What did he say? I didn’t get that.


It’s been fun having the kids home for the holidays. But it’s puzzling too, at times. Over the years, despite my best efforts, conversation between the children and me became increasingly difficult. It was really my fault. They knew what they were saying, of course, and I knew what I expected to hear, but the two rarely met over common ground. Faced with my bewildered look, they were moved to pat me gently on the arm, and say comfortingly, “Don’t worry about it, old man.”

This year, I can report a change. The other day, the youngest son carried his computer over to show me an entry posted to his (or somebody’s) Facebook page. He had a tough time figuring out the intentions of the poster. There were no vowels used at all. The message needed a CIA operative to decipher. He wanted the two of us to get together over the translation. We were not entirely successful.

Although I was thrilled to be asked, I still worry that large swaths of the human population will have growing difficulty communicating with other large swaths, as the world succumbs to the digital embrace.

Fortunately, a friend gave me Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathon Green. It may be the 21st Century replacement for the Oxford English Dictionary. It is a window on the world of modern conversation, I thought. If the kids were using a new slang, I could catch up with it, courtesy of Mr. Green.

I keep it handy, in the office and at the dinner table. When the kids use words with which I am unfamiliar, or even make sounds which appear to represent words but aren’t really words, I dive 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. Actually, it’s one of my favorites, as words go. But it wasn’t blowsy, it was loser, with the second syllable drawn out into a screech-like tone. 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 a 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. It just doesn’t always change the way you wish it would. 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 their music, 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?