tweets are often the words "the" and "a/an" - in 140 characters there is little room for a definite or indefinite article - you simply drop them out, even if you're not hard up against the character limit.  The language of Twitter is much less formal than you'd use in an email or letter - but what is interesting is noticing that if you tweet a lot, it's actually an effort not to write texts, instant messages or emails in this same shorthand style.  It's all about the speed.  This is a bit beside the point, but I also find myself wanting to use hashtags in all of these contexts.  That will definitely only work if the other person spends time on Twitter...


There's a whole range of abbreviations used on Twitter that take some getting used to.  Some originate in "text speak" others are unique to the forum.  We are well familiar with "LOL" for "laugh out loud" (love it, or hate it - personally I think it's great) and its relatives ROFL (roll on floor laughing) and "LMAO" (laugh my arse off).  If something is off the scale funny we may even see a "LOLOLOLO" - as observed several times this week on my timeline about the departure of Frankie Cokeupthenozza from X-Factor.

There are things like RT, HT, MT, which are unique to Twitter and have been created entirely by users of the medium - check out point 13 in my earlier post on "How to use Twitter" if you're unsure what they mean.

We also have FTFY (fixed that for you) - you take something someone tweeted and amend it as retweet, basically to take the piss out of them by changing a small but important detail.  The tweet then goes out to all their followers and says something entirely different to what you intended to say - but the FTFY makes it clear this is a joke.

The Playfulness of Language

What I like most about Twitter though is the sheer playfulness of the language used.  In the last few days I've seen the following examples:

Time for a screenbreak.. Moar coffee!

That's the best pic EVAR
Oooh we're spending Boxing Day in Snowdonia. I am tres excited!
A-MAY-ZING: That Kelly/Cocozza vid
The reenactment of Dambusters on BBC2 is acecakes
No question: this is tres amaze

You might well think, Jesus, these people need to learn some English.  In fact three of the above are from highly literate and intelligent lawyers.  "Acecakes" is from an outstanding writer on a well known daily paper.  "Tres Amaze" is from someone who works in Westminster.  If you write "That's tres amaze" in an email to your MP boss, he might think you're quite odd and/or illiterate- on Twitter it just seems to work.  It also indicates something - a warmth and kindly acceptance that is different to the plain "that is amazing."

What is going on here is a whole new fun creative language is being created.  The speed of adoption is breathtaking: I saw the use of "Klaxon" a few weeks ago (hardly a common word, though "Klaxonner" remains my favourite verb in French) - suddenly everyone is using it on my timeline.  Twitter is all about words... and here words are picked up rapidly, played with and used.

I exchange "Lolz" with an English teacher - and if something is really funny we use "Lolkatz".  I'm sure if one of her kids tried this in an essay they wouldn't exactly get top marks: we're using it almost ironically, between the two of us, because it's so "wrong".  The "Z" is *so* much fun in my opinion - you use "OMG" (oh my god) to express surprise - shove a Z on the front (ZOMG) and it becomes "zoooo my god" which really ups the excitement of what you're saying. 

The examples I've given above really demonstrably aren't from people who confuse their "you're and your" or "who's and whose": they are just playing with English.  I've seen how new completely ungrammatical constructions: "Son, I am disappoint".  "I am much excite": those both from a student of creative writing who is perfectly capable of getting his grammar correct in other contexts.  I learned ZOMG from an almost scarily bright young guy who has a degree in Chinese and is currently learning Korean.  Illiterate he is not.

The misspelling of words can soften their meaning.  I received the above tweet that said "it's just bubbles, silleh".  That's actually fascinating: had Dan (a graduate journo himself) written "silly" I could have taken it as a bit patronising - it's notoriously difficult to get tone across in written language and in so few characters.  Instead "silleh" (which I'd never seen before) came across as sweet and really very cute.  How is that for actually overcoming ambiguity?

We also of course have the whole language of the "Tw".  People on Twitter are "tweeps"; when they arrange to meet it's a "tweet-up"; I even attended a "twitnic" last summer.  I'm a "twaddict" for being on Twitter so often.  A new way of forming a noun has been created that indicates a link with Twitter.  These aren't in the dictionary, but everyone is quite clear what they mean.

Misuse of English?

Where does this all get us? Well nowhere in particular.  It's just a random set of observations.  You might be "totes snooty" about what you see as the misuse of English.  I'm not.  Language evolves constantly and rapidly: it has always done so and will always continue to do so.  We are seeing it happen here on Twitter and I'm fascinated by it and love it.

Whilst I'm perfectly capable of being a grammar fascist and explaining why (for example) in a formal letter you should use a possessive pronoun with a gerund - and more to the point believing that is a sensible rule - I really enjoy coming on to Twitter, letting my hair down and using a completely different linguistic register.  There is no compulsion to do so: many people form "correct" and full sentences; but I actually really enjoy seeing one of the most talented barrister bloggers I know asking for "Moar coffee".  It even got a little lulz from me :)

Tuesday, 8 November 2011


Swimming makes me a happier person.
I have finally found the strength to head to the gym but after 30minutes of threadmill running, i did not feel satisfied.
But, 25laps in the pool made be a jolly person for the rest of the day.
Looks like water is my thing....

Free gym n huge pool n new mix of ppl.... I have entered a whole new world!

I will(must) get around to update more often. Unfortunately, Iphone blogger doesnt allow photo uploads. Whats a blog without photosss...