Wireless wordplay

Less is more when cell phone users type in their silent shorthand

August 15, 2002|By Lini S. Kadaba | Lini S. Kadaba,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

RU der? GR8. Let's TLK bout all d abbrz & othr shrtcts poppin up mo&mo n MSGS, notes, even in d rspectd Oxford dxtnre.

This might look like a word jumble or a quirky personal ad -- unless you're younger than 25, in which case you know it's the lingo used by kids from middle school to college to communicate with buddies.

This language of chatting -- which started with instant messaging on the Internet -- is being compressed even further into a telegraphic shorthand used to send short text messages on cell phones.

Mobile messages are limited to 160 characters, making shortcuts -- from dropping vowels and some consonants -- snshl (essential) -- to abbreviating whole phrases. At the same time, the efficient electronic lingo is showing up in other places, including notes passed in class, snail mail letters, even the Oxford Dictionary.

"I use it a lot," says Suzanne Lilley, 20, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania who is majoring in communications. "When my friends are studying in the library, I message them and say, `I'm running late. See you outside in 10 minutes.'"

That's what she would say. But on her cell phone she would tap out (pressing the keys to form letters, for example, one click of the number 2 for A, two for B, three for C, and so on) this:

RNG L8. CU outside in 10.

"It's quick," says Lilley, who, like many her age, has little time to spare. "If I don't want to have a 20-minute conversation, I'll just text-message."

Mobile text messaging, which has exploded in Europe and Asia, is catching on in the United States, where industry analysts estimate users will increase from 1.4 million last year to 15 million by 2004.

"More and more teens are buying into the idea of communicating silently," says Harry Martin, director of data sales for Verizon Wireless. "They want private conversations."

In a survey commissioned by Verizon of 517 wireless phone and Internet users ages 15 to 40, 58 percent said they use text messaging while at movies, 41 percent at sports events or concerts, and 39 percent at lectures or classes.

Others say text messaging lets them avoid dirty looks when "chatting" on subways or in other public spaces.

And texting often costs only a few cents a message.

Instant messaging, on the Internet, won't die out. It will grow as online and cell-phone users send one another messages, says David Gang, an executive vice president of AOL, whose users send 1.4 billion IMs a day.

All of which is making an economy of words more prevalent. The survey for Verizon found widespread recognition of abbreviations, such as BRB (be right back) and TTUL (talk to you later).

In England, certain lingo is listed in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, including BBLR (be back later), CUL8R (see you later), and HAND (have a nice day). And adolescent campers stateside have been known to send postcards home with messages that look like cryptograms: WUWH. SND $$$. MU. B4N. (Wish you were here. Send money. Miss you. Bye for now.)

For the clueless, online cheat-sheets abound. Cingular Wireless offers its customers a pocket-size booklet called "get texting" with tips on sending messages while at parties, at the movies or at school -- the last carrying the admonition that "using your phone to cheat during tests is very, very naughty."

Brooks Russell, 14, of Wyndmoor, Pa., can keep 20 IM conversations going at once. "Everyone has their own words that they abbreviate," says Brooks, who favors BRB (be right back), SRY (sorry) and haha (instead of LOL, for laughing out loud). "We're all kind of lazy."

Matthew King, 14, of Olney, Pa., has given up IMing in favor of using his phone to text-message his pals. "It's fun," he says. "Sometimes it goes back and forth for awhile, if it's a good conversation."

Denise Krapf, the mother of a 12-year-old, can't quite figure out the language. "It's awful," she laments. "It's a bunch of little words that mean nothing."

To her. Her daughter, Heather, and her list of IM buddies (190 at last count) like the concise language, which keeps the chatter lively. Heather prefers to "talk" with a dozen friends at once, using purple Comic Sans MS typeface on a white background. (Girls care a lot about typeface and color. Boys don't.)

And her mother's confusion? "That's nice," she says. "It gives you more privacy."

Linguist Scott Kiesling of the University of Pittsburgh watches the phenomenon with interest. "The mode is a first in the history of mankind," he says. "It's in between speech and writing. It's much more like conversation. It's much more ephemeral."

Kiesling describes the brevity of text lingo as a "register of speech," meaning a way of speaking that marks the relationship with the group.

We speak one way to the boss, another to girlfriends. Among themselves, members of Gen TXT SPK DIS.

English teachers, take heart. Kiesling, for one, sees no threat here.

"The English language," he says, "is very malleable."

Which, IMHO, is GUD 2 knO.

L8R.

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