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

More

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

twitter2-top.jpg
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.


Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In