Isn’t Life Already Short Enough?

A story in the 22 July 2001 issue really captured my interest — it amazes me how people will adapt to their technology, rather than make their technology adapt to them.

It’s certainly nothing new: the keyboard on the computer you’re sitting at right now probably has a “Qwerty” layout for the keys. That key arrangement is anti-ergonomic — it was specifically designed to slow down typing because of the mechanical limitations of typewriters in the 1870s.

Problem with the keys jamming? Anti-engineer the keyboard to slow people down, don’t fix the technology to keep it from jamming! (Which, of course, they did do long ago — but we’re still stuck with Qwerty even though a far superior alternative has been available for decades!)

Similarly, when people have a problem communicating with “Short Message Service” on their cell phones, the solution is to alter (even destroy) the language, rather than make SMS better:

Sv Me Fm Hl!

2 BZ 4 church? No problem: thanks to cell phone “Short Message Service”, church can come to you. To help, a religious group has “translated” the Lord’s Prayer into SMS shorthand. “Our Father, who art in heaven” is delivered as “dad@hvn” while “hallowed be thy name” becomes “urspshl.” The entire prayer fits the SMS limit of 160 characters — with 3 to spare. The group’s spokesman says the prayer is “an experimental form of virtual worship.” (London Times) …Which is pretty much what all prayer is.

The full translation is fairly interesting:

Original SMS English
Our Father who art in heaven, dad@hvn, Dad at heaven,
hallowed be thy name. urspshl. you’re special.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, we want wot u want We want what you want
on earth, as it is in heaven. &urth2b like hvn. and Earth to be like heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, giv us food Give us food
and forgive us our trespasses, &4giv r sins and forgive our sins
as we forgive those who trespass against us. lyk we 4giv uvaz. like we forgive others.
And lead us not into temptation, don’t test us! Don’t test us!
but deliver us from evil. save us! Save us!
For thine is the kingdom, bcos we kno ur boss because we know you’re boss,
and the power, ur tuf you’re tough,
and the glory, for ever and ever. &ur cool 4 eva! and you’re cool forever!
Amen. ok? OK?

(The SMS translation was written by Matthew Campbell, a history student at York University. Its translation back to English was written by me.)

Interestingly, several readers thought that there would be a lot of angry letters about this story. But it took quite a while to get one, and they’ve been rare. Perhaps people are growing up and understand one can talk about religion without Christians feeling like they need to be threatened — or perhaps they are starting to realize that uninformed arguments over religious issues often makes them look pretty darn stupid.

Anyway, that leaves thoughtful reflection on the story — which is what True is all about. The most interesting so far is from Fred in Illinois:

That is really …er… disturbing. I don’t mean the alteration of the prayer — if it’s not in Greek, it’s already been altered, right? [Good point! -rc] Instead, what I object to is the rapid bastardization of the language. I am only fair when it comes to spelling. My spell checker is my best friend and I use it constantly! When I see news items like this, it makes me feel as if I’m wasting my time. Why bother being literate? What do I tell my (hypothetical) children when they ask me why they have to learn spelling in school? The adult world obviously doesn’t care about it, why should they?

Now that I’ve finished ranting about that part, I’ll have to say that the intersection of technology and religion doesn’t particularly bother me. I think it’s only natural that the users belief and spirituality should be a part of new technology. I certainly can’t help but notice that Christian preachers have adapted well to the medium of television. (Too well, some might say!)

Heh! Just so. But I have no concern about the intersection of technology and religion. After all, churches have used lights and heaters for years. Rather, my concern is bending humans to the weaknesses of technology. As in “Let’s cripple people so they can accommodate 19th-century typewriters rather than fix the keyboard!” As in “Let’s completely screw up the most expressive language ever created because cell phones with processors more powerful than what filled an entire room in 1950 can’t handle more than 160 characters at a time!”

Yaknow? We should bend technology to fit people, not bend people to fit poorly designed technology.

I finally got a few rants about the story. They ran from Bible-thumping preaching to “a long time reader” who “will forestall my cancellation decision until I’ve allowed sufficient time for your explaination [sic]”. (keep waiting, pal) to this one, from Mike in Virginia:

I don’t like the story’s tagline at all. Saying “(an experimental form of virtual worship) is pretty much what all prayer is” is pretty insulting to anyone of any faith that believes in prayer of any form.

Sorry, Mike, but I just don’t accept your claim that you speak for “everyone of faith.” Plenty of “people of faith” have taken the story just for what it is. But I do agree that you chose to be insulted, rather than take the “Christian” approach. That says a lot more about you than it does me, or the story, doesn’t it?

After I wrote the above, I got this letter, from Gidon in Israel:

Your comment might have been an attempt to make fun at religion, and the self-righteous indignations will probably start pouring in. But as a religious person, I found the comment deep and inspiring!

No, it wasn’t meant to “make fun” of religion, it was meant to provoke thought. I am gratified to see that it did just that, even in the Holy Land.)

OK, two more and I’m gonna call it a page:

And Last:

I have studied the king james version of the holy bible,or at least mused on it for 43 years.As a result of this I have seen the bottomless pit,where satan is to be released from.I understand the “warming trend”.I have witnessed the lake of fire the planet earth is going to be cast into.I have found alien robots in the bible.Evidence as solid as steel proves creation by a greater being.I am not a preacher or a “religious nut.” I just want to know how to make money from it.I only have a 10th grade education and am 60 years old. –Carlton (location not given)

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13 Comments on “Isn’t Life Already Short Enough?

  1. Fred in Illinois is correct in noting that Greek was the language in which the Christian New Testament was written. However, most scholars agree that it is most likely that the lingua franca of ancient Israel, spoken by Jesus when teaching this prayer to his disciples, was most probably Aramaic. Strictly considered, Greek itself is one such example of “rapid bastardization of the language” of the words of Jesus.

    “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” eh? -rc

  2. Okay, I understand the point you’re making about technology not being improved for proper human usage.

    However, “Give us food” ???

    Understand that I am far from a religious man, but I was raised as a Roman Catholic who went to mass every Sunday and learned about the evolution of the modern day ceremonies and prayers. I can understand the reasoning behind translating many of the Latin prayers into languages that correspond with the peoples. But how do you go from “and the glory, for ever and ever” to “&ur cool 4 eva!” or “and you’re cool forever!” and expect the same traditional meaning?

    Besides all that, does a God-fearing cell phone user really need someone to send them an SMS version of the Lord’s Prayer? What a pain in the butt it would be to stop and pray everytime it was received. And what if you’re busy and just delete it? What kind of message would that send to God? It even sounds childish when read in the SMS to English translation.

    I think this “religious group” needs to spend a little more time in constructional hobbies, like building playgrounds for kids or mending broken homes, than trying to create more trendy ways to live and/or pray.

    I can’t say I disagree with anything you say, Adam. Pretty much, that’s why I make fun of stuff like this. -rc

  3. I am a high school English teacher and I found your item on the SMS version of the Lord’s Prayer fascinating. Not only do I agree with your point about bending people’s behaviors around the limitations of technology instead of adapting technology to suit people’s needs, but I also found this to be a good example of a grotesquery of language, something “charactertized by ludicrous or incongruous distortion.”

    (I run into grotesqueries all the time in student writing. For example, the following was the thesis for a research paper on the Holocaust: “The Holocaust was a tough time for the Jews.”)

    As an undergraduate in college, I had a friend who was cynical about his Polish Catholic upbringing and used say the following grace at meals: “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub. Hail, Superchief!” Many people would find that prayer of “thanks” offensive, but if the Lrd’s Pr is intended to be serious, it is doubly so.

    Indeed, it is my understanding that the “Lrd’s Pr”, as you so aptly named it, is intended to be a serious worship tool. (Hank went on to ask if he could use a printout of this page as a teaching aid for his English students — permission I gladly granted.) -rc

  4. Regarding Mike’s claim that the tagline is “pretty insulting to anyone of any faith that believes in prayer of any form.” Last time I checked, most people don’t believe they are in the direct presence of God, that that comes in “eternity” or “heaven” or “paradise” or “the new earth” (or whatever your brand of religion calls it) and part of the eternal reward for being saved, living a good life, etc. is spending eternity worshipping God face to face. So, until then, isn’t all worship “virtual”???

    That is, to be sure, an even-more succinct explanation of the tagline than even I would have been able to write. -rc

  5. Have to agree on just about all points raised here – EXCEPT: The QWERTY keyboard may (debatable theory) have been designed to slow down typists, but there ISN’T a “way superior” alternative (I assume you are referring to the so-called Dvorak keyboard) – please see for a debunking of that myth.

    I don’t need to check Snopes: I literally wrote the book on Dvorak. -rc

  6. “I don’t need to check Snopes: I literally wrote the book on Dvorak.” -rc

    And, if you enter “Dvorak” into the Snopes search engine, you will get just one listing, “Billy Graham’s Prayer for Our Nation”. It comes up in the footnotes as a source citation for an article in the Kansas City Star co-written by a James A. Dvorak.

    I’d comment on the irony, but it’s just too easy. Unfortunately, bogus Snopes references are becoming all too common.

  7. While I do not have any problems with using technology for religious purposes, it does become problematic when, like here, it completely distorts the original meeting.

    But I accept that this was written more as an interesting test of a person’s abilities to compress language, than as an attempt at religious instruction. (Reminds me of programming in the dawn of computing, when you stored a year with only two digits….)

  8. Piet, Atlanta: “when, like here, it completely distorts the original meeting.”

    Funny, I haven’t used ‘art’ as in ‘who art in heaven’, trespass/es (I just looked it up (and you should too if you only think you know its meaning) even as I’ve prayed that set of words in excess of 40 years) in any social interaction outside of saying that prayer.

    So, what meaning ‘does’ it have?

    A personal question to you: Do you ever find yourself reciting a prayer without thinking ‘what am I actually saying’? There is a reason why we repeat by rote…

  9. OMG, srsly?

    Interesting tidbit there. As long as it is mostly meant as a brain game, not as a serious translation of the prayer. Although I find some forcefully introduced word choice that, as it seems to me, serve no other meaning than to make it seem youthful. (which it wasn’t)

    Also, I think you underestimate the power of being used to something. QWERTY layout might have come at time when no other was viable, but by the time it was, everybody was too used to QWERTY so it would not be practical to start from square one all over again, not to mention losing (I assume) hardly fought for standard. Similar story with SMS maybe, I am sure there was a good reason for 160 limit. Apart from having different generations of devices on the same network, it also sped the writing process substantially. Granted, I swype this here now and my phone is entirely capable of messages thousands words long, but barely a year ago I had a classic phone and writing anything longer than 160 chars was pretty much torture.

    As for Dvorak, it is even more useless for me in Slovak than QWERTY, or, more commonly, QWERTZ layout. Still better to have one standard everywhere than writing different layouts in every language.

    The idea isn’t to get everyone to abandon what they know, but rather to teach kids something language-based that’s so simple and easy to learn that it takes away the pain of learning to type. The tragedy is, we haven’t; we continue to teach an anti-ergonomic layout that makes it harder. And the sense in that is…? -rc

  10. 1. To commit an offense or a sin; transgress or err.

    2. Law To commit an unlawful injury to the person, property, or rights of another, with actual or implied force or violence, especially to enter onto another’s land wrongfully.

    3. To infringe on the privacy, time, or attention of another.

    Dad, who is in Heaven, your Name is Holy. May your Kingdom become ours, and may Your Wish be our command here on Earth, just as is the case in Heaven. Give us each day whatever we need — not want, need — and forgive us for the wrongs we do. Don’t let us be tempted beyond our strength to resist, but keep us close to You and away from the Evil One and his minions.

    (I subscribe to the theory that the whole Kingdom, Power, & Glory thing was added by some unknown monk when transcribing from one volume to the next. Which is the Church’s position; that’s why there’s a break between “…evil” and “For…” “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our days. Help us to be free from sin and protect us from all worries as we await with joyful hope the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Note this prayer has been revised in the new Missals which go into effect this coming year — First Sunday of Advent))

  11. May I?

    The so-called Lord’s Prayer is a formula. Jesus Christ gave this to us in response to a man asking how he (we) should pray.

    The formula is:
    *Acknowledge the Father
    *Praise God
    *Ask that God’s will be actualized
    *Ask for what we need
    *Ask forgiveness
    *Ask to be forgiving
    *Ask for Divine (spiritual) protection
    *Praise God
    *Acknowledge God

    One is supposed to compose a heart-felt, considered, personal prayer message to God, filling in the details as they pertain to us and our concerns (needs, loved ones, et cetera).

    Thanks for the article.

  12. The “formula” comment was good. The “Jabez Prayer” fits that pretty well (1 Chronicles 4:10 NKJV):

    And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying,
    “Oh that you would bless me indeed,
    and enlarge my territory,
    that Your hand would be with me,
    and that You would keep me from evil,
    that I may not cause pain!”

    So God granted him what he requested.

  13. I’m aware that Jim’s comment is a direct response to the previous one, but it reminded me of my own experience. I’m not sure which way round he meant “There is a reason why we repeat by rote” — clearly saying something collectively has a purpose separate from listening or thinking alone about something new — but at church over the years I’ve encountered two main (conflicting) attitudes to the words and form of standard prayers: a) that the words should never be changed because they are poetry; b) that no one prayer (or any part of the liturgy) should be used two weeks in succession, since people will only pay attention to the meaning if the text keeps changing. I disagree with both: as well as encouraging a sense of community among a congregation, reciting something draws it to our attention and gives us time to think about it, which requires it to be in words we understand. If it changes constantly, it becomes an exercise in performance, and our attention it taken up in reading, not in understanding. So yes, I do think about what I am actually saying when saying a collective prayer, and as far as I’m concerned, that is the reason why we repeat by rote.

    As for whether that’s Jim’s point or its opposite, I honestly don’t know.


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