From Victorian letters to emojis

From Victorian letters to emojis

We can finally emote in print

A brief history of written communication

If you’ve ever seen an all caps inscription on an ancient monument or a medieval scroll consisting of a single, continuous block of text, then you’re familiar with scripto continua – “continuous script” in Latin.  

Characterised by a lack of spaces and punctuation, scripto continua served as a memory aid for a select few trained to interpret texts by reading them aloud. (Jumping into the middle of a scroll written in scripto continua was an impossibility; without prior familiarity, it would be virtually inscrutable). 

The invention of the printing press in the late Middle Ages changed all that – well, sort of. Armed with the printed word and the idea sharing it enabled, members of the emergent middle class who had the time, resources and motivation to engage with newly printed texts became “thinkers”. This new class went on to power the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

But, for a large portion of the population, speech continued to dominate writing as the de facto means of everyday communication. Most people still lived their entire lives within a walkable radius of the place they were born; if you wanted to get a message to someone, you knew where to find them. News and gossip spread almost entirely via word of mouth.

Then came the Industrial Revolution. The explosion of cities and resulting demographic shifts, along with economic, political and technological advances, fundamentally altered the concept of the community. In the city, everything was more complicated. Even nonurban areas were affected, as long-distance travel became the norm and social ties expanded and metastasized.

It was around this time that newspapers really took off. As unprecedented as this new form of mass media was, it remained a one-sided form of communication. Newspaper prose did not resemble that of academic, religious or literary texts, but its form and content were similarly controlled by a small group: journalists.

OK, so what about the letters?

Informal writing – written correspondence between individuals – was finally becoming commonplace. People now had reasons to write: to communicate with far-flung friends and family, to issue invitations to social events, to place orders with the dressmaker. 

By Victorian times, letter writing was central to the lives of the middle and upper classes – so much so that it was considered rude not to provide a guest with all the materials necessary to allow them to keep up their correspondence.

However, much like other aspects of socialising during the period, Victorian letter writing adhered to myriad rules of etiquette. Guides encouraged letter writers to employ simple and direct prose and to use a conversational tone when addressing friends. But the guides discouraged references to “inside allusions”. And a spelling mistake was reason to throw out the letter and start over again from scratch. 

Nonetheless, Victorian letters were an intimate, if elaborate, form of communication. In the realm of formal writing, including journalism, icy reserve still reigned supreme. Novelists had yet to hit upon the idea of revealing characters' feelings. Letters between family, friends, and young men and women were the exception. 

When writing to a lady, a gentleman was expected to unleash his wit. An 1876 guide suggests, “letters are written when the mind is as it were in dressing-gown and slippers — free, natural, active, perfectly at home, and with all the fountains of fancy, wit, and sentiment in full play”. 

Forms of address were downright flowery. A letter might begin with “My Honoured Friend” and finish with a “Very truly yours” (writers were instructed to adopt a signature signoff for use in all correspondence).

Internet writing is a different beast

Fast forward to today. Globally, we send 18.7 billion text messages every day, not to mention our social media posts and internet-based instant messages. 

The rules – such as they are – for internet writing are a grassroots, user-generated project, which is forever in flux and varies both contextually and among in-groups. Since internet writing has become the medium through which we conduct so much of our lives, we have cast aside the way we were taught to write in school and realised, once and for all, that writing is not just for so-called professionals.

Online, we attempt to convey the precise nuances of our emotional states, much as we always have when speaking informally. We have developed ever more creative ways to modulate our tone in writing, from the willful casualness denoted by a lack of automatic capitalisation to the artful disorder of a keysmash (e.g. lasdkfjsl;akf), designed to mirror emotional incoherence.

Internet writing hasn’t killed formal writing. We still expect a certain standard of prose from those we regard as authorities. Unlike internet writing, which is intentionally idiosyncratic, mass communication must be universally understood. It should employ a style and tone that works for everyone. 

But the influence of internet writing pervades even writing’s most stolid forms. Pomposity and aloofness are now seen as signs of weakness rather than magisterial. CEOs are required to emote, to have a hinterland. 

Just as our personal and professional lives blend online, perhaps we are reaching a point of convergence between interior and exterior forms of communication. We have come to appreciate sincerity of written expression, regardless of medium. 

Being true to ourselves in writing, something we once believed was only possible with the aid of a fountain pen and a dictionary, is now something we can do at 80 words a minute. Now where is that aubergine emoji?

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