Leetspeak? Pwning?

A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, August 23, on leetspeak, or an evolving language or vernacular from the world of online gaming. And the reporter, Christopher Rhoads, did a nice job presenting the topic. his lede:

TEh INTeRn3T i5 THr3@+EN1N9 t0 Ch@n93 thE W4Y wE $p34k.

(Translation: The Internet is threatening to change the way we speak.)

My question, and I’d like JoMC 711 folks to chime in here (and hurry; WSJ migrates public content behind its archive walls fairly quickly), is whether in terms of linguistic development this in fact represents progress or regression? It’s an oft-repeated debate — emoticons had us writing profs all in a tizzy — but one worth revisiting, especially given how popular gaming has become. The videogame industry dwarfs the film industry in terms of sales.

Also take a look at the feature the WSJ added to its online presentation of Rhoads’ story. It juxtaposes leetspeak with everyday English using excerpts from one of the interviews he did. I like that use of online to add a layer of information to the story and another dimension to the reader’s experience.

Footnote: “Leet” apparently is slang for ‘good’ or ‘great.’ It also can mean or refer to a soft-finned fish.

Footnote2: Lake Superior State University this year included “pwn” on its annual list of banned words and phrases — those it considers misused, overly used and just plain useless. Others on the list included “awesome” and “Gitmo” (shorthand for Guantanamo Bay).

14 Responses to Leetspeak? Pwning?

  1. Karen says:

    Hmm. Well, that’s a good question. Probably, the fact that I began my reply with “Hmm” gives a hint to my answer.

    I’m a believer in the idea that it’s fine to break the rules as long as you understand the rules to begin with and you’re purposely breaking the rules, for a defined purpose. It sounds to me like the folks using leetspeak generally do know the rules (though this would be quite a challenge to quanitfy), and they’re breaking them on purpose, for a purpose (entertainment, establishing common ground with the audience/reader, and/or ease and speed of typing). So I think if I had to say whether this evolution is “progress” or “regression,” I’d say “progress.”

    I agree that Shakespeare would embrace leetspeak. Chaucer, too. Both of them enjoyed playing with language.

  2. Tom says:

    While the footnote here does not address how or why “leet” came to be, the full article in the JOMC 711 discussion board offered that it is a shortened version, or slang, for “elite.” However, when I try to imagine the founder of this new media dialect, a prodigal vestige of Fogle (McLovin to some), a nerdy Butthead-esque character from the crass film Superbad, immediately comes to mind.

    While I totally agree with Karen on her assessment that leetspeak’s users are breaking the rules on purpose, with the prime motive being that of belonging to a community, I do not believe that it equates to progress. Nor do I believe it represents regression. To me, it roars “escapism.” I believe that it merely represents a diversion from the mainstream; a code for those that find themselves more comfortable rooted in fantasy than in reality.

    I will offer that the new vocabulary of acronyms for ease/speed of typing (especially useful on handheld devices with tiny or multipurpose keys) represents a progression in mainstream communication but, just as grunge fashion yielded a whole generation of kids that put a lot of effort towards presenting themselves as if they didn’t care how they presented themselves, I believe leetspeak represents a similar trend in social communication. It goes beyond efficiency and flaunts its creativity more like Dennis Rodman than Shakespeare or Chaucer…

  3. chad says:

    1) First, I personally believe that language “types” such as leetspeak are essential to satisfying one of mankind’s essential needs: a sense of belonging to a community. This social need compels us to invent new methods for quickly identifying our “group”: a “UNC” baseball cap; a “Tar Heel” sweatshirt; or leetspeak and other “types” of language. Even the name “leet speak” suggests that those who speak this language identify themselves as members of an “elite” group.

    There are numerous examples of groups using language (types) to identify persons as members or outsiders. Imagine the contrast in reactions that one receives when greeting strangers in New York City with “how y’all doin”, as opposed to doing the same in Charlotte, North Carolina. I have experienced this prevalent use of language “types” in other countries as well: the most efficient manner for making friends quickly in southern Germany is to learn a few words of “Bavarian” (“Gruß Gott”) or a few words of Cockney” slang around London. In fact, I would almost go so far as to argue that a common language (or language “type”) can serve to cement world alliances as well, such as the well established collaboration between the United States and the United Kingdom.

    Maybe someone could help me with a better description than “type”?

    2) Furthermore, it seems to me that such language “types” are essential if they serve a need that common language does not fulfill. One example is the invention of “shorthand” to quickly and efficiently record conversations. Another example is the creation of computer languages to code software applications. A technological advance is often the catalyst for such an invention; the use of an abbreviated writing form to make text messaging feasible could not have been foreseen in the days of Shakespeare.

    3) With regards to the overall effect, I agree with Amy. The statement “The Internet is threatening to change the way we speak” in Mr. Rhoads article appears to be an “attention-getter”. Maybe this should be quanlified by stating that the “change” will probably not be a revolution, but rather a mere borrowing of a few words by the traditional English language. Take the word “Gitmo” as an example; this word is taken from a language “type” created by the United States Marine Corps. Firstly, the Marine Corps base in Guantanamo Bay Cuba was established in the early 1900’s, yet the term “Gitmo” has appeared in traditional English language only in recent years; secondly, other Marine Corps terms such as “Geedunk” (candy), “PT shower” (a quick shower) and “Oorah” (battle cry) remain relatively unknown; finally, the word used in traditional language is itself an evolution, as the correct spelling used by the Marine Corps is “GTMO” (pronounced Gitmo).

  4. chad says:

    In my previous post, I listed a few arguments in favor of leetspeak and other language “types”. I would like to qualify those claims:

    1) Leetspeak essential to quickly identifying a group:

    “Outsiders” should beware when “posing” as members of the group. A few examples that I have personally encountered are: “y’all” used as a singular form (big minus points in the south); use of “bodybag” by German children to describe the backpack in which they transport their schoolbooks… not a pretty sight; and the spelling “Gitmo” used in many newspapers, as opposed to the Marine Corps’ more widely accepted “GTMO”.

    2) Leetspeak essential if it serves a need that traditional language cannot fulfill:

    As Karen states, the conventions of the language must be agreed upon by the group. In fact, this is in my opinion, the foundation of language. As an example, all 711 students could immediately agree that the object represented by the word “table” will now be represented by the word “fish”… confusing, but possible.

    The language “type” should not be used for malicious purposes; examples given in the “Rhoads” article are pornography and computer hacking.

    The language “type” should be used at the appropriate time and place. Ms. Moser, my high school English teacher, taught us students that there is a proper time and place for using differnt “types” of language (maybe someone has a better word than “types”?). She was a stickler for proper English, but wise enough to hold her own antipathy for slang in abeyance in order to explain to us that one could use it in the proper environment. One example that she provided was the use of slang when conversing with family and friends.

    Finally and maybe most importantly, as Ryan discusses, language “types” should not interfere with the established English language conventions. If what Ryan describes concerning text messaging were to continue, the consequences could be catastrophic for the future of America’s children! The Bavarians in southern Germany provides a superb example of how language “types” should function; they speak “Bavarian” at home and “Hochdeutsch” (proper High German) at school and in professional environments.

  5. karen on blackboard mentioned not being too concerned about or interested in leetspeak because she’s not that interested in videogaming.

    this from my businessweek delivered in the mails today:

    “In the future, your boss may encourage you to play video games at work (probably not World of Warcraft). Companies from Johnson & Johnson to Royal Philips Electronics are starting to use online games to recruit and train employees and improve internal communications.”

    I haven’t yet read the special report, but will this weekend. It is online at http://businessweek.com/go/07/gaming.

  6. Tom says:

    Leetspeak really can’t classify as a separate language. It most resembles a dialect, a variety of the English tongue adapted to it’s area of most common usage, cyberspace.

    We shouldn’t be suprised that this dialect is spilling over into our ordinary daily conversational language given the influence the web has on our communication.

    It is difficult to appreciate what may be gained by applying a standard of good or bad. Is skateboard polo an advance in athletics. Is it a threat to UNC basketball? Why ask?

  7. Randy Burton says:

    I think leetspeak is a natural progression, not a regression.
    Many good points are made in the WSJ article and the sidebar from the Shakespeare library representative. Most importantly, I agree that technology creates the need for new words and possibly new meanings for old words. “Car” is now acceptable for what my grandparents called the automobile. I’d like to think that leetspeak is like the art of DeKonnig (sp) or Johns….that you have to master the language first in order to express yourself in leetspeak. Like abstract artists studied art formally for years before they could splash paint across the floor. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. Leetspeak is more like an evolution over which we have little control.
    The pre-teen girl in the Cingular commercial talks to her mom in a sort of leekspeak (actually it’s text speak) and that’s the way our language is evolving.

  8. Britta says:

    I think leetspeak and other slang vocabularies are neither evolution nor regression. They are mutations, to use an analogy from genetics that Stephen Gould spent much of his life trying to espouse. Mutations happen at random, creating both the bird with the longer feathers or the bird with the shorter feathers. Neither is an intentional move up or down the ladder; they’re accidents of the mitochondria. It’s time and testing that puts them in context as moves forward or moves back.
    There’s a fascinating section of the book American Bee about the simplified spelling movement of the 19th century. Concerned educators, writers and journalists looked at how we were spelling our words and tried to change the more challenging, least phonetic examples, in order to help youth learn the language more quickly. On the whole, it didn’t take. We still go with night, not nite, and though, not tho. These examples stay as shorthand in some contexts, however, in the same way that some terms from leetspeak will probably make it into an upcoming edition of the dictionary.

  9. mcpm says:

    Regression, in my opinion, despite the fact that we are developing content for mobile written like text messages.

  10. Dick Barron says:

    Speaking of spelling bees, I’m reminded of the kinds of words those kids are now using in competition — references to scientific or medical terms that are so obscure, so technical, that 99 percent of people have never heard them. That’s something I hate about those competitions, but that’s for another day.

    My point is that the words exist for a purpose somewhere in obscure corners. Someday they may disappear or actually go mainstream. Who would have thought 20 years ago we’d be using “ADHD” in common discussions?

    So to build on Britta’s point, the Leetspeak dialect is neither progress nor regression, but some kind of world on the side. And plenty of those words, no doubt, will find their way into mainstream English. But they’ll be forced through a filter. The ones that everybody can use will make it, and the ones that are just too bizarre will not.

    I’m sure there was a time when “cool” was barely known, but almost everybody uses that now. My mom called movies “The Picture Show” when she was small. That may have been slang, but it lasted for a generation.

    Technology driven language will either survive on its own or change with the technology. As we can recall from one of our readings, it has always been the case, as Aristotle worried our memorization skills would fade with the coming of that new thing called “writing.”

  11. bc says:

    I like the perspective that leetspeak, and language derivations like it, are mutations rather than qualitative evolutions or regressions. This rings true, because while I recognize a tribe’s need to protect itself through, among other things, language and appropriation, I don’t see the qualitative leap that Shakespeare’s own innovation in language produced — something like 600 entirely new words we today take for granted (1,700 if you count adaptations of existing words).

    Thanks to all for your reactions and musings.

  12. Ryan Tuck says:

    I wrote a lot more on the Blackboard discussion board, but I ABSOLUTELY agree that this is a mutation, if anything. While I would classify it as a regression more readily than an evolution, I think mutation is the apt term. If anything, it’s an indication of a societal evolution/regression related to communication modes.

    But the language change itself is nothing on the level of Shakespeare or any of the other linguistic landmarks in our history.

  13. rseth says:

    I love leetspeak! I c@n’t qu1te do it, but I love the idea. I equate it with jazz, and I would certainly consider jazz a progression. It’s riffing on a language like the old beatnik poets, dad-e-o. I think each generation comes up with its own unique language shaped by the world around it. The world around l33tsp34k is fast and digital, so the language plays off the form of the hastily-typed lexical item itself. There’s a website called icanhascheezburger.com that my kids love which uses a lot of computer shorthand and just plain nonsense spelling. (“o hai. can haz burger? k thx bai.”) It takes just a tiny brain stretch for me to get it sometimes, but I love getting it. I’m a w3rd$m1th at h3@rt.

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