language change and slang

Pwn leet speak: a dynamic sublanguage and internet phenomenon

© Macmillan Education
Written by Jonathan Cole

Have you come across the acronyms lol (laugh out loud) or brb (be right back) from texting or instant messaging? Perhaps you have lazily texted or typed C u 2mrw (see you tomorrow)? Are you a fan of the hugely popular Lol Cats with their sometimes strange but often hilarious captioning language? Welcome to Leet speak.

The dynamic sublanguage Leet (from ‘elite’) has been widely used on the internet and as part of informal electronic communication for over ten years, and is now a fixed part of popular internet culture and language. Basic Leet speak replaces letters with various combinations of predominantly numeric characters. So, Leet becomes 1337 or 133t. Leet speak would become 1337 5p33k. 7#15 B1()& r00xor means ‘this blog rocks (is fantastic).’ l33t embraces abbreviation, acronyms, misspellings and typos (see the fat cat image), synonyms, punctuations marks, phonetic combinations and homographic substitution (in which similar looking letters, punctuation marks or graphics represent the correct letter). Other popular examples of 1337 include, warez (plural shortening of ‘software’), n00b (‘newbie’ or ‘rookie’), haxor (‘hacker’).

The original aim of Leet speak in the 1980s was to use alternate characters to get past restrictive text editors (which I will look at in the next post), but today, Leet speak is used primarily to reduce the number of keystrokes used in various forms of communication.

afk brb bio, is much quicker to type than its intended meaning, ‘I am away from keyboard, will be right back, I am going to the toilet’.

You are all imagining the expression on the faces of your English teachers, right? At worst, Leet was seen as a corrupt, exclusionary form of the English language and a manifestation of adolescent male attitudes of competition. Apparently, throughout human existence, males have demonstrated their mating fitness by inventing and displaying new and innovative communication forms.

Lol u r n00b – I am laughing at you newbie (rookie).

I am not sure about the above, I generally show my mating fitness by beating my chest and winking. Anyway, those who didn’t use Leet, saw it, at best, as a technique for keeping parents in the dark and, at worst, as evidence that their children were involved in nefarious, illegal activities! The youthful howls of consternation at these views are I think largely justified, as most users will tell you Leet speak is used primarily to reduce keystrokes.

Despite these reservations, Leet’s expansion into popular youth culture could not be ignored. Microsoft published a a Leet primer for parents, which missed the main reason for the popularity of the sublanguage and seemed to be aimed at determining whether ‘children’ were involved in illegal online activities. A BBC explanation of leet speak, in 2002, was less alarmist and now, in 2009, it appears as though Leet speak is here to stay. Some slang terms made popular by Leet speak, such as lol and owned (pwned, meaning to dominate or reduce one’s status) produce Google search results in the hundreds of millions. In the next post I will look at how Leet speak is spreading across languages.

Leet speak has developed from an obscure communication system into a cultural phenomenon, widely and increasingly used in online games, chat rooms, text messaging, instant messaging, websites and wider electronic communication. I am certainly guilty of the occasional unbecoming abbreviation or (gasp!) leaving out the occasional vowel, especially when texting or trying to type on a small keypad. Did you know the ancient Egyptians wrote their hieroglyphs without vowels and we can still understand them? I am sure the 140 character limit for Twitter tweets are also driving the masses to Leet.

Despite sometimes being deliberately abstruse and celebrating incorrectness, Leet speak is a highly dynamic communication medium. While differing in practitioners and ethos, one nevertheless recalls the spirit of literary Dada.

I shall … dispense with conventional language … I don’t want words that other people have invented … I let the vowels fool around … Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words. Au, oi, uh. One shouldn’t let too many words out … a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language … I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words … Why can’t a tree be called Pluplusch … The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.
(Hugo Ball, Dada Manifesto, 1916)

Part 2 of this mini-series looks at the origins of Leet speak and some popular Leet terms. It is interesting how we know more about English etymology from Greek and Latin 2000 years ago than we do about some Leet speak terms from 20 years ago!

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Jonathan Cole


  • Hmmmm, call me a neanderthal but I’m not so sure about replacing letters with numbers. Numbers are pretty hopeless on mobile keypads and keyboards anyway so I don’t buy the argument that the point of leet is to reduce keystrokes. Leet reminds me of Europanto though due to its wider circle of users it has a much bigger chance of survival.

  • Thanks for the comment. The reason for replacing letters with numbers and other characters was to get past text editors on Bulletin Boards in the 1980s and as a cipher for hackers to communicate (something I will go into more in the next post) .

    While certain international forms of Leet still use this technique to beat censorship, it is the other idiosyncrasies of the sublanguage that make it great for reducing keystrokes; adoption of abbreviation, dropping off ‘extraneous’ vowels and consonants and word invention.

  • The business of omitting vowels reminds me of when I was a cub reporter learning shorthand, many moons ago. In general, shorthand (Teeline anyway, don’t know about Pittman but I’m guessing it works on the same principle) only uses consonants, and relies on context for you to work out what you actually meant. So the symbol for ‘this’ is the same as the symbol for ‘those’ and ‘these’. When you transcribe something immediately, it works just fine, but if you decide to leave it till after the weekend or some such, who knows what you’re going to end up with! And then, of course, the more advanced you get, the more you truncate symbols, so the phrase ‘around the world’ is suddenly represented by about 3 characters. Or was that just a slip of the pen . . .

  • Omitting vowels is correct for Teeline. However, with Pitman it is about the position and weight of the outline (above, on or through the line) which, represents what vowel sound should be determined and inserting other sounds (triphones – 3 syllables); diphones – 2 syllables, etc) in the correct position. The fundamental difference between Teeline and Pitman is that Teeline is written from the alphabet we already know and the positions of outlines retained, whereas, Pitman is almost like learning a new language with sounds! (Heavy sounds: Pa may we all go too = (long) ah ay ee aw owe ooh ) (Light sounds: That pen is not much good = (short ) a e i o u uw). I taught both Teeline and Pitman. Teeline is much easier to learn, but as you say if you leave the transcribing too long it could result in problems with the final transcription. Although, the sense of what one is reading should prevail! And, of course, one can always substitute for a new word if the general gist is there!

  • Adam Smith may have been an economist but the development of Leet may well have been more influenced by the “invisible hand” of economics than we suspect. Way back in the early days of computing when mainframes had less memory that a musical birthday card and took up more space than a Hallmark store, the number of characters you used in coding actually had an impact on your system. Redundancy was a “bad thing” so anything you could do to save space was virtuous. The simple shift to using ONE space between sentences instead of TWO (a hang-over from the typewriter) gave measurable savings. And in those days, memory was expensive so it made economic sense to reduce text input.

    Even today, economics drives textual representation in cell phones. Originally, texting was measured in term of message size and so brevity was not only the soul of wit but the heart of savings. Long messages cost more money so shorter was the way to go. Similarly with IM’s on a computer, where the cost online time using a dial-up was directly proportional to the length of your messages – again, you got more “bang for buck” if you could rattle out 20 really short messages in 5 minutes versus 5 long ones.

    Of course, as costs come down, the economics become less critical, but I suggest that in the development of such “minimal text” systems, Adam Smith may have had more impact than Noam Chomsky!

  • […] Part 1 of the blog Pwn leet speak, thinks that parents and people such as the authors of this book “missed the main reason for the popularity of the sublanguage, and seemed to be aimed at determining whether ‘children’ were involved in illegal online activities”. […]

  • This is not a sub-language that regular internet users use. L33t speek is more of a gamer language, people who play competitive or casual video games on computer. L33t speek doesn’t exist on Xbox or PS3 or any other platform. The sub culture of pc gamers is few and far between, producing sites like lolcats or meatspin, also the term “rick roll’d” originated from the pc gaming sub culture. L33t speek is very rarely used nowadays, although is used in gaming such as brb bio or afk door. It is hard for an outsider to understand this sub-culture, but once you get around them, most of them are quick-witted and intelligent.

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