Today Twitter announced it would increase its character from 140 to 280 characters for a select group of users, as part of a potential wider rollout.
Three languages, however will not be included in the test–Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. What explains the exemption? Simply put, East Asian scripts tend to be more “compact” than other scripts, whether western or from elsewhere in Asia.
Words in the English language are formed from letters in the Latin alphabet. Words in English consist of an average of 5.1 letters each. The Chinese script, meanwhile is based on monosyllabic characters, each carrying a more abstract meaning. Typically, a “word” in Chinese consists of between just one and two characters.
As a result, when faced with the same limitation on characters, it’s possible express far more in Chinese script than in English. A 280-character limit on the Gettysburg Address yields merely two sentences of Abraham Lincoln’s speech. But the same parameters yield a sizeable chunk of a tirade Jiang Zemin made against the Hong Kong media in 2000.
Korean and Japanese scripts are equally efficient, with words formed by relatively few characters. In Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, the first five verses of Genesis contain far fewer characters compared to other languages.
Upon Twitter’s announcement, Buzzfeed Japan’s founding editor published a piece assuring non-East Asian Twitter users that longer tweets need not spell the end of Twitter as most know it. Full 140-character Japanese tweets can amount to over 400 characters in English, and read as borderline rambles. Yet the country remains the second-most active market for the social network, behind only the US. “It’s fine here in the long-tweet future. You’ll love it, or it least you’ll only hate it as much as you hate Twitter already,” he wrote.
Correction: An earlier version originally attributed a quote to Deng Xiaoping, not Jiang Zemin.