SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
New ways of communicating inevitably spawn new lingo. Every day millions of people type billions of messages on their computers using Instant Messaging. IM is shorthand for the variety of programs that allow people, many of them teenagers, to exchange messages. IM slang includes dropping vowels from common words and expressions, like LOL, which means laughing out loud.
Now cell phone text messaging has created a slang all of its own. NPR, and we know what that means, NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on how this new technologies are changing the way some teens talk.
Unidentified Girl #1: I use OMG a lot, and it means, oh, my gosh.
Unidentified Girl #2: I use LYLAS, which is, love you like a sister, when I'm talking to my friends.
NEDA ULABY reporting:
In case you're not hip to IM vernacular, here's help from teenagers at a suburban Virginia high school.
Unidentified Girl #4: I use JK, which is just kidding.
Unidentified Girl #5: BRB, for be right back.
Unidentified Boy: BBL, be back later.
ULABY: Such expressions crop up now in spoken conversations too.
Ms. CAITLIN McDOUGAL (Student): It started out more as a joke.
ULABY: Caitlin McDougal is a senior at another school.
Ms. McDOUGAL: To make people uncomfortable I would say, TTYLGF, you know, like talk to you later, girlfriend. Even to boys.
ULABY: IM technology was popularized on AOL during its rocketing rise in the 1990's. Now it's spread to other systems, like Yahoo and MSN messenger. Estimates vary, but according to one recent study, 79 million Americans IM regularly. The phenomenon of written IM slang crossing over into speech is manna for linguists. Like Professor David Crystal.
Professor DAVID CRYSTAL: I see a brand new variety of language evolving, invented really by young people very efficiently for a new mode of communication, you know, within five years. It's extraordinary.
ULABY: Technology affects the language in unexpected ways. Crystal has also studied the linguistics of text messaging, typing and sending short messages with a cell phone. In the United Kingdom, Crystal says, kids texting the word cool would get an automatic suggestion from a tiny program on their phones to use the word book instead. That's because the book and cool share the same keys on phone type pads.
Mr. CRYSTAL: Instead of saying cool now you say book, because then book means cool because you're using the same keys.
ULABY: Such keyboard quirks made for a very book Valentine that 14-year old Lisa Kahn got on Tuesday from a friend.
Ms. LISA KAHN (Student): And it said, Kate Less Than 3's You, which on the computer means heart you, and for the rest of the day that's all we said to anyone was I less than 3 you.
ULABY: The less than sign on the keyboard typed next to the Arabic numeral 3 looks little like a heart. 17-year old Allison Budcah(ph).
Ms. ALLISON BUDCAH (Student): The less than 3 means a lot, it even it has its own hand gesture.
ULABY: Make a V with your right hand's first and second finger, turn it sideways, and stick out three fingers with the other. That's the hand gesture. Susan C. Herring(ph) says none of this should come as a surprise.
Professor SUSAN HERRING (Lingistics and Information Science, Indiana University): One of the functions of slang in traditional sociolinguist analysis is to separate an in-group from an out-group.
ULABY: Herring teaches linguistics and information science at Indiana University. She says young people have long used language to draw a generational line in the sand.
Ms. HERRING: When I was a teenager, one of the things that we liked to do was speak in a language we called izzing(ph), which is like pig-Latin. And so we would introduce the syllable izzing between the first letter and the rest of every syllable. So I would say, hi, how are you, hithaguy, hithago, withagar, withagoo(ph).
ULABY: Herring says that this explains why kids would go to the trouble of saying, TTYL instead of later, which is so much easier, or LOL, instead of just laughing out loud. ROFL or rolling on the floor laughing, has evolved into ROFL, ROFL-copter and ROFL-waffle. Seventeen-year-old Carol Walsh says using ROFL or LOL in conversation add layers of satisfying subtext.
Ms. CAROL WALSH: A lot of time you're not actually going to laugh out loud. You just want to show like, like if someone tells a cheesy joke, you say, LOL. Usually, it's not showing an actual appreciation for a joke, because then you would actually laugh out loud. It's just like, oh, you're trying to be funny.
ULABY: Students know that some traditionalists will condemn the slip of IM slang into speech. Caitlin McDougal...
Ms. MCDOUGAL: Like our language is basically deteriorating. I think there's this worldwide atrophy of language that I've heard about. So I don't know, it could be.
ULABY: Many linguists say not to panic. Adults talk differently on a job interview hot seat than they do on a bar stool. And most kids are smart enough not to use chatroom language in English papers. McDougal switches fluently from teenage-ese to her lines in her school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Ms. MCDOUGAL: Demetrius, I am your spaniel, and the more you beat me, the more I will fawn on you. Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me; only give me leave, unworthy as I am to follow you.
ULABY: William Shakespeare would have held strong opinions about IM slang, says linguistics professor David Crystal.
Professor CRYSTAL: He would have loved it, I have no doubt.
ULABY: And that's because, says Crystal, instant message expressions have done more than just added to the vocabulary and constructions of the English language.
Professor CRYSTAL: They extend the range of the language, the expressiveness of the language, the richness of the language.
ULABY: And they infuse it, says Crystal, with play.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
SIMON: That made me LOL, BTW. For a handy glossary of instant messaging terms, go to npr.org.