For teens, instant messaging is a real-time way to chat with several friends via the computer (or mobile phone, in some cases) in a shorthand, abbreviated language that puzzles...

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For teens, instant messaging is a real-time way to chat with several friends via the computer (or mobile phone, in some cases) in a shorthand, abbreviated language that puzzles most adults.

But as instant messaging becomes more mainstream — it’s predicted to surpass e-mail as an online communications tool by 2005 — the ramifications may go beyond teen culture. Already, text lingo is showing up in some student English papers and in dictionaries. Some linguists are hailing it as a new hybrid language.

In 2002, some 139 million instant-message accounts operated in North America, according to the information technology research firm IDC. (People can sign up for more than one account, either to have multiple screen names or to use different networks.)

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Gartner Inc., a Connecticut-based technology research and advisory firm, predicts that by 2010, 70 percent of residents in developed nations will spend 10 times longer per day interacting with people in the e-world than in the physical one.

Text messaging is already wildly popular in Europe and Japan. In the United States, the growing accessibility of mobile phones and the introduction of IM business applications is expected to convert more adults to instant messaging.

Language is evolving

As teens use it, instant messaging is full of acronyms (BRB equals “be right back”), words missing vowels and a complete lack of capitalization. It’s like trying to read a sentence made of vanity license plates.

RALPH RADFORD / AP
Software architect Melora Zaner demonstrates Microsoft’s Threedegrees software in Seattle last month. The software is geared for teenagers and has instant messaging, chat rooms, shared music and photos.


For example: “i wz gtin2d@ & now gota type it agen — b patient!” equals, according to the Web site transL8it! (www.transl8it.com), “I was getting to that and now gotta type it again — be patient!”

Instant messaging and chat lingo is shortened for speed since conversations are conducted in real time. If a friend is waiting for a response, you want to type it out as quickly as possible. For text messages on mobile devices, the number of characters that can fit in a transmission is limited, so the language is condensed.

“If your thumbs have got to carry the weight, you tend to do some abbreviations,” explained Rob Mahowald, research manager for the Massachusetts-based IDC. “You quickly learn what shortcuts people are going to understand.”

So the written language is stripped of everything unnecessary (punctuation, capitals, traditional spelling) until it’s a bare, phonetic representation of how people talk.

‘A genuine linguistic revolution’

Some linguists argue that the Web language is a new entity, a hybrid of speech and writing. In an article on yourDictionary.com, one linguist called Net lingo “a genuine linguistic revolution.” Others, however, note that it hasn’t impacted language much outside the Internet — yet. Teens say it’s uncool to use IM acronyms in regular conversation.

“They are altering language to suit the technology,” said David Silver, a University of Washington professor of communication who studies new media. Teens have also incorporated IM the same as teens have always used slang, as a way to separate themselves as a group, he said.

Nearly three-quarters of online teens use instant messaging, compared with less than half of adults, according to a 2000 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

“The strategic use of ‘POS’ — ‘parent over shoulder’ — is just brilliant,” Silver said. “Say a teen is supposed to be doing homework but of course is on IM. A parent comes up and he quickly types ‘POS’ and sends it out. Suddenly everyone is talking about math homework.”

‘Generation Text’

In 2001, the Concise Oxford Dictionary became the first mainstream dictionary to include text message acronyms and emoticons (such as the smiley face). “We have been monitoring the phenomenal growth of text messaging with great attention,” said publishing manager Judy Pearsall. “Its influence is now such that we felt it was time to treat it as an integral part of English.”

Message text and acronyms popped up in 2002’s “NetLingo: The Internet Dictionary.” Now, a Canadian Web company plans to publish “transL8it DXNRE & gloSRE,” a dictionary that will define the phonetics associated with the text language as well as list thousands of definitions submitted by Internet and mobile device users.

“It’s a whole other culture and we’re trying to demystify it,” said Dan Wilton, the 28-year-old “prez” of transL8it!, which was launched last year. Following Generation X, Wilton dubs the 15- to 25-year-old crowd “Generation Text.”

While high-school English teachers don’t report a problem with students dropping IM abbreviations into papers, the problem did crop up for some middle-school teachers. (It’s unclear whether teens are learning that IM abbreviations aren’t appropriate for formal high-school papers or whether the younger generation that often uses the abbreviations just hasn’t reached high school yet.)

Marcella Middleton, an eighth-grade English teacher at Seattle’s Whitman Middle School, starts the school year with a warning against IM shorthand, but it still shows up. The most common IMisms she sees are “i” for I, “cuz” for because, sentences without an initial capital letter, proper nouns that are not capitalized and spelling variations such as “wazz” or “wuzz” for was.

“The lowercase ‘I’ pronoun and incorrect capitalization will even show up in formal work, not just in classwork which was quickly written,” Middleton said. “There is a distinct disconnect to the gross incorrectness of lowercase ‘i,’ because the kids see ‘i’ used not only in IM, but a slew of new advertisements.”

When students complain about her “old-fashioned notions,” Middleton reminds them, “first you must know the rules before you can break them and have it be perceived as style.”

Donna Metke, head of the English department at Juanita High School, said the only abbreviation she’s seen in schoolwork is a student who shortened “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” to “Roz and Gil” in an essay. “Students know there are different levels of diction appropriate for different audiences,” she said.

Weighing pros and cons

Jessie Culbert, 17, says she’d never use IM shorthand in a conversation or in a school paper. “It’s restricted to just friends online,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it interferes with my ability to write or communicate with adults. It’s a teen-to-teen thing.”

If anything, Metke said, students seem to be better writers. “Any type of writing that gets thoughts on paper, I don’t see as a negative. They’re more comfortable with the written word and it doesn’t frighten them.”

Indeed, “kids are writing more than kids have ever written before,” Silver said. “It’s not traditional sentences and they’re not adhering to conventional grammar, but they are communicating through words.”

But it’s syntax that creates standards for common understanding, notes Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University in Washington, D.C. Like casual dress at work, our society is more accepting of informal written language — but at what cost?

“If writing doesn’t give you a way to express yourself with clarity, power and nuance, then writing is failing you,” said Baron, the author of “Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It’s Heading.”

“If we lose our ability to be clear, then I grieve for these changes to the English language,” she said.

IM and texting may also signal the death of editing, Baron said. Instant messages are more like telegrams sent “on the cheap,” giving the appearance that the sender doesn’t really care enough to bother with niceties such as introductions or composition, she said. Communication is viewed in pieces, rather than as a whole.

“There is a growing group that declines the necessity of reading what they write,” she said.

Future of instant messaging

Silver, for one, is intrigued by the possibilities of Net lingo.

“The beauty of language is that it’s infinitely morphable,” he said. The use of online emoticons is amazing, he said, as a way of transmitting spoken language’s social nuances. “Just the use of a smiley face to convey a joke or irony has single-handedly prevented millions of online arguments.”

Though some scoff, Silver wonders if IM will eventually create its own Shakespeare or James Joyce.

“The wonderful thing about the canon of English literature is that many of the authors now regarded as masters somehow tweaked the language,” Silver said. “This is a new type of tweakage. We’re kind of challenging what narrative is today. Our understanding now is that it comes in the form of a book or a newspaper. Now what’s happening is that narrative is being built in real time, and it’s interactive.”

For now, though, most teens don’t have literary pretensions. They admit most conversation — except maybe late at night when everyone is tired — doesn’t delve too deep.

With acquaintances, it’s “What’s up?” and with friends, it’s “Hey, do you want to go shopping on Saturday?” said Hailee Greenberg, 14.

She sends instant messages every day and also checks them on her cellphone. She chats with friends from summer camp who live in Spokane and Portland and even taught her 70-year-old grandmother in Olympia how to IM. Often she talks with kids from school that she doesn’t see in class, friends of friends she wouldn’t call on the phone.

Teens can have dozens of friends on their buddy lists, an online address book of screen names that let users see who is available to chat. The names can be separated into different groups, such as friends from a sports team or camp. Teens can set up chat rooms and invite just their friends.

“It’s your whole social circle organized in a compact list,” said Culbert, a Lake Washington High School student.

She has messaged friends since the eighth grade, but is trying to cut back to an hour a day. “It’s wasting too much time,” Culbert said. “Some people stay on forever.”

Stephanie Dunnewind: sdunnewind@seattletimes.com