Long-time newspaper readers will remember American journalist Sydney J. Harris. From the 1940s to the 80s, his column “Strictly Personal” ran five days a week in hundreds of American newspapers. “A writer needs an ‘ear’ as much as a musician does,” he wrote, “and without this ear, he is lost and groping in a forest of words, where all the trees look much alike.” In his extremely popular column “Antics with Semantics,” he often dealt with the connotative power of words.
Distinguishing between two words that seem to mean the same, but have different “colors and shapes and suggestions” was essential to the art of writing, he said. The dictionary can tell you only what a word points to; it cannot tell you what it feels like. Are “unspeakable” and “unutterable” the same? In a remarkable Bengali movie where Soumitra Chatterjee compulsively puts together a Bengali dictionary, he says, “The dictionary simply refers to ‘refugee’ as a ‘displaced person.’ But that can never express the anguish of being displaced.”
You can see how these razor-sharp distinctions in meaning and usage can be a great source for the barb-minded; of great help in satire and one-upmanship. The striking colors in my living room are “dramatic”; but in yours, “flamboyant.” I am “shy,” but you, “Hey, don’t be “stand-offish!” Jane marries John because of his “boyish charm”, divorces him because of his “immaturity.” I am “strong-minded,” you are “opinionated.” When my candidate makes slashing charges against the opposition, he is “forthright,” but your candidate is “irresponsible.”
You get the drift—and the irony, and the sarcasm—in this usage.
Words do change in meaning. “Like” is used in ways we never thought it could be. “Cool,” “wicked,” “radical,” and “awesome” have all been stripped of their original meanings and “repurposed” to mean “something I like or find interesting.” And based on their meaning—colours and suggestions—words inform, ask, jeer, jibe, and attack.
That leaves out the “shape,” the structure of the words. Does the way a word looks change its meaning, or add a subtle meaning to it? Yes, says GenNext, and does its best to correct the lacuna. The virtual world where this generation lives provides a convenient platform. E-mails have shrunk the body of our compositions, text-messaging has replaced alphabets with numericals, and blogs play with spellings and grammar to mock. “Shape” is now a tool to tick off, and the look of the language is the method to lampoon. You may have noticed it in blogs. The blogger will use poor grammar and misspelling like “more bigger” and “pwned” and “teh” deliberately. The objective is to make a statement about the stupidity of the opponent. Like this: “The sum total of the Republican plan for Iran can be summed up as ‘More Bigger Pom Poms!’”
“Everything is teh libruls fault.”Changing shapes of words and sentences can also be an attempt at humor. Check out http://engrishfunny.com. That’s right, “Engrish.” Its self-directed question, “Who The Heck Runs This Site?” gets this answer: Remain clam. I am a licensed Asian-American who has spend 14-years lived all over Asia.
At the site I can has cheezburger, mis-spelling and mangled grammar is the chosen form of wit. The words are spelt to match an approximated pronunciation, something English lacks. “o hai! welcum to Speak LOLspeak! plz 2 get started by filling out ur profile, and contribyooting to teh discussion threds!”
It can be funny once you’ve stopped grinding your teeth at the arbitrariness of the contractions. How does “ur” make sense? Still, the website has enthusiastic participants in this spellventure. A picture of a cat peeping out of a pocket with the caption “wut else did u find in ur pouch?” gets nearly 200 responses of similar nature.
One of them goes “*haz a impressd* how do yoo duz taht?” combining poor grammar with “original” spelling. Another gets so creative, “Ai cud cleen awf mai deggsk, iffen WP needz feedin,” that the blogger has to ask: “Whut wuz you tryin’ to say up tehre?” Ha.
The idea seems to be that you have to be “different.” Spell the words in a way no one has done before, and yet be intelligible when pronounced. It’s linguistic freedom. Yet some of these misshapen words could find their way into future dictionaries. “Meh,” that verbal Playdoh lending itself to several interpretations, stands a good chance (it is already a mainstay of crossword puzzles). “Teh” might follow it. And I’m betting “pwned” certainly will. I see the strong influence of online game players (gamers) in creating some of these new words.
“Pwned” is an interesting word that has its origins in gaming chat. One theory of its origin is it’s a spin-off from the idiom, “He owns your ass,” meaning the winner has rendered the loser completely helpless. That phrase got shortened to “owned” and then morphed into “pwned”. It’s pronounced like “owned” with a “p” in front, and it is taken to mean “so utterly and totally dominated as to be humiliating.” After doing its time in black and white, the word has now entered the conversational arena.
The remarkable feature of this phenomenon is the speed with which usage shifts. Anyone using a computer can coin words, key them in and watch them roll over worldwide in seconds. And many of these GenX words are spawned by a determined unwillingness to spellcheck.
A discussion on word shapes would be incomplete without introducing “leet” or “eleet”, referred to by the number-words 1337, 3l337, 133t or 3l33t. Leetspeak is a symbolic Internet English alphabet developed as a hacking system to defeat online filters and automatic censors in some sites. It’s probably also done to score points against “erudite” writing that consists of multi-syllabic words and classical phrases. Leetspeak is now used widely by gamers. The hacking prowess that this form of writing affords is where sarcasm comes in. I create misspellings and ASCII-art-derived words so consider me your superior, “n00b” (newbie).
Leet has now moved mainstream. Its loose grammar
gives it flexibility and emphasis, mostly ironic. The language does not depend on sentence structure, the position of words, or usage. You look at the shape of words and intuitively parse it. It is encrypted communication, getting more and more obscure. Sample this: “Austin rocks” becomes “Austin roxxorz” for emphasis, which gains strength when written as “Au5t1N is t3h r0xx0rz” (note grammar). It finally becomes “0MFG D00D /Ü571N 15 T3H l_l83 1337 0XX0Z.”
The incorrectness is deliberate. When it’s not smart satire, it is open defiance of rules of grammar.
The phenomenon has caught fire on the Internet. Writer after writer proudly admits to using this dialect. A need to belong, perhaps?
“My friends and I regularly use pwned, leet, noob, lolz, woot, wtf, etc…”
“I do use them on occasion, though with purely sarcastic intent. I don’t, however, allow myself to write such words unless, like with speech, I’m being rather sarcastic. I have principles when it comes to writing! Though somehow ‘cya’ has crept into my vocabulary, and it scares me…”
“My husband and I use “powned” and “Dubbya Tee Eff,” “Me no want,” “RL,” and “I can haz… xyz” in conversation to each other just to be funny.”
“I admit to using lolcatz ironically to describe something perceived as cute. I’ve recently added “teh” to my vocabulary but only sarcastically. “Oh, yeah, that was teh awesome,” followed by an eye roll.”
Has English shed its rigidity (or what was left of it) and begun evolving into a more portable, rich, fluid form? Maybe. The Internet makes any new species quickly accessible to all.
Is this the new generation gap? What happens when people have no clue to what you are saying? What happens when old-fashioned satire meets its brand new cousin? Well, you accept it as an unbridgeable chasm between you and your listeners and move on. That’s the amorphous nature of a universal language.
Geeta Padmanabhan is a writer and grammarian based in Chennai.