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The Snappy Lingo of Instant Messages

People who use text and instant messaging are developing a new sort of language.

The following is part of an actual conversation between two college students, Gale and Sally.

Gale: hey I gotta run

Sally: Okay.

Sally: I'll ttyl?

Gale: gotta do errands.

Gale: yep!!

Sally: Okay.

Sally: :-)

Gale: talk to you soon

Sally: Alrighty.

It would sound silly to say these words out loud, and you wouldn't write like this in a school report. Still, the conversation made perfect sense when Gale and Sally fired it off to each other on their computers.

The young women were having an instant messaging (IM) conversation. Each person could see what the other was writing every time one of them pressed the "return" key, even though they were in different places.

Now, scientists are studying instant messaging, cell phone text messages, and e-mails to try to understand how technology is changing the way we communicate. The research belongs to a field called linguistics, the scientific study of language.

Changing language

Change is a natural part of language development. The words you like to use are probably a little different from those that your grandparents used when they were young. Reading a play by William Shakespeare shows how much language can change in 400 years.

Nonetheless, some language experts worry about the future of languages. They cringe when people break the rules of grammar, fail to use proper punctuation, misuse a word, or even invent a new one just for fun. They don't like the way slang words and pop phrases creep into the way we write and speak.

Another worry is that computers are speeding up the spread of English around the globe and forcing people to neglect their native languages. Like some species, languages have been dying out at an alarming rate, and some linguists fear that the Internet might be partially to blame.

Another group of researchers, however, is fascinated by the interaction between language and the Internet. Instead of killing languages, the rapid rise of Internet communication has opened up an exciting new branch of linguistics, says David Crystal. He's a linguist at the University of Wales in Bangor.

"We should be exulting, in fact, that the Internet is allowing us to explore language in a creative way," Crystal says. "This is a new branch of study. Like no other study of language change in history, it allows us to follow the rate of change of grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary."

Computer talk

Researchers now have a name for instant messages, cell phone text messages, and e-mail. They call it computer-mediated communication, or CMC.

CMC is different from speech in a number of ways, Crystal says. There's no immediate feedback to an e-mail, for one thing. You can have multiple IM or e-mail conversations at once, which you can't have when you're talking directly to people. And on the computer, you lose the effect of emotion and tone of voice, no matter how many smiley faces you use.

Computer messages are also different from normal writing. You can edit e-mails by cutting and pasting. You can add links. And you can get responses more quickly than you would from a letter.

All of these developments have led to the most rapid change in language since the Middle Ages, Crystal says. He encourages teachers to embrace the technology and its creative possibilities rather than fight against

the trend.

Language shortcuts such as "ttyl" (which means "talk to you later") obviously have no place in school reports, but events like text-messaging poetry competitions can be educational and fun. A British newspaper named The Guardian, for example, offers cash prizes to readers who come up with text message poems, using 160 characters or less. You can find the winning entries at books.guardian.co.uk/textpoetry (Guardian).

Men versus women

Studying IM conversations can also be an interesting way to learn more about culture, relationships, and differences between men and women, says Naomi Baron. She's a linguist at American University in Washington, D.C.

In one study, Baron analyzed 23 IM conversations between college students (including the one at the beginning of this article). In total, there were 2,185 transmissions and 11,718 words. She was surprised by what her data turned up.

For one thing, the messages were far less sloppy than she expected. Students seemed to be careful about what they wrote, and they tended to correct their mistakes. In fact, she says, students seemed to pay more attention to what they said in messages than they did in papers submitted for grading.

There were also major differences between men and women in how they used IM technology. Men tended to write in short phrases, while women tended to write in complete sentences. Women also took longer to say goodbye to each other.

Baron concluded that messaging between women is more like writing than speech. Messaging between men is more like speech than writing.

From questionnaires, Baron learned that most young people have between one and 12 IM conversations going on at once. "I couldn't imagine just having one IM conversation," one student said. "That would just be too weird." Before the invention of CMC, having that many conversations at once would have been practically impossible.

These patterns suggest that IM is something completely new in the history of communication, Baron says.

"I think we're entering a new era," she says, "in the way we think about speech and writing and how much control we have over the level at which we wish to interact and what kind of style we use."

Internet activity

In recent years, the rise in the use of Internet communication has been greatest among young people. And the United States accounts for 20 percent of all Internet activity, says Brenda Danet. She's a researcher at Yale University in Connecticut and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Still, more and more people of all ages are using the Internet for longer stretches of time in countries around the world, especially in places such as China. And non-native English speakers make up at least two-thirds of Internet users, Danet says.

Nevertheless, her research has shown that English is used most of the time on international mailing lists because it's the language that most people have at least some knowledge of. The size and structure of keyboards also makes it particularly difficult to write in languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic.

The wide use of English online makes many linguists worry that people are neglecting their own languages and abandoning their own cultures.

It's also true, however, that the Internet has opened up an explosion of possibilities for rapid communication across cultures. It might also be a good forum for the preservation of disappearing languages.

"Is the Internet contributing to the extinction of languages, or can it help revitalize them?" Danet asks. Only time will tell.

Secret notes

In the meantime, computer-mediated communication seems to be here to stay, says communications researcher Simeon Yates of Sheffield Hallam University.

The more we use IM, text messaging on our cell phones, and other new technologies, he says, the more they shape our lives and relationships.

People can now manage their schedules from anywhere and change plans at the last minute. They can send secret notes to each other over their phones without making a sound. People have even discovered ways to get across complicated feelings and emotions in only a few words.

A few generations ago, no one could have imagined that we would be communicating over computers in real time without ever speaking a word, Yates says. Now, people feel helpless without their e-mail and cell phones.

"This is basically your social life," Yates says. "When I ask British college students what they would do if I took their cell phones away, they say they couldn't live without them."

New technologies may open up additional communication possibilities in the future.

So, keep typing away. Just remember that technology shapes you every time you use it. And that could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

yup. OK 4 now. C U soon. ttyl!!!


Going Deeper:

Additional Information

Questions about the Article

Word Find: Instant Messaging


IM Shortcuts

bc (or b/c) = because

bf = boyfriend

cya = see you

k = OK

y? = why

brb = be right back

btw = by the way

g/g (or g2g) = got to go

lol = laughing out loud (or lots of love)

ttyl = talk to you later

For a list of smilies and other emoticons, go to www.netlingo.com/smiley.cfm (NetLingo).

For a long list of text shorthand, see www.netlingo.com/emailsh.cfm (NetLingo).

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