What Did U $@y?
Finds Its Voice
With Gamers, Scholars;
One Campus Isn't 'LOL'
August 23, 2007; Page A1
TEh INTeRn3T i5 THr3@+EN1N9 t0 Ch@n93 thE W4Y wE $p34k.
(Translation: The Internet is threatening to change the way we speak.)
For years, heavy users of Internet games and chat groups have conversed in their own written language, often indecipherable to outsiders. Now, some of those online words are gaining currency in popular culture -- even in spoken form.
Online gamers use "pwn" to describe annihilating an opponent, or owning them. The word came from misspelling "own" by gamers typing quickly and striking the letter P instead of the neighboring letter O. Other words substitute symbols or numbers for similar-looking letters, such as the number 3 for the letter E. The language is sometimes called elite speak, or leetspeak, written as l33t 5p34k.
There is no standardized code. The letter A, for example, can have several replacements, including 4, /\, @ , /-\, ^, and aye.
As the Internet becomes more prevalent, leetspeak, including acronyms that used to appear only in text messages like "LOL" for laughing out loud, is finding a voice.
"I pone you, you're going down dude, lawl!" is how Johnathan Wendel says he likes to taunt opponents in person at online gaming tournaments. Pone is how he pronounces "pwn," and lawl is how "LOL" usually sounds when spoken. Mr. Wendel, 26 years old, has earned more than $500,000 in recent years by winning championships in Internet games like Quake 3 and Alien vs. Predator 2. His screen name is Fatal1ty.
During the televised World Series of Poker last year, one player, remarking on a deft move, told an opponent that he had been "poned." In an episode of the animated TV show "South Park," one of the characters shouted during an online game, "Looks like you're about to get poned, yeah!" Another character later marveled, "That was such an uber-ponage."
One problem with speaking in such code: there is little agreement on pronunciation.
Jarett Cale, the 29-year-old star of an Internet video series called "Pure Pwnage," enunciates the title "pure own-age." This is correct since "pwn" was originally a typo, he argues, and sounds "a lot cooler." But many of the show's fans, which he estimates at around three million, prefer to say pone-age, he acknowledges. Others pronounce it poon, puh-own, pun or pwone.
"I think we're probably losing the war," says Mr. Cale, whose character on the show, Jeremy, likes to wear a black T-shirt with the inscription, "I pwn n00bs." (That, for the uninitiated, means "I own newbies," or amateurs.)
Those who utter the term "teh" are also split. A common online misspelling of "the," "teh" has come to mean "very" when placed in front of an adjective -- such as "tehcool" for "very cool." Some pronounce it tuh, others tay.
The words' growing offline popularity has stoked the ire of linguists, parents and others who denounce them as part of a broader debasement of the English language.
"There used to be a time when people cared about how they spoke and wrote," laments Robert Hartwell Fiske, who has written or edited several books on proper English usage, including one on overused words titled "The Dimwit's Dictionary."
When a reader of his online journal, called the Vocabula Review, proposed "leet," as in leetspeak, for his list of best words, Mr. Fiske rejected it.
"Leet: slang for 'good' or 'great,' apparently, and 'idiotic,' certainly," he wrote on the Vocabula Web site. "Leet" is in dictionaries with other meanings, including a soft-finned fish.
Lake Superior State University, in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., 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).
Some suggest such verbal creations are nothing new and are integral to how language evolves.
Gail Kern Paster, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has reason to believe that a certain English poet and playwright would cheer the latest linguistic leap. Just as the rise of the printed word and the theater spurred many new expressions during Shakespeare's time, the computer revolution, she notes, has necessitated its own vocabulary -- like "logging in" and "Web site."
"The issue of correctness didn't bother him," says Ms. Paster. "He loved to play with language." As for leet, "He would say, 'Bring it on,' absolutely."
The word "OK," one of the most widely used words in many languages, first appeared in a Boston newspaper in 1839 as an abbreviation for "oll korrect," according to Allan Metcalf, a professor of English at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill. Other abbreviations, such as O.F.M. for our first men, referring -- sometimes sarcastically -- to a community's leading citizens, also became briefly popular in Boston newspapers at the time, says Mr. Metcalf.
The Internet is not the first technological advancement to change the way language is used. The telegraph required people to communicate "with lots of dots and dashes and abbreviations," says Mr. Metcalf. "Since it charged by the word, you compressed your message as much as possible -- grammar be damned."
Some of those words, like SOS, the popular call for help, have survived from their telegraph-era origins.
Leetspeak first became popular in the 1980s among hackers and those adept enough to gain access to an early form of online chat forums called bulletin boards. These "elite" users developed leetspeak, occasionally to conceal their hacking plans or elude text filters. (It still has that use for some: "pr0n" is leetspeak for pornography.)
But leetspeak's growing appeal, and use among the un-cool, could undermine it. "Now moms are saying, 'LOL,' so that takes away from it," says Mr. Cale of the Internet show "Pure Pwnage."
A couple of years ago, Katherine Blashki, a professor of new media studies, didn't understand some of the words used by her students at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Her subsequent, semester-long research on the subject found their use of leetspeak stemmed partly from wanting to find faster ways to express themselves online. As with other forms of jargon, it also enhanced a sense of belonging to a community, she says.
"It's ultimately about creating a secret language that can differentiate them from others, like parents," says Ms. Blashki. "That's part of being a teenager."
She presented her work at a conference in Spain and has since written nearly a dozen research papers on the topic. She admits she hasn't received much grant funding for her work. "My peers were aghast," she says.
Despite their facility with the new language, some leet fans insist that good grammar is still important.
Mr. Wendel, the online gamer, says he makes a point of using proper capitalization and punctuation in his online missives during competition. "It's always a last resort," says Mr. Wendel. "If you lose you can say, 'At least I can spell.'"
Write to Christopher Rhoads at email@example.com