Revenge of the Telegram | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 27.01.2002
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Revenge of the Telegram

Nobody sends more SMS’s than the Germans, whose youngest generation is getting used to sending telegram-style notes like the ones their grandparents once sent.


Instant gratification

"Love you. Meet train station 20:30."

Ah, what German teenager wouldn’t smugly rejoice if this sort of message suddenly blinked on the screen of her mobile telephone, along with the number of the pimply classmate she adores?

If this doesn’t make sense to you, then you must not know about the SMS -- the "short message system" that is all the rage with German youth and, in a way similar to e-mail, is forcing the country’s youngest generation to experiment in abbreviated syntax.

Germans sent 20 billion SMS’s in 2001 – more than any other country on Earth – each message a maximum of 160 characters long . Worldwide, 15 billion are sent per month, according to the mobile telephone company Ericsson.

That’s a lot of beeping telephones.

While, for many, the short messages – usually sent as text between mobile telephones, but sometimes from e-mail to telephones – are simply a great communications tool, they are the bane of those who value eloquence.

Love bytes

Gone are the days of over-the-top poetic flourish, once the ultimate stuff of first love. As Goethe and Schiller roll over in their graves, the emotional yearnings of post-modern Germany take form with predicates but often without subjects, articles or adjectives.

As SMS volume increases, warns Professor Peter Schlobinski, a linguist at the University of Hannover, the impact on ordinary language may increase.

Many youths, not just in Germany but around the world already know that a star-sign plus a "g" – *g – means "I’m grinning."

One three-letter combination that’s distinctively German is "guk" for "Gruß und Kuss" – greetings and a kiss. Another is "hdl" for "hab Dich lieb" – I have love for you.

Same old shyness

In one sense, this tech-phenomenon is like the telegram’s revenge. These same kids’ grandparents knew all about the pleasures of receiving telegrams.

But it’s also different in an important way: people cannot chat by telegram, yet they can and do "chat" by SMS, preferring the messaging system’s affordability and inherent limitations to the price and comparative flexibility of simply talking on the phone – or even face to face.

It’s a great solution to those who are smitten but shy.

"Less intimate than a telephone call, less distant than a letter," said Schablinski in the Frankfurter-Allgemeine Zeitung.

The linguist has concluded that people who send a lot of SMS’s tend to be more open than others, more willing to express themselves.

Yet one cannot discount the fact that some users are hiding behind technology, somehow – perhaps just as some poets hide behind enchanting turns of phrase. *g.