HOUSTON — THE conversation begins on the computer, nothing too atypical for a pair of teenage boys bored on a Friday night:
Garret: wut r u doing 2nite
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 tête-a-têtes.
"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."
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.
She has noticed that her oldest son, who's normally quite shy around girls, feels more comfortable talking to them online - a positive, she thinks.
A negative, though, is that their grammar is becoming atrocious, and Net lingo is starting to show up on school assignments: "They talk with these abbreviated words and run-on sentences with no punctuation. I call it speed talking, and it's starting to carry over into their homework," she says.
That's an issue that teachers around the country have been struggling with recently as instant messaging grows in popularity.
Another double-edged consequence comes in a culture of multitasking. Mrs. Thomas's oldest son spends about three hours on instant messenger each night. He'll talk to friends, download music, do homework, surf the Internet - all at the same time.
Because of the Internet, experts say, kids today are able to multitask like no other generation. But with that frenetic multitasking, others say, comes easy distraction - and the shrinking of already-short attention spans.
Garret says he gets onto IM when he's doing homework, and manages about eight different tasks at one time. Showing incredible focus - or frenzy - he flips from one screen to the next, rapidly firing off messages while surfing the Net and gabbing on the phone. (No, IM hasn't replaced the phone entirely.)
Now a high-school freshman, he says most of his friends were on IM by junior high, and he picked up the lingo as he went along. New terms get passed between friends, and different groups and regions of the country have their own IM lexicons, with particular acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons that mirror their inside jokes and experience.
Tonight, he tells a friend that he's "j/c." She asks, "what is j/c."
"just chillin'," he types, certain that she will use it in the future.
Experts say the intent of lingo - in any generation - is to signify "inness" with a particular group. And while teens have long pushed the boundaries of language, they are now doing it in written form.
"This is a new kind of slang, a written slang. We've never had anything like it before," says Robert Beard, professor emeritus of linguistics at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., and creator of yourDictionary.com.
Some parents worry that teens could get into trouble by talking to so many different - and sometimes unknown - buddies. Certainly, that's happened. But Dr. Randall says he found in his study that teens are quite aware of that issue and know how to protect themselves.
Even with his large buddy list, Garret gets it. He begins chatting with someone he hasn't talked to in awhile, and when that person attacks him and uses profanity, he quickly ends the conversation.
"I'm not talking to him anymore," he says, slightly shaken, and then uses the software to block all incoming messages from that screen name.
"I guess it's time to clean out my buddy list."
"In My Arrogant Opinion."
"Away From Keyboard."
Emoticon for a bandaid - an offer of comfort.
Emoticon that means you're being sassy or sticking out your tongue.
Emoticon showing you're wearing glasses - or acting smart.