How you talk
Despite my best efforts, conversation between the children and me has become increasingly difficult. They know what they are saying, of course, and I know what I expect to hear, but the two rarely meet over common ground. Faced with my bewildered look as the children describe their day at school, they are moved to pat me gently on the arm, and say comfortingly, "Don't worry about it, duff man."
But I do worry. Fortunately, a friend gave me Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green, and I thought it would do the trick. I thought they were using a new slang, and that I could catch up with it, courtesy of Mr. Green. For a while I kept it handy, in the office and at the dinner table. When the kids used words with which I was unfamiliar, or even made sounds which appeared to represent words but weren't really words, I dove into the Dictionary of Slang. Once, when I thought they were talking about someone they seemed to describe as 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 they were talking about.
But, this is a widespread problem, and academics have begun scientific investigations to learn the language that kids 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 curse, equivalent to, "I wish you a venereal disease." I use it all the time. You probably do too. It's practically Shakespearean. But that's not the kind of language kids are using. Or, for instance, hanky-panky, another slang term I'm familiar with. You are too, I'm sure. The kids have no idea what I mean when I say, "And, no hanky-panky."
Greg Livingston, explaining some of the conclusions of a Youth University study, explains the new lingo this way, "The widespread use of e-mail and instant messaging has spawned the proliferation of slang, short-hand writing and a general denigration of proper language use among the teen population."
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."
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. WonderGroup ® [the Youth University's sponsoring organization] takes pride in being the youth and family expert. This means putting a lot of effort into keeping on top of the latest ways kids, tweens, and teens communicate."
Rules of grammar disobeyed. Typos intentionally uncorrected. Numbers used to replace letters they resemble graphically, 1 for L, for instance. Non-numeric, 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, we can't understand how they think, we can't understand how they dress, 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 now, we have to learn a whole new language to speak with them. Isn't it too much to ask of any parent?