• Blanche Israël

#280CharacterTweets: A (Puzzling) Win for Bilingual Organizations

The change will promote unity across different languages, but artists who enjoyed the short format are not crazy about the update

Twitter rolled out its 280-character feature this week, and many avid Tweeters were less than impressed. Constraints can be great for writing, and for creativity in general (I see you #NaNoWriMo), and many famous authors argue that the loosening will take much of that away, and therefore make Twitter irrelevant.

The update caught my eye too, but for a different reason. Through Proscenium, I have translated many a tweet for national and bilingual organizations. It is always pretty clunky and cumbersome. The message almost always has to be divided out into two tweets, which causes any ensuing replies to happen in two separate spheres, largely preventing any interaction across languages.

Also, English is one of the most concise morpheme-based languages out there, character-wise, and uses fewer in-between words like articles and prepositions. A French translation of an English tweet usually had to lose a couple hashtags, sacrifice a link, or simply say less to fit into that old limit, due to a combination of the language's respective average word lengths and sentence structures.

Some national organizations, like the Canada Council for the Arts, even run different Twitter accounts for their different languages of operation. This is entirely founded upon the old 140-character constraint. In a country where language is perceived as a major cultural divide, this split personality was far from ideal. (I find it especially ironic that @canada150th and @canada150e have been discussing the sesquicentennial separately all year.)

There is a reason Scrabble tiles are assorted differently depending on the language. A Canadian French Scrabble board comes with 3 extra Es and fewer Ws and Ys. (And Qs are worth fewer points, and Ks double the points, than their English Scrabble counterparts.) The 140-character limit was always unabashedly anglocentric. In a compounding language like German, the longest word is 79 characters long, which would take over more than half a traditional tweet. Alternatively, a logogrammic language such as traditional Chinese, for instance, has an average character length of 1.14 compared to English's 4.23. So an average tweet would allow 123 words in Chinese, versus 33 in English. Not so zippy.

The change feels like a fundamental mission drift for Twitter - a shift from its zeitgeistily concise format to a more internationally-oriented, and probably less unique, dissemination method. The update is certain to alter the very style and tone of Twitter, but as long as its relevance as a platform doesn't disintegrate entirely from the change (and it just might), we are chalking it up as a victory for bilingualism in the digital world.