Guided By Hamsters

Wifi haiku

What hath the Internet wrought?

For the first time in 60 years, Morse code is getting a new character — the “@” symbol. It seems that in the age of the Internet, ham radio enthusiasts who use Morse have been trading email addresses. But the standard Morse alphabet didn’t have designation for @, which meant they had to improvise. As the New York Times reports:

Until now, those ham operators had to spell out @ with two letters of code: “A,” a dot followed by a dash, and “T,” a dash. The resulting sound is “dit-dah-dah,” which also translates to the letter “W.”

To stop the madness, the International Telecommunication Union is officially approving a dot-dash string to represent @: dit-dah-dah-dit-dah-dit. It’s a combination of the letters “A” and “C”, and has a unique sound; it can’t be confused with any other single character.

But there’s a problem …

“The irony is that sending the word ‘at’ is shorter,” Mr. Lindquist said.

By about half. Each dash is three times the duration of a dot, and within a single character, the space between sounds is one dot long. So, the word ‘at’ takes nine beats, or dots; the @ symbol takes 17.

The result? Of the Morse freaks that the Times spoke to, most said they wouldn’t use the new character; they prefer their grassroots tradition of spelling out “at”.

It reminds me of how France is always trying to purify their language by developing officially “French” versions of English phrases and slang that creep into the popular argot. A while back, their language cops decided they should give the @ sign a French name, and proclaimed it the “arobase”. But few people use these made-up official words, because that’s not how language grows. It evolves organically — a bunch of hacks and kludges duct-taped onto tradition, with no governing body approving anything at all.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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