At Large: Huh?

People are communicating more these days. They are writing more, but it’s not like the old days, when folks dipped the nib into the ink and wrote brief thank-you notes and long descriptions of their travels. Now, it’s digital, there’s a character limit, folks say it in selfies, and the messages never go away, never get burned up in a fire, never end up in a box in the attic. Whether all this fresh, new communication is improving communication, I’m not sure. People say a lot, they know what they are saying, and unencumbered by the physical toll and the noisy scratch, scratch that putting pen to paper takes — plus the licking, stamping, and going to the post office — they let fly — or rather, post — in the most uncivil terms.

And some of those terms do not shoulder the responsibility for clarity that they should. The writer may know what he intended, and I may have expectations as to what I’ll read, but the two often share no common ground. I mention my bewilderment to my digitally with-it kids, and they are moved to pat me gently on the arm, and say comfortingly, “Don’t worry about it, old man.”

But I do worry. Fortunately, a friend gave me Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green — it’s a solid three inches thick — and I thought it would get me up to speed. I’ve referred to it often as the online revolution has picked up pace over the years. For a while I kept it handy in the office and when I came across words with which I was unfamiliar, or even sounds which appeared to represent words but weren’t really words, I dove into the Dictionary of Slang. Once, when I read a communication about someone who seemed to fit the term blowsy, I thought, wait a minute, I know what blowsy means. But it wasn’t blowsy, it was loser, and I’m afraid to think who the writer was talking about.

This is a widespread problem, and academics have begun scientific investigations to learn the language that people use nowadays. It is a language, not just a colloquial expression. For instance, you know the expression, “A pox on you.” It’s an expression of annoyance, or maybe a curse, equivalent to, “I wish you a venereal disease.” I use it all the time. Perhaps you do too. It’s practically Shakespearean. But that’s not the kind of language folks are using in the online world. Or, for instance, hanky-panky, another slang term I’m familiar with and irrationally fond of. Perhaps you are too. We’re soulmates. But, I shrink from imagining the response I’d get if I tweeted, “And, no hanky-panky.” If I tweeted.

Greg Livingston, explaining some of the conclusions of a Youth University study, explains the new lingo this way, “The widespread use of email and instant messaging has spawned the proliferation of slang, shorthand writing and a general denigration of proper language use among the teen population.” The general population, if you ask me.

I would not have used the loaded term “denigration” because of course, language is a living, changing thing. Dictionaries don’t prescribe language, at least not in the inflexible sense of that term. Rather, they describe it, and then re-describe it as new usages and new words emerge from conversation and writing.

But Mr. Livingston is sympathetic to the human dimensions of the problem caused by the new language. “English teachers across the country have been crying themselves to sleep ever since,” he says. “Now, just when Internet lingo like brb (be right back) and lol (laugh out loud) is becoming common knowledge and generally accepted in society, a new version of information-age slang is on the rise with teens.” I thought language was my BFF. WTF.

That’s right, it’s worse than you thought. “Leetspeek, or leet for short, (leet is a vernacular form of “elite”) is a type of Internet slang where users replace regular letters with other characters to form words phonetically. Leet words can be expressed in hundreds of different ways, using a multitude of combinations and substitutions. This new language can seem very difficult to decipher to the inexperienced, but once one learns the basic principles, leetspeek isn’t that difficult to pick up,” Mr. Livingston says, soothingly, he hopes.

But, to us traditionalists, it sounds like chaos. Think Chaucerian, Middle English, when every word had dozens of different spellings. You couldn’t spell a word wrong if you tried.

“Leetspeek,” Mr. Livingston continues, “is like all other forms of Internet slang — users rarely obey rules of grammar and mistakes often go uncorrected. However, according to Microsoft®, there are several distinct characteristics that set leetspeek apart. For instance, numbers are often used as letters, non-numeric characters can replace letters they resemble and letters can be substituted for other letters that sound alike. With leetspeek, non-alphanumeric characters can also be used to form letters, and teens often use the suffix ’0rz’ with words for emphasis or to make them plural.”

Rules of grammar disobeyed. Typos intentionally uncorrected. Numbers used to replace letters they resemble graphically, 1 for L, for instance. Non-numeric characters, like the dollar sign, for instance, used to stand for a letter it looks like, say, S. Mr. Livingston has documented these and many other departures from normal, and even colloquial, conventions of written and spoken communication. Already, it’s tough to understand how online dwellers think, or rather why they think what they think, and there are zillions of them. We can’t understand why they do the things we don’t want them to do and won’t do the things they are supposed to do, and why they do what they do all the time. And now, we have to learn a whole new language. It’s a lot to ask.