Broken Words, Broken Text: An Essay on the Nature of Written Communication and Plain Speak on the Internet

Broken Words, Broken Text: An Essay on the Nature of Written Communication and Plain Speak on the Internet

By
Leane Roffey Line, PhD c. 2008

Disclaimer: If you are Gen Y or Net Gen you probably will not need to read this essay. It is a very long document full of things you already know. It is on this blog by request. thx. LRL

Taking a page from the book of modern life, the one on interior design that says “clear up the clutter, store the stuff”, broken words and broken text can be thought of from the point of view of “containers” and “stuff that goes into containers” in terms of the interior design of telecommunications. Breaking a word clears a lot of clutter from the written line, as we shall see, and can introduce different kinds of clutter from what ordinary speakers of a language are used to – clutter which causes some people distress, and which serves as an identity statement for others.

Never have I seen a topic more clearly divided along generational lines as this idea of “broken words/broken text” as a valid method of internet communications. Yet, as I will point out later in this essay, forms of this phenomenon have been around “in real life” for years. The difference here is that these words are written representations of what (in non net related circumstances) would represent verbal speak, hence, there are no standards, few rules (or rulz as I like to say), and even fewer guides as to how to do it. It is largely an intuitive process in many ways.

This essay will point out some instances of broken words/broken text, and I urge the reader to do his or her own searches on the topics in this essay as it will help stretch your imagination, and help you “wrap your mind” around the ideas herein. Because it is an essay of observations, I’m not going to pose what I have to say in a “scholarly cloak” of college speak, nor pepper the ideas here with a lot of self-serving footnotes to lend credibility. This is an incredible phenomenon, and is non-logical, only barely rational, and nonsensical in many respects. Probably it is not a suitable subject for rational, logical scientists or linguists to pursue. Luckily, I don’t claim to be that, so I’m going to pursue it. The reader will make hir own judgements about it all no matter what I say, and that is how it should be. Did you get what I meant when I used “hir”? Handy broken word, that!

On and off the web, in both writing and verbal communications, varieties of language such as jargons, colloquialisms and dialects involve broken words. Only on the web can you find “containers” of broken word, broken text which are used in live communications which often have verbal intent behind the written word. In some ways these are modern sitting rooms, where people gather to talk and play. Whole worlds (www.secondlife.com ) exist on the web where people can coexist in ways not dissimilar to meeting in clubs and restaurants. Distance is no longer the obstacle it used to be to interpersonal communication.

So, when is a word broken, and what is “broken text”?

Let’s start with breaking words. A word is unusable if in breaking it I have reduced entropy to the point where the word is no longer recognizable in meaning and intent. This concept is key, and while it doesn’t describe wholly the container of broken words, it does reflect a quality common to most of them. In addition to reducing entropy, redundancy is often reduced as well.

Broken words take many forms: deliberate misspelling, use of abbreviation, use of forms (such as numbers) that represent certain sounds. Strung together, they form a sort of “broken text.” What do they have in common? The two factors that I see are first, that they save typing, and second, that they are easily understood by a large number of people with little explanation. Broken text has a philosophical meaning as well. (Broken Text has another whole use as well — it can also refer to the process of rasterizing and breaking up text into pixels. I am not using it in the graphic sense.)

Broken text describes a writing style. The philosophical usage of it is found in later Wittgenstein for example. Really, it is a style that is non-systematic, rambling, and digressive, marked by transitions from one subject to another. Short “sayings” that function as basic communicative units. It’s certainly the style in which chat should be treated. It depends on resonance being stirred up in the receiver for effect. (A great example of a broken text novel is given at severerepair.com, “Severe Repair: The Broken Text: by Frank Edward Nora, a really nice work of sci-fi).

Using broken words in broken text can leave a great deal “unsaid” from which the receiver can infer yet more meaning, provided the reader has a resonance of some kind with the writer.
Some pragmatic aspects of meaning might call this quality of resonance “emotive meaning”, but broken words and broken text phrases go beyond mere emotions and can essentially describe states of being that include emotions but are not limited to them. These states of being I am calling “resonant states” and the process of communication this essay describes entails establishment of resonance on the part of writer and reader. Once that resonance is present, it need not be word specific, as the human mind will parse an incredible amount of information from very little information, or from expressions distorted beyond the pale of written literature found off the internet in other printed forms of information. Only on the internet do you have the unique situation where you are essentially communicating through a live verbal exchange in a written medium through broken words, broken text, be it in a chat room, or game forum. Email and blogging are static forms, essentially, in that the text is sent, and response comes back usually the same way. Broken words/broken text is a dynamic form, and response is immediate.

Much like clothing that is either neatly folded or just wadded up into a dresser drawer, broken words can be messy or neat. Messy broken words are often typos that have become standardized in written communication, and literally define some internet venues. Some sites have capitalized on this phenomenon, such as http://www.icanhascheezburger.com . The plain speak used by the cats (kittehs) featured on the site is often also found in chat rooms and provides hours of amusement. It’s messy, but easily understood once you get the hang of it. The site has recently started a “lolspeak university” (great illustration of the points in this essay at http://speaklolspeak.com/page/LOLspeak+101), which promises to be even more amusing than the photographs. All joking aside though, the lolspeak pidgin works for a great number of people. Sites that combine chats with forums and blogs are particularly attractive venues in which to use broken words/broken text.

Neater broken words are found in other plain speaks such as text speak and chat speak. The last ten years have seen lexicons of such words and word phrases assembled and digested by millions. Combinations of messy and neat broken words are found in chat rooms, I see a great variety on certain flash game sites for example, and although am not on AOL at this time, am sure that the AOL chats, for example, are doing as well if not better than they were ten years ago. In fact, I’d put the real date for the emergence of this phenomenon around the time AOL dropped it’s pricing to make a form of the net accessible over it’s ISP to everyone back in the late 1990s. Now, the emphasis by MSN and AOL is to get these same users (with their buddy lists and chat) over to broadband, eliminating slower dial-up services. MSN has begun an online marketing campaign to lure AOL users, for example, and stresses that those who switch can still keep some of their most treasured features of AOL: instant messaging and buddy lists. If instant messaging (and presumably chat) is important enough to be considered in a major marketing campaign, aspects of this communication are also important enough to be discussed – hence, this paper.

Broken words/broken text represent “stuff” and “containers for stuff” in my interior designer organizer metaphor. These are not mutually exclusive, although it is rarer to find a broken word that is used as a container, except in cryptography and where it has been otherwise defined (such as in acronyms and military speak).

Breaking words can be thought of as “decluttering” in the sense that it usually saves bandwidth, which is becoming an increasingly important criteria in global internet communication. To take a sentence like “Oh, I see”, and break the words to “oic” results in considerable space saving, for example, and a significant reduction in entropy.

The most common source corpus from which broken words can be generated is any plain speak. To break a word, you shorten or morph it into something smaller, which still has the same meaning as the original word. In some cases the word has the same number of letters but the conventions and grammatical rules are ignored for the sake of communicating. The emphasis on pragmatics overrides structure.

In actually breaking a word, I look at the following question:

If the word is standing alone, out of context of any kind, what gives it meaning in the first place such that if I break it, you will still know what it means?

I, as the breaker, am looking at a form of resonance with my receiver. I am assuming that receiver will have a sense of what I am saying, such that if I break a word, he or she will be able to follow along. Broken words convey more than standard dictionary meaning in many cases. If the meaning of a word is its use in a language, I submit they are containers, and contain levels of meaning that go beyond the word as it is commonly used in English, for example. I have to make some assumptions:

Spelling is a container.

Grammar is a container.

Punctuation is a container

The parent language of the word I am about to break is a container.

There is an ubercontainer that contains my parent language, but also something that my receiver possesses, either a sense of my parent language, or some memetic that will enable my receiver to understand my “break”, or at least give us the basis to construct the break.

My word I am breaking is stuff I want to take out of containers of spelling, grammar, and punctuation and put a container that contains the parent language, but also has cultural and now global memetics. In many cases, I not only do not know who my receiver is, but I don’t know where in the world they might be located. A feature of net chat, especially where avatars and screen names are concerned, is that I do not know the identity of my receiver. In fact, even if they told me their identity, it might not be the truth. So I am talking, in a sense, to a resonating space containing some unknown but present identity.

If words in plain speak are broken and the result transmitted in broken texts, you have the basis for a new pidgin. This would be important if the word had high recognition among text speakers, for example, or was actually defined as an agreed-upon convention. Many of these pidgin languages have roots in what I call “global resonance”, an almost ESP-like phenomenon that occurs when people get sucked into the containers of chat speak and web surfing. If you have not experienced personally what it is like to “go inside” your computer while chatting, it will be very difficult for you to appreciate what is being said here. The closest way I can describe it is to compare it to a Remote Viewing experience, but one that has almost instantaneous and immediate feedback. For experience in Remote Viewing, and other resonators, you can register with http://www.gotpsi.com and try some of their tests. For those of you who resonate with what I am saying here, you know that at times your keyboard and mouse are literally extensions of your mind through which you “speak”, and your intent will drive your communication. All these words really lose meaning here.

Broken words and broken text do not have logical form. They do not, I believe, have a home in any formal semantics, and are not part of the Chomskian paradigm.

The closest place so far that I’ve been able to provide for myself a rigorous basis for them has been in the utterance of Rudolph Carnap, who suggested that a metatheory of semiotics might be possible. (Rudolph Carnap, “Foundations of Logic and Mathematics,” International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949). Carnap outlined a construction of a theory that included pragmatics, semiotics and logical syntax of the object language, which is formulated then into a metalanguage. This might include linguistic expressions that relate somehow to the speaker’s intention, linguistic ability, belief, audience, and usage context – we lump these together as “pragmatics”. If we eliminate the speaker, and the hearer, what is left is language stuff that can be combined either in part or whole with objects, events and designated occurances. Typically, this is called “semantics”. If we pull the designated occurances from the picture, we are left with the expressions themselves, and their relations (such as they are). This is commonly known as “syntactics.” Here, however, the model breaks down in the case of broken words, because there really is no grammar that covers all the ways the stuff can be put into containers. So, going one level further, there exists no logical syntax for broken words, broken texts. The best I can do is show by example, and let the receiver extrapolate for himself what the meaning and intent of the stuff really is all about.

Types of Broken Words

There are many types of broken words, and how they are used in broken text is only limited by the imagination of their creators. I’m only going to illustrate a few containers here, just to give the reader an idea of how the swarm is breaking words. (All these examples were taken from a chat on http://www.kongregate.com on 7/8/2008, the avatar names were not used in my examples below):

QWERTY

The use of the keyboard has caused its own share of broken words. Commonly you will see “the” and “like” spelled with the e moved to the interior position of the word and the consonant on the end. “teh” for “the” etc.

People commonly make typos, and due to the human brain’s ability to find the right word based on its context, no one bothers to correct them.

Ex. “u wat me to go youtube” for “do you want me to go to youtube (a website that features videos)”. Here the n was left out of want, but the receiver got the message anyway. The sender wanted to show them something on their youtube account.

Use of Letters to Represent Sound Values

Ex. “o”, “Using ‘o’ for “oh”.

Ex. “m” for “am”.

Many times context plays an important part in what the letter represents, but sometimes these broken text/broken word sentences stand alone:

Ex. “imjk” for “I am just kidding you”

Ex. “nm” for “no matter” but it can also mean “not much”. In this case the receiver had a question and sent text to the sender as “nm=?” meaning “what are you using nm to represent here?”

Alpha Number Language

Ex. “w8” for “wait”, and 4 for “for”.

No punctuation

“im” for “I’m”, can also mean “I am”.

“u cant” for “You can’t”.

Letters vs. Words, Used as Broken Text

Ex. “k ru Mina im John” for “okay, are you Mina, I am John.”

Letter substitutions

Ex. “wot du u want” for “what do you want”

I see a lot of “th” being represented by “d”.

Punctuation, Letters and Numbers Used to Express Emotion Words

Ex. “;)” for a wink

A whole industry, that of making “emoticons” has arisen from the use of such broken words. Emotions are hard to represent sometimes without a great many words. What is available now are agreed upon expressions and also emoticons. Again lexicons of most of this type broken word/broken text are available, so many new ones are being added that rather than listing them here, I recommend that the reader just do his own search.

Dropping suffixes

A common way to break a word is to drop inflectional and derivational suffixes.

Ex. “icant c clear tdy” for “I can’t see clearly today.”

Dropping letters out of words

Ex “so, lol, shoud go now” for “so, (laughing out loud), I should be going now”

Here the “l” has been removed from “should”.

Changing Meaning of Words

Ex “dis room owns” means something like “this room owns my soul, money, heart, etc., it is one of my favorite places”. I’ve seen this expression used to represent a feeling, and also to explain how vested a person is in a room or game, in that the in game assets are all “in the room”. It is a complex use of the word “own” which, after all, is being expressed about a virtual space, not a physical one.

Using Made Up but Agreed On Expressions

Ex. “om nom nom” or “um nom nom”

This one has been defined at http://www.urbandictionary.com as the sound emitted when ravenously eating something tasty. Best popularized by Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. The “om nom” sound byte grouping is featured also in several different website applications, search with a search engine will reveal the uses the phrase has. As far as I know, these are made up words strung together and given a swarm meaning.

Ex. “lol wot” means “what?” said in a friendly laughing way, unhostile way.

Text Speak

As more people now are accessing the net through cell phones, etc. a lot of text speak is showing up in chat.

Ex. “idk” for “I don’t know”.

To be a really successful bit of stuff, a broken word has to resonate globally with a large population of speakers or it will not be put into a container like a sentence.

Ex. The use of the number four (4) to represent “for” or “-fore” as in “b4” (before)

This is a successful bit of stuff, and can be easily dropped into containers of many kinds, including broken text (b4 u, “before you”), and names (web addresses with b4 in the url).

Ex. “xlnt” (excellent). Not broken syllabically really, but by sound and then reassembled using letters which sound like “ex” and “ell”, and combined with “nt” representing “ent”. Once this broken word is understood by the receiver, it ceases to be the word “excellent” and really represents a variety of ideas and emotions, such as pleasure or joy that something works. So if you type “xlnt” in chat, you are communicating more than just “excellent” as a word.

Antecedents for Broken Words

Broken words in the form of contractions and visual substitutions have existed for years, especially in occupations where people have to communicate quickly, such as “diner jargon”, “CB radio jargon”, and “Military jargon”. To me, jargon is a container, but these phrases, when inserted into search engines, will get you to websites where you can see some examples.

One example that has made its way out of the diner and into plain speak is the use of the words “cuppa joe” for “a cup of coffee”. That one’s been around since WWII at least.

A great online collection of CB radio jargon can be found at the Citizen’s Band Midwest site at http://home.att.net/~wizardoz/cbmw/cbphpatch.html . There are some really great examples here of all sorts of broken words/broken text.

What the swarm is doing on the internet is no different really, except that the creation of broken words/broken text is more like a written interpretation of some sort of verbal plain speak.

The other point I need to make here is that once an expression has been used, there is no guarantee that it will remain the same over time in meaning. The meaning of expressions change, and the astute reader will pick up the shifts as fast as they can be created.

Ex. I have seen the phrase “r u spy” used in several contexts, one in which “spy” referred to a state of being – a fashion hip sense – and another in which it was used to intimate spying on the person. Both I believe are derived from “spy” meaning to catch sight of, perceive, to see, but in one case it is more an objective modifier and has an overall context meaning “I can be looked at because I dress, act, etc. well” and in the other it is used as a transitive verb, to mean actually looking at the person in a secretive fashion. In both cases, it was “spy” and not “spying”. In both cases, it refers to “seen and be seen”.

The Roles of Meaning and Intent

Broken words aren’t limited to dictionary meanings, but can contain myriad subtexts. Wittgenstein said “For a large class of cases, though not for all, in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in a language.” (Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell, Third Edition, c. 2001, 43).

How people use these words and their containers is different based on the medium in which they are operating. In the case of this paper, the medium (which can be both stuff and container, depending on what you are doing) is the internet. It is not paper, for which your hand is the method to make scribbles called letters and so forth; it is not speaking, for which you would employ your mouth. It is instead, an electronic medium over which you can transmit a phrase that would otherwise be spoken, in a written manner. Given that plain speak (probably the most common 300 words in a language) exists, the need to save on typing and to compress as much information as possible into a short phrase drives the broken word/broken text. The receiver must be able to parse the statement and somehow “know” the intended meaning.

Words that make most effective stuff for broken words come from plain speak. Plain speak may be thought of as the most common two or three hundreds words in a language, ones that are used by most people most of the time, but certainly are not limited to those words. There are different types of plain speak. Plain speak for a specialist (like a cook in a diner, a CB radio operator, or a person in the Military) might be different from common plain speak used in trade or barter. Plain speak belongs to the container of “language games”.

Most languages will not allow for “broken words”, but it seems English is particularly fragile. Here I am mainly concerned with text speak, and global communication through written means, not vocal utterances over microphones or webphone. The concept itself is dependent on several things: the probability of the broken word being understood as the unbroken word, and the word’s “global recognition” (yet another new concept, now plausible thanks to ciphers & koine’, like alpha number language and abbreviations in wide use on the web).

I believe the need for broken words resulted from exposing large groups of people in the 1990s to chat through various ISPs such as AOL. In those days, when one entered a chat room online, comments often whizzed by at such a rate that a slow typist (especially someone not used to the ten finger method) would have a very difficult time responding. Before emoticons, emotions and actions were represented by the use of combined punctuation marks, or in a punctuation container (ex. ::smiling sweetly::) It was often difficult if not impossible for a person to keep up with the rapidity of the screen rolling by.

People began abbreviating commonly used phrases, and a host of broken text appeared, using broken words, in this case meaningful commonly accepted letters linked together in a phrase. (ex. ROFL = rolling on the floor, laughing). Outside of the specific phrase the letter might or might not mean the same thing (ex. R does not always mean “rolling” except when it does).

Containers and Stuff

Different processes, not all rational, or logical, may come into play when stuff (a broken word, for example) is created. I decide I’m going to break the word “friend”. An example:

Ex. At what point do you NOT know what I mean?

A. Friend
B. Frend
C. Frnd
D. Fnd
E. Fd

To my I, it is obvious the word is “broken” at D. Why? Because the probability of
its recognition is now small. Fnd might be considered “completely broken” because it
could be “friend”, yet, it could also be “fiend”, “fend”, “fund”, “find”, etc.

Further, with some words, one can discard the last letter, and the word will still be obvious. We already use some of these broken words under the guise of abbreviations, such as y for yes and n for no.

So, several things happen in breaking words. These, of course, I have attempted to sketch in this essay. What started this was that I received an email from someone with paragraphs written in almost gibberish, ending with some homily like “see, you understood more than you thought you did”. Words were missing letters, parsed completely differently running into other words, etc. and still you could make sense of the contribution. This immediately got me thinking about why someone would do that to a perfectly good English paragraph, and then I realized that for the purpose of communication over broadband, less was more. The swarm knew this, in fact, had already proceeded to develop broken word/broken text long before I started participating in chat or in game forums. Now, I am just describing what I see.

I am seeing words given new use, and one can no longer just use the terms “jargon” and “colloquial” to dismiss the phenomenon. This new use is often quickly adopted and in some cases defined by a world-wide community, and furthermore, changes at a rapid rate. Expressions seem meaningless, but not when they are looked at from the aspect of their usage in the language. The point is that the people who use these words understand, with high probability, what they are intended to mean, in fact, they are used in online situations in place of verbal speak.

It is out of the realm of philosophy, perhaps, and meaning and interpretation are now in the realm of probability. The key factors are acceptance (nearly immediate in this generation) and recognition (also immediate). My own generation of Boomers is somewhat behind the curve. It will indeed mostly pass us by, as we see ourselves as formalists left over from a different time. (In our world, the idea of “scholar” meant someone who could write something only 37 people in the world would understand. That of course lost its appeal when PhD’s were pumping gas in the 1970s – it’s coming back into vogue now in this time of economic crisis). Furthermore, the use of broken words, which often contain expressions of forms meant to represent sounds, has been with us for a while.

The email I referred to earlier relates to the idea of Darnell’s Clozentropy tests. These tests are designed to show that native language speakers will get most of the meaning most of the time from text phrases with words or letters left out of phrases in a regular fashion (such as every fifth word ) their native language.

What this really means is reduction in entropy. We know languages can be redundant, but what we don’t know or at least were not really made aware of until fairly recently is that they are also fairly elastic. Breaking words often will not destroy meaning, especially if the intent is “corralled” such as in a chat, where topics can be fairly specific, until such time as the word is fully broken. Some words never do exactly break. These are elastic and can be stretched from their simplest forms to communicate meaning, especially if used in combinations of broken text in plain speak.

These ideas have roots in communication theory going back as far as I can remember. In fact, in the 1940s engineer Claude Shannon was concerned with signal transmission – it all came down to reducing entropy. His partner Warren Weaver expressed it better when he realized that what needed to happen was reducing information loss. (See http://www.afirstlook.com/archive/information.cfm?source=archther ) If instead of condensing or removing words, procedures were applied to words and say, the letters removed, you have essentially a way to break words because such procedures as removing letters from words test both comprehension of meaning and appreciation of intent of the speaker. Here, I believe resonance plays an important part as to what is communicated. In this respect intent can play an important part in driving a receiver to appreciate what a speaker is trying to say. Resonance is often solidified in these types of chats by repeating the same line multiple times (spamming) until response is received.

Ex. A frown “:(” was repeated by a person in the room several times, until the other chat room members were driven to ask the speaker, “so why u sad?” The person then had the floor and remarked on something going on in his game. These chat members gather in this room and each plays their individual flash game. It is as if they are in a public pinball parlor online.

Therefore, a word is fully broken when the information it is meant to convey is lost. This goes back to source-channel-receiver, the only difference is the channel. A word conveys information and ceases to be of value only when its ability to reduce entropy is obscured beyond the point of resonance. A broken text message is meaningless only when its useless in combating entropy. The less predictable the message, the more information it is likely to contain. A language game between sender and receiver is played. If the game is played successfully, something is communicated.

Addendum as of 7/29/2008: A friend of mine actually found that email! It read as follows:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

now, all I have to do is find which research at Cambridge. LRL

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