Youths send each other coded messages by converting pager numbers to letters Fastest-growing market is creating own lexicon

'9177' for 'good morning'

November 28, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- It's a secret language among friends.

It may look like a jumble of numbers and asterisks, but it's actually a growing lexicon of the mundane, offbeat and obscene.

Although the language doesn't have a name, young people across the nation rely on it to communicate those little messages that don't warrant a long conversation: "good night," "you're on my mind" or something decidedly less friendly.

By dialing numbers that look vaguely like digital letters -- right-side up or upside down -- the young linguists put together words and phrases.

"They're on the cutting edge," said Michael Haddad, of Soft-cell Communications in Beverly Hills, Calif. "They're the ones inventing the uses of the pager."

Youths in their teens to early 20s are the fastest-growing group of pager users, and companies from Motorola to MTV are scrambling to cater to them.

"Young people today are absolutely using pagers as a way to stay in touch with their friends and with their families," said Caroline Mockridge, spokeswoman for MTV, which now sells pagers.

The way they stay in touch is by relaying a code that conveys a mix of standard phrases and slang.

Suzie Mouradian, 17, a student at Pasadena High School in California, used to carry a frayed crib sheet that decoded numerical messages. When she started high school three years ago, students were just beginning to experiment with this new way to communicate.

"I've had so many people ask me to write out sheets," Suzie said. "Now, I know people who page like 10 people good night."

Sometimes pager-speak is a local dialect understood only among a group of friends, but many of the beeper codes follow a logic understood across regional and school boundaries.

For example, the command "go home" is written 90 (asterisk) 401773. In the digital world, 9 looks like g, 0s are obvious Os, 4 is a legless H, 1 next to two sevens approximates the shape of an M, and 3 is a backward E.

In New York City, Katrina Schultz, 17, spells good morning the same way people in the know do in Los Angeles. In the beginning, Katrina said, "I had to explain it to my boyfriend. I had to give him a list of which numbers stand for which letters."

But the code is not limited to English. In San Marcos, northwest of San Diego, Tania Vergara, 18, pages her friends in Spanish. After she types the phone number where she is, she leaves the numbers 50538, which if rotated upside down resembles the word "besos," or kisses.

"That's how they know it's me," she said.

Pager use is thriving among high school students in spite of laws in some states banning them from school grounds because of their use by drug dealers.

Teen-agers turn the beeper signal off and keep the pagers under wraps at school. And more and more, pagers are not only about concise communication, but style.

The beeper terms are "something young people understand and no one else does," said A. Michael Noll, professor of communication at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. "Something to distinguish themselves from older folks."

Noll compared it to police using a code over the radio and to "Valley talk," the slang developed by teen-agers in California's San Fernando Valley.

This younger generation has become the fastest-growing group of pager users, said Scott Baradell, director of corporate communications for PageNet. In the 1980s, he said, pagers were bTC plain black and mostly marketed to businesses.

"But kids were more interested in wild colors," Baradell said. "Young people are really trendy. You have to really keep up."

Color choices now include fluorescent and glow-in-the-dark.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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