Sunday Herald: L3t's t@lk internet

It’s a young and enthusiastic language featuring shrunken words, mashed-up letters and symbols, and a growing world of emojis. Monideepa Sahu debates the appeal of netspeak

Languages are living, growing entities.
Highlights: 
Netspeak includes all these subspecies of internet slang. There’s a Russian internet language called Padonkaffsky jargon.

The times, they are a-changin’, and language is changing along with the times. As the use of the internet spreads across geographical, social, cultural and economic boundaries, we find ourselves relying more on electronic modes of communication. A brave new internet lingo is evolving as the result of a genuine need in much the same way as slang. When someone tells me that bumping a thread is a totes awesome way to deal with trolls, I don’t see the destruction of language, but the opening up of new possibilities. That, BTW, just in case you didn’t completely ‘get’ it, means pushing up an online discussion topic with comments supporting your viewpoint. This is a great way to tackle people who deliberately post irritating and inflammatory comments.

Some people tend to look down upon such ‘pedestrian’ innovations, which challenge the conventional boundaries of ‘pure’ language. Why on earth is the Queen’s English being mauled beyond recognition, they ask. But we must remember that the language we consider conventional, and hence pure today, is itself the result of imaginative usage gaining popularity and ultimate acceptance through the ages.

Languages are living, growing entities. Think of all the Indian languages that evolved from the original ‘pure’ Sanskrit. Compare modern Kannada usage with hale Kannada, or even the more historically recent works of Bankim Chandra or Vidyasagar with the current trends in Bangla writing. Compare the English of Beowulf with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and compare Chaucer with Shakespeare. Then compare them with Thomas Hardy, and on to James Joyce. Follow the evolutionary trail on to Hinglish, Tanglish and whatever other hybrids of English we Indians have created to add uppu-khara and mirch-masala with a dash of tamarind to our daily conversations. Since languages are dynamic, growing and developing with time and usage, we can expect further change.

Hook us all

Love it or hate it, the internet is now a part of our daily lives. Busy as we are, we don’t have the time to visit the family in the next apartment, or chat with the guy in the adjoining cubicle at work. But we’re always glued to our smartphones, notebooks, or whatever other gizmos through which the internet pervades every sphere of our lives. We text people instead of visiting and talking, by using various networking sites. We don’t ask our relatives and neighbours for information or advice anymore. Need medical help, or have gourmet food delivered at home, or at your seat while travelling on a train? Why waste time talking to whoever you can catch hold of, and tying yourself up into knots with contradictory advice in the process? Simply google and get oodles of options with actual user reviews.

These changes in the way we communicate are no longer gradually evolving as in the days of yore. Along with cutting-edge technologies, new words and usages are being coined by netizens by the nanosecond. And they are going viral worldwide within weeks. It’s a mind-blowing parallel universe out there. We need to be eternally vigilant since the illiterati spam cyberspace with misinformation. Thanks to them, I’m becoming an infomaniac, constantly checking facts. Have you spotted some freshly coined words in this paragraph? You probably also correctly guessed their meaning from the clues in the context. This is how our vocabulary and usage is changing in the age of the internet.

Internet slang, netspeak or chatspeak are new words and usages coined and popularised by netizens specifically for the internet. And netizens, as you’ve rightly guessed, are citizens or denizens of cyberspace. Internet slang, just like good old ordinary slang, is supposedly created to make online communication faster and clearer. However, while internet slang simplifies things for the writer, readers take twice as much time to decipher the terms, according to a study by the University of Tasmania. So the people who type ‘u’ and ‘FYI’ use the time they save to cook up more such esoteric stuff. And the people who have to read the net slang use all their time to figure out what each new term actually means. Makes sense, or are you as confused as I am?

In a vital way, netspeak is much like its ancestor, the traditional slang used in face-to-face communication or in written language. It gives users the sense of belonging to groups. You know, the net-hackers’ brotherhood or troll girls’ club sort of thing. Also, as internet slang terms pick up in usage, they gradually gain entry into conventional face-to-face communication and writing. At a literature festival I recently attended, there was a session on news websites and trolls, which left an author of conventional printed books wondering what literature encompasses, and where books and reading are headed.

Netspeak is clearly distinct from traditional slang, however. While languages have always been evolving and growing, these changes have been gradual. The internet speeds up changing usage in online communication. New usages can catch on and spread very fast on the internet, thanks to the speed, worldwide reach and accessibility of this medium. There are plenty of cryptic abbreviations and acronyms, like GOAT (greatest of all time) or AMA (ask me anything). Some of them will make you ROFL (roll on the floor laughing). But beware when you use unfamiliar terms which sound cool. Netspeak has lots of profanities, awful words for which your mother would make you wash your mouth with soap if she knew.

Characters of a kind

Aside from the accelerated changes which netspeak is bringing, it differs from traditional slang in another vital way. Netspeak is different from the spoken language which we use for face-to-face communication. It’s also different from the language we use for regular written communication, including emails. Since netspeak is growing out of electronic communication, many of the practices and expectations which apply to conventional communication simply become irrelevant. When we communicate online, we do not speak but type messages which rapidly reach people all over the world. Since conversations need to be typed out, the characters available on the keyboard play a role in creating innovative usages. What the receiver sees on the screen is the other big influence on the evolution of netspeak. Often, the communication typed out electronically reads as if it’s being spoken, as if people are typing out talking. Such terms also help make up for the constraints of tight character limits, as in the case of Twitter.

The internet as a medium has immense possibilities, and plenty of information is instantly available. This helps new coinages go viral over vast populations of netizens at supersonic speed. While netspeak began as an alternative to conventional language, the most popular and enduring recent coinages are finding their way into mainstream communication. So, what we are seeing might even be the rapid creation of new languages with new rules and conventions.

Netspeak is spiced with many onomatopoeic spellings, words which are spelled the way they sound. We all use ‘hahaha’ for laughter. And ‘bwhahaha’ is used to mean wicked, villain style laughter. Such onomatopoeic spellings vary depending on the language specific netizens use. My Spanish friend uses ‘jajajaja’ because ‘j’ is pronounced like ‘h’ in Spanish. In Thailand, people type ‘5555’ because 5 is called ‘ha’ in Thai. And Koreans type ‘kekeke’ for laughter. Netspeak also includes plenty of acronyms or abbreviations such as OMG (oh my god) and LMK (let me know).

While English is a popular language on the internet, there are large populations of netizens who speak and type messages in other languages. Netspeak includes all these subspecies of internet slang. There’s a Russian internet language called Padonkaffsky jargon. Olbanian language is a Russian cant language, which has even entered the mainstream language. There has even been talk of including Olbanian as a subject in schools. Languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, which use their own distinctive scripts, have evolved their own systems of complex netspeak. In South Korea, someone has even written a textbook on the meanings and usage of common internet slang. The book is meant to prepare small children to use the internet.

That’s just the beginning of what could be the birth of new language systems. The venerable Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster dictionary are adding a growing number of internet slang jargon words. The more popular a new coinage becomes, and the more frequently it’s used, the greater its chances of entering standard language. Will we live to see a hybrid language of netspeak and traditional languages?

What’s the secret behind the growing popularity of netspeak? Internet slang with its own conventions is a driving force in creating and sustaining online communities. Netizens feel a sense of camaraderie and bonding when they use the special lingo. I remember how :o) was used for a ‘smiley’ by my group of friends on Yahoo and Rediff chat at the beginning of this century. If you view this grouping of characters sideways, it resembles a clown’s face with a round nose. So, this was ‘our’ very own smiley as distinguished from the more common :) smiley, when we were clowning around together. Such innovations, which were our own group’s special codes, added to our sense of camaraderie. It gave us a sense of like-mindedness and belonging. Coffee breaks took on a new avatar when we logged on from different parts of the globe, and were thrilled to find a friend online. We typed furiously while seated alone at our workstations, too engrossed by what was flashing on the monitor to bother about the coffee cooling on our desks. Colleagues, and even the dragon boss passing by, would be amazed by our dedication to serious work. Fooling around during coffee break? Not us! Meanwhile, we silently exchanged jokes and gossip, and shared confidences and wise advice. These exchanges were immensely fulfilling, and even therapeutic, in a way face-to-face conversations could never match up. We could freely complain about the boss or cantankerous colleagues to sympathetic friends who were physically in a world apart. There was no fear of our complaints and confessions going back to our antagonists, and we felt light as air. Today, such use of acronyms, keyboard symbols and abbreviations make up the bulk of internet slang or netspeak. New dialects are evolving among netizens, such as leet or LoLspeak. More than saving time or easing communication, these slang dialects enhance group solidarity and bonding among members.

Those primitive chat rooms are now a footnote in ancient history. Today there are many expansive social networking sites with billions of members logging in from various parts of the planet. These communities help build solidarity among members and help them bond under the umbrella of shared interests and causes. Some of these networking sites have their own cryptic terminologies, or slang, depending on the way you interpret them. Twitter and Reddit are two such gigantic sites which boast of a number of their own coinages and slang. The hashtag is an example of such a term, which Twitter users first started using, and which has since spread just about everywhere. When Twitter began gaining in popularity, users found it difficult to search for posts pertaining to certain topics. So they invented their own way of tagging their posts to make them easier to group subject-wise. A # (hash) was used followed by keywords without spaces, to tag the topic of the post. This method of using hashtags rapidly caught on and spread to other sites and blogs. So much so that hashtag is now a proper ‘word’ used in conventional speech and writing.

I’m learning a lot as I write this. Next time someone mentions a catfish, I’ll know that this is no fish. But there’s definitely something fishy afoot, because catfish, in netspeak, are people who pretend to be someone they aren’t. They create false identities and mislead others online, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.

Here’s one coinage that doesn’t make instant sense because OTL is netspeak for anxiety, misery or a setback. What in cyberspace do the letters O, T and L stand for? I had to google this one to figure out that this isn’t an abbreviation. The letters are arranged to create a visual image of a man kneeling on the floor in desperation. The O is his head, the T is his back and his arms, and the L shows his kneeling legs. Now that I know, I’ll do my best to keep track of netspeak, so I’m never OTL when I encounter new terms online.
 

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Sunday Herald: L3t's t@lk internet

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