Say this out loud: zomg wtfffffff im going 2 pwn you!!!!1111 lololol

Well, OK, you can’t. And yet, in its loosely structured live interactivity, internet slang like that is closer to speech than text. But it has its own conventions, some of which defy saying out loud. It’s a substitute for speech.

Could it replace spoken English?

That may sound like putting the cart before the horse. Speech is what we learn first (except for those of us who are unable to speak or hear). Throughout history, many people have never learned to write, and many cultures have had no writing system, but they have all had spoken language. Written language was created to give a record of spoken language.

In some languages, such as Arabic, the standard written and spoken forms have diverged so much they’re different dialects.

Not that written language is just the frozen form of speech. Over the centuries, it has gained features such as exclamation marks and italics to convey spoken features such as tone, but it has also evolved to convey things that speech doesn’t: the etymological traces carried by our spelling, the structure of thought conveyed by paragraphs, the aesthetics of fonts and other design elements. Some features of written language feed back into speech, such as saying “slash” in phrases like “my housemate/boyfriend,” but speech and text have grown apart and evolved into many different types for different purposes. In some languages, such as Arabic, the standard written and spoken forms have diverged so much they’re different dialects.

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But live internet text is something new. When we tweet or send text messages, we are merging the fixed visual means of text with the immediate live performance of speech. It is as vernacular as speech, and it draws on vernacular speech – live internet Arabic tends to draw on spoken rather than standard written Arabic. But it is still text.

Live internet vernacular English (let’s call it Live for short) got its real start in the 1990s. Usenet chat groups were sometimes interacting in real time and sometimes responding hours, days or even longer after the original post. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and instant messaging used text and left a record but were mainly intended to be real-time or very close to it. Because they were a new context and style of use, people played around to discover potentials and to innovate. An early and striking example was a performance of Hamnet, a satirical version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet done in 1993 entirely in IRC. Here’s an example quoted by Brenda Danet in Cyperpl@y:

Ooops, here comes Ophelia [20]

**<<  Action >>** : _Enter Ophelia [21]

Here’s yr stuff back [22]

Not mine, love. Hehehehehe ;-D [23]

That ;-D shows one of the first things that emerged for computer-mediated communication to mimic speech: representations of facial expressions and other physical gestures – emoticons and, more recently, emoji.

Emoticons and emoji represent aspects of live communication, but they’re not always used in the same way as what they represent. Several studies have found that their primary use is not to present the speaker’s emotion but to help smooth out interpersonal relationships and to convey features such as irony. They are not about how the sender feels so much as how the sender wants the receiver to feel. As linguist David Crystal writes in Language and the Internet, emoticons often serve “as a warning to the recipient(s) that the sender is worried about the effect a sentence might have”. They can soften messages that might make the recipient look bad and strengthen ones that make the recipient look good.

Text speech is like a sci-fi story where people’s tongues and vocal cords have been replaced by keyboards and screens

On the other hand, there are many ways that Live does convey the writer’s emotion, or at least its intensity. A key one is reduplication. Abbreviations such as wtf can be made emphatic by repeating the last letter – wtffffff – which doesn’t represent speech in any literal sense; lol (“laughing out loud,” usually not corresponding to actual laughing out loud by the writer) becomes lololol, entirely divorced from the speech sound it represents. Even when Live represents a speech effect, it can be divorced from literal representation of the sound; while we might say a drawn-out “niiiiice” for effect, in Live you’re likely to see it written niceeee.

Evolution or de-evolution?

Live is like a sci-fi story where people’s tongues and vocal cords have been replaced by keyboards and screens, and they have to learn to work with the potentials and constraints of their new anatomy. You don’t have volume, pitch, rhythm or speed, so what do you do? Skip using the Shift key and punctuation to show haste (sorry cant chat rn got an essay due) or casualness (hi whats up). Make a typographical error to show urgency or heedlessness – teh (for the), pwn (for own, as in dominate or defeat), zomg (for OMG because Z is next to Shift), and hodl (for hold in online currency trading); these all originated with errors but became fixed forms that are simultaneously more intense and more facetious than the originals. Slip your finger off the shift key when typing multiple exclamation points to look even more unhinged: !!!!1111. And then play with that sarcastically to make !!!!!111one. Shred capitalisation standards to convey derision: if someone writes “Sorry, I don’t want to talk about this,” you can mock them by writing, “sOrRy i dOnT WaNt tO tAlK aBouT ThiS.” It’s speech, but not as we know it.

But it’s all language, and language is always a performance that refers back to previous performances and helps show what you know and what group you belong to. Live is an idiom of a certain social set – or, by now, several different social sets. The mixed-capitals mockery started with a SpongeBob Squarepants meme on Twitter in 2017; hodl started with a post on Bitcoin Talk Forums in 2013; some others (such as kek in place of lol) came from features in online games. Many distinct usages come from laddish forums such as 4chan and hackers’ chat groups and are meant to display a certain kind of competitive cleverness – for instance, pr0n in place of porn to get past content filters and keyword searches, or n00b and 1337 for noob and leet, which are in their turn sound-based shortenings of newbie and elite.

Live internet vernacular is, as Toronto linguists Sali Tagliamonte and Derek Denis put it, “a unique new hybrid register”. It does for communication what the Segway was supposed to do for transportation: it brings together two distinct modes to give something usefully halfway between them. And it hasn’t hit the roadblocks that the Segway did.

But is it going to replace speech? Oh, come on, what are you talking about? There are many things that are best accomplished using your mouth and voice, just as there are many places most easily reached on foot no matter what machines you have.

On the other hand, Live is affecting other forms of English, spoken and written, because we borrow from it and refer to it. Some Live is just not sayable, but you can hear people say “L O L” and you can see emoji in ads. Is it slipping into formal writing by younger people as they grow up using it and become adults? Studies have shown that it’s not. They learn how to write like grown-ups when they have to, just as we all have: we don’t use the slang we learned as kids in our annual reports. And we’ve had abbreviations such as FYI since long before the internet, but you won’t see them in newspaper articles or academic essays.

What we might get as the medium matures is more formal versions of Live. Conventions are already emerging for certain kinds of formal discourse on Twitter, such as numbered tweet threads. But that will just be one more variety of English among many. The possibilities are endless, and if we ever invent telepathy, expect yet another version of English to emerge for that.

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