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'r u online?': the evolving lexicon of wired teens

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2002


THE conversation begins on the computer, nothing too atypical for a pair of teenage boys bored on a Friday night:

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Garret: hey

Josh: sup

Garret: j/cu

Josh: same

Garret: wut r u doing 2nite

Josh: n2m

Garret: cool

Need a translation? Not if you're a 13-year-old who's been Internet-connected since birth. For the rest of us, welcome to the world of Net Lingo - the keyboard generation's gift to language and culture. "sup" is not a call to supper, but a query: "What's up?" And Josh's "n2m" reply? "Not too much."

As in every age, teenagers today are adapting the English language to meet their needs for self-expression. But this time, it's happening online - and at lightning speed. To some, it's a creative twist on dialogue, and a new, harmless version of teen slang. But to anxious grammarians and harried teachers, it's the linguistic ruin of Generation IM (instant messenger).

Whatever it is, the result fills Internet chat rooms, e-mail, and the increasingly popular instant messenger, on which correspondents fire off confessions, one-liners, and blather in real-time group chats or, more often, fleet-fingered tĂȘte-a-tĂȘtes.

"This is really an extension of what teenagers have always done: recreate the language in their own image. But this new lingo combines writing and speaking to a degree that we've never seen before," says Neil Randall, an English professor at the University of Waterloo and author of "Lingo Online: A Report on the Language of the Keyboard Generation."

The result, he says, is the use of writing to simulate speech - a skill not formally taught. In the process, typed communication has entered a new era of speed.

In a third-floor bedroom in Houston, Garret Thomas has three online conversations going at once. That's nothing, he says. Sometimes he chats with as many as 20 people at a time - chosen from his 200-plus "buddy list" that shows which of his friends are online and available. "I'm a really fast typer," says the redhead.

Though creating unique speech patterns is nothing new for the younger set, this generation is doing it in a novel way.

New acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons - keyboard characters lined up to resemble human gestures or expressions, such as smiling :) - are coined daily. Indeed, almost 60 percent of online teenagers under age 17 use IM services, offered free by Internet providers such as Yahoo and America Online, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

"All of my friends are on instant messenger," says Garret, not looking up from his cryptic chat with Josh. "It's just easier to talk to them this way."

Chatter - at breakneck speed

Not like the fate of the universe depends on what they're saying. With one friend, he's talking about his rotten Spanish teacher who actually expects the class to participate. With another, he's debating the evening's options: the mall, a movie, chillin' at his house. With a third, he's deep in a discussion about how he never gives more than one-word answers. "who cares," Garret types.

"hey, that's two. getting better," comes the reply.

In between all this, there's a whole bunch of "j/j" (just joking), "lol" (laughing out loud), and brb ("be right back"). In other words, typical teen chatter.

"Instant messaging has just replaced the phone ... for their generation," says Mary Anne Thomas, a Houston mother on the other side of town, with two teen boys addicted to IM.