Universal Slanguage

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Internet's e-slang takes a big leap

Slang has come a long way (baby) since those Cotton Club days when bandleader Cab Calloway would ask his cool-cat crowd, "Are you hep to the jive?"

Where once slang was the language of street corners and nightclubs, it is now the language of radio and television. In today's media marketplace, slang is immediate and mainstream. Thanks to magazines and music videos, hip-hop slang is seen and spoken around the world. In East Coast academia, meanwhile, Amherst College introduced a course on "Spanglish" to its 2000 language arts curriculum.

"World War II is the dividing event," says Dr. Donna Jo Napoli, chairwoman of the linguistics department at Swarthmore University. "Before that, slang was constrained by geography, but with radio first and then television, slang became national.

"And now with the Internet, slang is international."

Ah, the Internet – that ultimate explosion of media and technology. As it turns out, the Internet is the perfect platform for slang.

Communication in cyberspace is postmodern hieroglyphics – think capital letters signifying a scream or emoticons, those keyboard constructions such as the sideways smiley-face made with a colon and closed parenthesis. It is also collective shorthand – think ad-hoc anagrams such as IMHO for "in my humble opinion" or BTW for "by the way." And in such a cyberworld, slang is the lingua franca.

"Everybody talks about English being the dominant language of the Internet, but that's only half the story," says Tony Summerlin, vice president of marketing and strategy for the e-Business division of Unisys Corp.

"Cyberspace is a slang-driven medium – even its name is slang. And the flow of slang goes both ways; it's not just TV broadcasting to the world. It's everyone broadcasting to everyone else in a language that's kind of English, with a bunch of other things mixed in."

That two-way slang exchange is just one of the ways the Internet is a new and different medium. Another important difference is that slang has always been a spoken-word tradition, and the Internet is a written-word medium.

"With the Web," says Dr. Napoli, "slang tends to be defined by interests, the way it was once defined by geography. I know several people who are members of an online math forum. To talk to any of them, you would never notice a thing, but when they are typing to each other, they use all sorts of slang."

Of course, context has always been the cornerstone of slang – used at certain times, in certain settings with certain people to establish and maintain connections and boundaries. So much of the slang that gets typed around the Internet may not be appropriate if used in some real-world setting. Not only that, chances are it wouldn't make any sense.

"Much of the slang produced on the Web is orthographic in nature, often in the form of visual games. 'Byte' and 'bite' sound the same; you have to see them."

While some Internet slang can't make the jump from the screen to the street, much of it does. Think of all the real-world words that have been claimed or appended by slang's cyber-proliferation. Add another to the list of meanings given by slang to the word "cookie" (see glossary at left). And what product, or noun for that matter, hasn't yet been hitched to either "cyber" or "virtual." On one of last Sunday's television roundtables of Washington pundits, a guest bemoaned the "dot-commodification" of the stock market.

The funny thing is that even as the Internet hurtles us on to a world beyond geography, slang somehow remains slang. On www.slanguage.com, Mike Ellis has created a site that collects and celebrates all the geographic nooks and regional crannies of slang in categories covering cities, states, countries, occupations, on and on.

"This is a golden age of slang," says Mr. Ellis, who has recently published a book, Slanguage, based on his Web site. "It's like the Jazz Age, only it's happening on computers instead in nightclubs."

So how about it, are you hep to the jive? Click here if your answer is yes.