In teh beginning, there was the word. It was misspelled, confusing or substituted for numerals, but it was, to a greater or lesser extent, gud.
For just as long as people have been writing words, other, perhaps lazier people, have been trying to change those words. Speech on the internet can be seen as a microcosm of the evolution of language as a whole, especially when broken down into three different subsets of communication – chatspeak, LOLspeak and 1337speak (pronounced ‘leet’ speak). To help give a sense of the languages as they would be read, I’ve provided translations for each section at the end of the piece to elucidate and troll as seems fitting.
Although now mostly relegated to hip grandparents and twelve-year-olds with limited room in their SMS messages, chatspeak was initially embraced by people from all areas of netspertise, and seemed like a fairly efficient way to use language. Just as ‘can not’ and ‘of the clock’ were shorted to make ‘can’t’ and ‘o’clock’, so it seemed that ‘u’ might be embraced next.
Acronyms also featured heavily in chatspeak, perhaps even getting slightly out of hand. Thankfully no one says ‘talk to you later mate’ often enough for ‘TTYL8erM8’ to become common parlance. Chatspeak gained popularity because it simplified texting and made it faster; or because we were actually changed 25c per SMS, something that seems like highway robbery now.
Chatspeak most likely started with the telegraph, which charged by the word, although the notion of trying to simplify language has existed long before that. As well as shortening and abbreviating words, numerals can also be used to replace a syllable of a similar tone. Therefore we end up with books like David Crystal’s Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, wherein Crystal argues that instead of hindering literacy, chatspeak may actually aid it.
LOLspeak, also known as Kitty Pidgin, can initially be understood as an idealised representation of feline dialogue (although personally I feel cats would more likely articulate themselves like Henri, le Chat Noir). However, as with all aspects of language, it has the potential to be quite complicated.
LOLspeak is typically understood through stock phrases and repeated motifs – ‘I can has cheezburger’, or, ‘I is in ur X, Y-ing all ur Z’ – but it has the capacity for a much wider representation of feelings and dialogue outside of memes.
In 2007, a LOLcat Bible project was started. Not simply a blasphemous in-joke, this was an extensive and ongoing collaboration developed from 2007 to 2008 using crowd-sourced translations via the project’s own Wiki. It gained some media attention, and for the most part even the religious response seemed in favour. Which is surprising when you consider the word of God from the Book of Job now reads thusly:
In teh land of Uz wuz a man calded Job. Teh man wuz goodz, afraid of teh Ceiling Cat and evilz. Teh man hadz seven sunz and tree doters, and lots of sheepz and camlez and rinoceruseses and servnts, srsly. His sunz tok turns mading cookies, and they all eated them. And Job wuz liek “Oh noes! Wut if cookies were sin? Gota prey, just in cased.”
If the seizure my spellcheck just had is any indication, it’s a surprise these people are still able to communicate with the real world after a day on the forums. But vernacular is a complicated thing, and it seems we have an ability to flick between languages like tabs on a web browser. Even so, it’s not entirely seamless, with some studies showing that rather than being more efficient, it actually takes much longer to read a message in an internet dialect. But for the feline polyglots among you, you can start learning right away
Although I’m not going to talk about computer scripting languages, which are a separate thing in their own right and more technical and weird than I have time to go into, it’s fun to see the interconnections between the two languages, shown here in the invention of LOLCODE:
The distinction with 1337speak (leet-speak) is that it differs from LOLspeak or general internet slang through the substitution of letters for homoglyphs – symbols that resemble the letters they stand for.
Rather than being concerned about a letter’s sound (as in the case of ‘2mrw’), 1337speak replaces characters based on appearance.
This harks back to the language’s original function, which was less about saving time when chatting as it was to encrypt the text. While being only marginally easier to decode than a CAPTCHA, 1337 was used as a “visual encryption code that could be read easily by human eyes but that would stump search engines” (see Blake Sherblom-Woodward’s 2002 study on ‘Hackers, Gamers and Lamers’).
1337 is most commonly used as an adjective in gaming culture to describe skill (‘I fragged that n00b, hella 1337’) or accomplishment. Like basically everything on the Internet, it can serve as sarcasm too. It’s very easy for the writer of 1337 to come across as trying too hard, especially when you imagine the effort required to type out the phrase ‘1’// 4 L337 |-|4><0r3r’ in comparison to, ‘I’m a leet hacker’. It’s worth noting that in the same vein (but not format) as LOLspeak, 1337 utilises some very loose and often confusing grammar.
Normally you noun verbs (for example, a dancer is a person who dances), but what 1337 does is use a pluralised noun in place of a verb – 1337 speakers label themselves as creators instead of people performing an action. So someone who performs hacks (plural noun) becomes a haxor; and, someone who performs dances would, in 1337, become a danxor (probably).
But while real English takes the verb (dance or hack) and makes it a noun (dancer or hacker), 1337 introduces an ‘x’, with the additional ‘or’ ending resembling conventional English’s ‘er’. Then to top it off, 1337speakers sometimes add the normal ‘er’ at the end just for extra fun.
Look, I’m sorry, but it’s not really that much worse than English when you think about it.
Harking nicely back to poetry of olde, 1337 also often drops the ‘e’ in past participle endings: so Shakespeare’s “To die is to be banish’d from myself” is kind of similar to the transition of the term ‘own’ (to dominate your rival, as in ‘I owned you’) to ‘pwned’ and ‘pwn’d’ (which has been simplified even further now to just ‘pwnd’).
Speaking of Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet has even been rewritten in 1337, although it seems to lack the subtlety of the original. More fittingly, 1337 has also appeared in a webcomic called Megatokyo.
The inaccessibility and grammatical difficulty of online languages is perhaps part of their appeal, but, like all languages, they also provide new ways of expression. Built directly into the makeup of 1337 is the understanding of computers and how to use digital characters in complex ways, just as built into LOLspeak is an inherent light-hearted playfulness.
While perhaps not necessarily worth taking a night course in to improve your fluency, knowing different modes of digital expression can give you a haxor’s knowledge of both online languages and the people who use them.
altgh now mostly releg8d 2 hip grndprnts n 12-yr-olds W ltd rm n their SMS msgs, ch@speak wz initialy embraced by ppl frm ll areas of netspertise n seemD lk a fairly eficent wa 2 uz lingo. jst as ‘can not’ n ‘of d clock’ wr shorted 2 mke ‘can’t’ n ‘o’clock’, so it seemD dat ‘u’ myt B embraced nxt.
Acronyms also featurd heavily n ch@speak, praps evn getN slightly outa h&. Thankfully n01 sEz ‘talk TU l8r mate’ ofn nuf 4 ‘TTYL8erM8’ 2 Bcum comN parlance. Ch@speak gained popularity coz it simplified txtN n md it fstr; or coz we wr actuly chngd 25c per SMS, somit dat sEmz lk hwy 10-20 now.
Ch@speak most lIklE strtd W d telegraph, wich chrgd by d wrd, altgh d notion of tryiN 2 simplfy lingo hs XistD lng b4 dat. As wel as shortnin n abreviatn wrds, # cn also B uzd 2 Rplce a syllable of a alike 2ne. thus we Nd ^ W bux lk David Crystal’s ‘Txtng: d Gr8 Db8’ wherein he rgues dat Nstead of hindering literacy, chatspeak may actuly aid it.
LOLSPEAK, ALSO NOWN AS KITTEH PIDGIN, CAN INITIALLY BE UNDERSTOOD AS AN IDEALISD REPRESENTASHUN OV KITTEH SPEAKINH (ALTHOUGH PERSONALLY I FEELZ KITTEHS WUD MOAR LIKELY ARTICULATE THEMSELVEZ LIEK HENRI, LE CHAT NOIR). HOWEVR, AS WIF ALL ASPECTS OV LANGUAGE, IT HAS TEH POTENTIAL 2 BE QUITE COMPLICATD.
LOLSPEAK IZ TYPICALLY UNDERSTOOD THRU STOCK FRASEZ AN REPEATD MOTIFFS – ‘CAN I HAVE A CHEESEBURGER?’, OR, ‘I AM IN YOUR X, Y-ING ALL YOUR Z’ – BUT IT HAS TEH CAPACITY FOR MUTCH WIDR REPRESENTASHUN OV FEELINGS AN TALKINGZ OUTSIDE OV MEMEZ.
IN 2007, LOLCAT BIBLE PROJECT WUZ STARTD. NOT SIMPLY BLASFEMOUS IN-JOKE, DIS WUZ AN EXTENSIV AN ONGOIN COLLABORASHUN DEVELOPD FRUM 2007 2 2008 USIN CROWD-SOURCD TRANZLASHUNS VIA TEH PROJECT’S OWN WIKI. IT GAIND SUM MEDIA ATTENSHUN, AN 4 DA MOST PART EVEN TEH RELIGIOUS RESPONSE SEEMD IN FAVOUR. WHICH IZ SURPRISIN WHEN U CONSIDR TEH WERD OV CEILIN CAT NAO READZ THUSLY:
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. His sons used to hold feasts in their homes. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.
IF TEH SEIZURE MAH SPELLCHECK JUS HAD IZ ANY INDICASHUN, IT’S SUPRIZE THEES PEEPS R STILL ABLE 2 SPEEK WIF TEH REAL WURLD AFTR DAI ON TEH FORUMS. BUT VERNACULAR IZ COMPLICATD TING, AN IT SEEMS WE HAS AN ABILITY 2 FLICK TWEEN LANGUAGEZ LIEK TABS ON WEB BROWSR. EVEN SO, IT’S NOT ENTIRELY SEAMLES, WIF SUM STUDIEZ SHOWIN DAT RATHR THAN BEAN MOAR EFFICIENT, IT AKSHULLY TAKEZ MUTCH LONGR 2 READ MESAGE IN AN INTERNET DIALECT. BUT 4 DA FELINE POLYGLOTS AMONG U, U CAN START LERNIN RITE AWAY.
ALTHOUGH I’M NOT GOIN 2 TALK BOUT COMPUTR SCRIPTIN LANGUAGEZ, WHICH R SEPARATE TING IN THEIR OWN RITE AN MOAR TECHNICAL AN WEIRD THAN I HAZ TIEM 2 GO INTO, IT’S FUN 2 C TEH INTERCONNECSHUNS TWEEN TEH 2 LANGUAGEZ, SHOWN HER IN DA INVENSHUN OV LOLCODE.
t3h d1st1nct10n w1th 1337sp34k (L33t-sp34k) b d4t 1t d1ff3rz fr0m L0Lsp34k 0r g3n3r4L 1nt3rn3t sL4ng thr0ugh t3h subst1tut10n 0f l3tt3rz 4 h0m0gLyphz – symb0Lz d4t r3s3mbL3 t3h l3tt3rz th3y st4nd 4.
R4th3r th4n b31n’ c0nc3rn3d 4b0ut @ l3tt3r’z s0und (4z 1n t3h c4s3 0f ‘2mrw’), 1337sp34k r3pL4c3z ch4r4ct3rz b4s3d 0n 4pp34r4nc3.
d1z h4rkz b4ck 2 t3h l4ngu4g3’z 0r1g1n4L funct10n, wh1ch wuz l3sz 4b0ut s4v1n’ t1m3 wh3n ch4tt1n’ 4z 1t wuz 2 3ncrypt t3h t3xt. Wh1L3 b31n’ 0nLy m4rg1n4LLy 34s13r 2 d3c0d3 th4n @ C4PTCH4, 1337 wuz us3d 4z @ “v1su4L 3ncrypt10n c0d3 d4t c0uLd b r34d 34s1Ly by hum4n 3y3z but d4t w0uLd stump s34rch 3ng1n3z” (s33 BL4k3 Sh3rbL0m-W00dw4rd’z 2002 study 0n ‘h4x0rz, G4m3rz n L4m3rz’).
TIME FOR LANGUAGE PWNAGE!1!11!!
1337 12 |/|057 (0|/||/|0n|_`/ |_|5eD 42 4n 4D_|E(71/e 1n 94|/|1n’ (|_||_7|_|.-E 70 de5(.-18E 5|<1|_|_ (‘1 |>|-|.-499ed 7|-|@ N008, |-|e|_|_4 1337’) 0.- 4((0|/||>|_15|-||/|eN7. |_1|<e 8451(4|_|_`/ e/E.-`/7|-|1N’ 0n 7e|-| 819 |_4n, 17 |<4N 5e.-/E 42 54.-(45|/| 700. 17’2 /E.-`/ E45`/ |>|-|0.- 7E|-| |/.-17E.- 0F 1337 70 (0|/|e 4(.-055 42 7.-`/1N’ 700 |-|4.-D, E5|>E(14|_|_`/ |/|-|en `/0|_| 1|/|491NE 7e|-| eFF0.-7 .-E|<|/1.-eD 70 7`/|>e 0|_|7 7e|-| |>|-|.-45e
‘I’m a leet hacker’ 1n (0|/||>4.-150N 70, 54`/, ‘1’|/| 4 |_eE7 |-|4><0.-’. 17’2 |/0.-7|-| n071N’ 7|-|@ 1N 7E|-| 54|/|E /E1n (8|_|7 N07 |>|-|0.-|/|@) 42 |_0|_5|>E4|<, 1337 |_|71|_15e2 50|/|e /e.-`/ |_005e 4ND 0F7en (0nf|_|51N’ 9.-4|/||/|4.-. N0.-|/|4|_|_`/ `/0|_| n0|_|N /e.-82 (f0.- e><4|/||>|_E, 4 D4n(E.- 12 4 |>E.-50n |/|-|0 d4N(e2), 8|_|7 |/|-|@ 1337 d0E2 12 |_|5E 4 |>|_|_|.-4|_15ed n0|_|N 1n |>|_4(E 0F 4 /E.-8 – 13375|>e4|<E.-2 |_48E|_ 7|-|E|/|5e|_/e2 42 (.-E470.-2 1N57E4D 0f |>e0|>|_e |>e.-F0.-|/|1N’ 4N 4(710n. 50,
50|/|E0ne |/|-|0 |>E.-f0.-|/|2 |-|4><0.-2 (|>|_|_|.-4|_ N0|_|n) 8E(0|/|E2 4 |-|4><0.-; 4nD,
50|/|e0ne |/|-|0 |>E.-f0.-|/|2 d4N(e2 |/0|_||_d, 1N 1337, 8e(0|/|E 4 D4N><0.- (|>.-0848|_`/).
SUPER HAXXOR MODE DISENGAGE
But wh1L3 r34L 3ngL1sh t4k3z t3h v3rb (d4nc3 0r h4x0r) n m4k3z 1t @ n0un (d4nc3r 0r h4x0r), 1337 1ntr0duc3z n ‘x’, w1th t3h 4dd1t10n4L ‘0r’ 3nd1n’ r3s3mbL1n’ c0nv3nt10n4L 3ngL1sh’z ‘3r’. Th3n 2 t0p 1t 0ff, 1337sp34k3rz s0m3t1m3z 4dd t3h n0rm4L ‘3r’ 4t t3h 3nd just 4 3xtr4 fun. L00k, 1’m bumm3d 0ut, but 1t’z n0t r34LLy d4t much w0rs3 th4n 3ngL1sh wh3n j00 th1nk 4b0ut 1t.
H4rk1n’ n1c3Ly b4ck 2 p03try 0f 0Ld3, 1337 4Ls0 0ft3n dr0pz t3h ‘3’ 1n p4st p4rt1c1pL3 3nd1ngz: s0 Sh4k3sp34r3’z “2 d13 b 2 b b4n1sh’d fr0m mys3Lf” b k1nd 0f s1m1L4r 2 t3h tr4ns1t10n 0f t3h t3rm ‘pwn’ (2 d0m1n4t3 y0 r1v4L, 4z 1n ‘1 pwnt j00’) 2 ‘pwn3d’ n ‘pwn’d’ (wh1ch h4z b33n s1mpL1f13d 3v3n furth3r n0w 2 just ‘pwnd’). Sp34k1n’ 0f Sh4k3sp34r3, R0m30 n JuL13t h4z 3v3n b33n r3wr1tt3n 1n 1337, 4Lth0ugh 1t s33mz 2 l4ck t3h subtL3ty 0f t3h 0r1g1n4L. M0r3 f1tt1ngLy, 1337 h4z 4Ls0 4pp34r3d 1n @ w3bc0m1c c4LL3d M3g4t0ky0.
Rafael S. W. is a graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.