Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

UPDATED: Dreck to the asinines

UPDATE (8/24): The battle is enjoined! Robert Hartwell Fiske calls his readers “to arms”! As it turns out, speaking good English allows you to beg for pocket change.

Choire Sicha at Gawker calls the Barrett-Fiske kerfluffle a cat fight. We’re frienemies, you might say. For the older set who don’t know that word frienemy, just think of the fake feud between Jack Benny and Fred Allen. (I’m Benny: he could make Groucho laugh.)

Angela Gunn at USA Today’s Tech_Space blog is havin mai seatz, readin mai mailz, because she thinks a fight about language is just the cure for a slow news month.

Gizmodo gives the Wall Street Journal a smack with a blackjack, too. Somebody gets called an alarmist idiot. Gizmodo’s take gets play here, here, and here, among other places.

This joker thinks the article is a sign somebody will start teaching l33t in the classrom.

They love me in Canada part zillion: Teacher Lady has my back.

Network Performance Daily takes a cynical view of the article, too: “In this hard hitting expose by the Wall Street Journal, arguably one of the pre-eminent business newspapers of the world, reporter Christopher Rhoads takes a hard look at a matter of vital importance to the world economy. Apparently, gamer’s shorthand, or ‘leetspeak’ is changing the way that human beings communicate.”

Below is my post that set off this limpest of tempests:


Since I spoke at length to the reporter who wrote it, I guess I should be relieved that I wasn’t quoted in this asinine story about online language, “What Did U $@y? Online Language Finds Its Voice,” in the Wall Street Journal. However, I would have preferred that Christopher Rhoads get it right, even if he didn’t quote me.

Comments in the article by my colleague Allan Metcalf are correct and were, no doubt, confirmed by the reporter in nearly identical comments that I made.

But let’s talk about the major problem points:

1. The lede: “TEh INTeRn3T i5 THr3@+EN1N9 t0 Ch@n93 thE W4Y wE $p34k. (Translation: The Internet is threatening to change the way we speak.)”

First, it’s the usual cliché: write a line or two in the supposed slang being discussed in the article, then translate it. Lazy journalists and copy desk editors have been using this hoary mechanism since at least the 1930s.

Second, nobody writes all in leet-speak except as a stunt or unless they are exceptionally clueless, both which, I guess, apply here.

Third, why is this a threat? Why is this a negative? The reporter doesn’t say. That sentence is what I call the “confirming cloud of doom”: it satisfies those who are uneasy with the progress of the world around them, while at the same time it offers no data that can be refuted. It’s editorializing in its purest form.

The rest of the article offers more of this: a few people talking from their gut about how everyone who speaks differently is an idiot.

2. “For years, heavy users of Internet games and chat groups have conversed in their own written language, often indecipherable to outsiders.”

Well, no. Studies of online chat corpora show that only about 20% of chat language is abbreviated or innovative, and of that 20%, nearly all of the uses are transparent, fairly standard abbreviations. The intent in using such language isn’t to obscure, it’s to move faster, so chatters gravitate towards language that is both clear and quick. When obfuscation occurs, it is usually later clarified through context and restatement.

4. “As the Internet becomes more prevalent, leetspeak, including acronyms that used to appear only in text messages like ‘LOL’ for laughing out loud, is finding a voice.”

There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the full form of leet-speak is little more than a historical curiosity mainly perpetuated by ignorant journalists and ironic Interwebbers who use it precisely because it’s stale and out of fashion, kind of like saying, “you bet your bippy” or “it’s the bee’s knees!”

Also, LOL isn’t leet-speak. It’s simply an acronym used online.

5. “The words’ growing offline popularity has stoked the ire of linguists, parents and others who denounce them as part of a broader debasement of the English language.”

This is wrong in at least three ways.

First, the offline, oral popularity of online chat language is limited to a handful of words: LOL, BRB, WTF, pwn, and a few others. If its popularity is growing orally and offline, it’s by one or two words every few years. That’s hardly a trend.

Second, no linguist I know is showing ire about this. I know lots of them, starting with my wife and moving on to my colleagues in the American Dialect Society, the Linguistic Society of America, and the Dictionary Society of North America. I read their journals, listen to them report their research at conferences, and read their weblogs.

Third, Robert Hartwell Fiske isn’t a linguist. He’s a self-involved curmudgeon—that’s not a compliment, but a criticism of his intellectual limitations—who is the go-to guy for the same kind of dismissive claptrap you’ll hear from anybody who’s speaking on language outside their area of expertise.

6. “These ‘elite’ users developed leetspeak, occasionally to conceal their hacking plans or elude text filters. (It still has that use for some: ‘pr0n’ is leetspeak for pornography.)”

This defies logic. It assumes that people who are online are idiots who believe that nobody’s on to them. It’s a secret language! It’s safe, like pig latin! Nobody will ever figure it out!

Bunk, I say. It’s simply a playful way of writing that looks futuristic, different, anarchic, challenging. If it was ever used for obfuscation, that obfuscation lasted about ten minutes.

The idea of “elud(ing) text filters” as the source of l33t is inane, no matter where or how often this myth is repeated. It assumes stupidity on the part of the hacker-hunters, that they would not, after the first encounter with a respelling of a keyword (warez or pr0n, for example) also add it to their text filters.

In my experience on the bulletin boards, “elite” has always referred to the posers and the wannabes—better referred to as the “l33t”—not the truly elite. Such leet-speak was used not by the truly elite, who were having their conversations and file-sharing activities in closed or encrypted environments, but by the naive, the n00bs, and the numbskulls.

Nobody who is truly elite considers themselves elite, nor cares about it, nor would they adopt a language to prove it. It really is a nice manifestation of the saying “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me.” In fact, the only sure sign of elite status is invisibility to the non-elite. Otherwise, if you showed only the supposed trappings of being elite (like using the leet-speak lexicon) but not the activities of eliteness (having valuable warez, inside connections, special privileges, admin status, proven hacking skills), then you are not elite but only l33t.

author avatar
Grant Barrett