How Much Can You Say in 140 Characters? A Lot, if You Speak Japanese

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For languages that use single symbols to represent entire words, a tweet offers much more space in which to get your point across

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Twitter users around the world share one thing in common: the 140-character limit. The figure may be constant regardless of where you tweet, it's not the same: How much you can say in 140 characters varies greatly language to language. For Germanic and Romance languages that require many prepositions and contain sounds requiring more than one letter (such as "sch"  or "cht" in German), the character limit has given way to all sorts of creative abbreviations. But for logographic (or mostly logographic) languages -- like Chinese and Japanese, in which one symbol can represent an entire word -- 140 characters is quite spacious. As Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei once said, "In the Chinese language, 140 characters is a novella." (Twitter itself is banned in China, but a similar service, Weibo, has the same character limit.)

How much more can you tweet in a logographic language than in English? One British IT consultant created a tool that hooked up Twitter to Google Translate and ran twitter feeds from different languages to compare their lengths once they were translated into English. Of course, any computer generated translation is at best a rough estimation of what a human would produce, but the results of his little test still give us a little clue about the information contained per tweet. He found that the Japanese tweets he surveyed averaged out to 260 English characters each. Thai tweets were also quite long, at 184. And these tweets weren't all 140 characters in their original language to begin with!

Twitter, as it happens, is quite popular in Japan, where because of the way their written language works it is more of a blogging than a microblogging service, as Thomas Crampton, a social-media consultant in Asia, writes on his blog. A greater percentage of Japanese people tweet than Americans (though slightly less than Dutch).

For those who speak languages that take up a lot of room, many creative abbreviating systems have sprung up. The English variants of this are well known -- u for you, 2 for too, and so on. Other languages demonstrate the same capability: Portuguese speakers tend to write "vc" for "voce" (you) and "qdo" for "quando" (when). French speakers use "qqn" for "quelqu'un" (someone). And so on. This sort of finagling may not bring these languages up to the character efficiency of Japanese, it can at least close the gap.

Image: Reuters.


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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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