This week’s issue of The Economist has an amusing article on the suitability of different languages for short message services, like the micro-blogging site Twitter. Twitter limits “tweets” to 140 characters, but the amount of information that can be incorporated varies significantly with the language used.
This 78-character tweet in English would be only 24 characters long in Chinese.
This is largely due, of course, to the use of logograms in written Chinese, rather than an (approximately) phonetic alphabet. Japanese, which uses the Chinese characters (called Kanji) as a part of its writing system, is also quite succinct. Arabic works well, too, because vowels are customarily omitted in the written language. And, as the illustration accompanying the article suggests, hieroglyphics might have worked a treat. European languages, especially Romance languages, with their many inflected forms, tend to produce long messages by comparison.
A chart accompanying the article gives the average change in length when translating a 1000-character English message into various other languages. The changes range from a reduction in length of more than 60% when translating to Chinese to an increase of about 40% when translating to Spanish.
Of course, people do not generally use formal language for their text messages or Twitter, and informal English more than holds its own. As with the language itself, we use a hodge-podge of abbreviations, homophones (‘4’ in place of ‘for’, ‘U’ for ‘you), and other shortcuts; and we muddle along quite nicely.