Nineteenth-Century Textspeak

Whether thou art a ghost that hath come from the earth, or a phantom of night that hath no couch… or one that lieth dead in the desert… or a ghost unburied… or a hag-demon, or a ghoul, or a robber-sprite, or a weeping woman that hath died with a babe at the breast… Whatever thou be until thou art removed, until thou departest from the body of the man, thou shalt have no water to drink. Thou shalt not stretch forth thy hand… Into the house enter thou not. Through the fence break thou not...

So begins an incantation that started life on the lips of a Sumerian sorcerer six or seven millennia ago, before being penned into a clay tablet in the seventh century BC by an Assyrian scholar and then placed in the great library of his king, Ashurbanipal, at Nineveh. When the Babylonians sacked Nineveh in 612 BC, they consigned the library and its 30,000 tablets to the dust. In the 1840s it was excavated and the tablet was taken to the British Museum, where the scholar Reginald Campbell Thompson translated it, and forty-three similar incantations, into the first volume of The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia: Being Babylonian and Assyrian Incantations Against the Demons, Ghouls, Vampires, Hobgoblins, Ghosts, and Kindred Evil Spirits, Which Attack Mankind (1903).

To live in ancient Mesopotamia, the book suggests, was to contend with a frightening variety of supernatural adversaries. From the heavens, godlike devils descended to “ride on noxious winds, spreading storms and pestilence”. From the underworld, ravenous Ekimmu rose up, desperately dissatisfied with their diet of dust, mud, and insufficient libations from family members. They would approach a hapless traveller in a haunted place, fasten upon them and torment them until an exorcising priest intervened. The Utukku, also risen from the underworld, would lie in wait in the desert, mountains or graveyards, inflicting evil with a mere glance. The half demon, half human Alu were equally terrifying. Usually lacking mouth, limbs, or ears they hid away in dark corners, haunting ruins and deserted buildings and “slinking through the streets at night like pariah dogs”, before at any moment emerging to envelop you like a cloak. The Alu were also said, in a rather frightening embodiment of insomnia, to stand over the bed of a victim and threaten to pounce if they dared close their eyes, stealing away all hope of sleep.

The bulk of the book, after Thompson's lengthy but informative introduction, is composed of side-by-side transliterations of the "evil spirit" tablets and translations into English. Perfect for those whose cuneiform is a little rusty but wish to get involved in some warding away of evil spirits. Below we've featured some embeds of the book which open on the right pages so you can jump in directly to get a taste of the book's various spells.

Although the second volume of Thompson’s book describes some additional supernatural beings and protective incantations, its main focus is on purification rituals and defence against disease and illness — including a handy incantation against headaches. Both volumes have recently been republished as part of the Cambridge University Press Library Collection. If Assyria gets you going, a major new exhibition opens next month at the British Museum entitled “I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria” (8 November 2018 – 24 February 2019).Long words can be mellifluous, pulchritudinous, even pericombobulating things to behold. But sumtimes we jst nd 2 get 2 da pt. The very earliest writing, by the Sumerians circa 3000 BCE, was in pictographs. These representations of discrete ideas in small pictures, these proto-emojis, continued life in the early modern era, in places like Le Petit Livre d’Amour where we see “cœur” replaced by a ❤️. But from the ancient Greeks onwards, rather than draw pictures, writers striving for concision in alphabetic languages have usually preferred to omit non-crucial letters. Abbreviation of this kind had an unexpected renaissance with “textspeak”, a sublanguage formed in the 160-character-limited SMS (short message service). On early mobile phones you had to type each message on awkward little keys designating up to four letters. These spatial constraints, along with the simple desire to communicate quickly, gave rise to some wonderful abbreviations and acronyms — even if some take the receiver more time in the decoding than save the sender in the composing (e.g. “CURLO: See you around like a donut”).

Two nineteenth-century precursors to textspeak, both hotbeds of radical concision, were the telegram and shorthand. Shorthand had been around since the ancients but the famously innovative Victorians devised a host of new systems. Isaac Pitman, the creator of Stenographic Soundhand, opined that when people correspond by shorthand, “friendships grow six times as fast as under the withering blighting influence of the moon of longhand.” Though Dickens joked in David Copperfield that to acquire "a perfect and entire command of the mystery of shorthand writing and reading was about equal in difficulty to the mastery of six languages". As for telegrams, companies used to charge by the word, so correspondents would leave out unnecessary ones as well as punctuation, to produce messages with a distinct clipped style. And when telegraph operators communicated directly to each other, they would abbreviate words too.

It is this “telegramese” that provides the context for the comic love poem we've featured above. “Essay to Miss Catharine Jay” appears in C.C. Bombaugh’s excellent Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature: A Melange of Excerpta (first published 1867). Its elliptical style – “I wrote 2 U B 4” (line 6) – bears an uncanny resemblance to the textspeak that would flower 150 years later. The bathos of the following four lines is particularly wonderful, their descent from sophisticated abbreviation work at the end of the first and third lines into something pretty teenaged at the end of the second and fourth:

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.

Though a fine example, Bombaugh’s poem is not the first of its kind. It is based on a number of similar poems that appeared in newspapers and magazines on both sides of the nineteenth-century Atlantic. The following example was published in an 1828 issue of The New Monthly Magazine.

And here, in a subsequent issue in the same year, a riposte (an annotated version of which you can see at this great article on Visual Thesaurus).

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