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!Email this Post