Developing Global Language: Alpha Number Words and Related Topics

The Use of Alpha Number Words: An Emerging Global Common Written Language

by Leane Roffey Line PhD, (c) 2008

DISCLAIMER This essay is a commentary. It is not a definitive compendium. It is a study of a trend I have been following for some time, and really represents a series of my observations about something I call alpha number language, for lack of a better term. Alpha number words are a subset of broken words, which I have addressed in another essay Broken Words/Broken Text, and are characterized by “rebus” form, as letters and numbers are used together to build sound bytes or represent sound strings (not syllabic, merely numerical positions).


Alpha number language appears in the common written language when letters and numbers combine to form a new word, or a word that is in some way a representation of an existing word, and those words are used to communicate something. It has some global characteristics. One, it is a function of the swarm. Two, because it is a function of the swarm, the probability of it being understood easily (especially in swarm clusters) is high. (This is in contrast to shorthands, which were usually compiled by a single individual or small groups of individuals, and then picked up by specific groups of individuals.) Alpha number language crosses cultural boundaries. In fact, it is itself an expression of inter- and intra- cultural memes, in that it is behavior which is being shared across national boundaries, and behavior which meets the needs of reducing uncertainty, increasing predictability, and otherwise promoting growth among swarm members, in short, a cultural phenom. It shows up everywhere, not just in virtual space but also is used in restaurants and international meetings. I look at it as a “cipher” language, almost a con-lang, a novel way of permuting spelling and forming words to communicate, but not written by any one person, rather by a swarm of people having no connection to one another save by way of swarm intersection. Once the receiver “gets it”, communication is almost instantaneous from that point forward, making it easily learned and widely used.


A feature of this language is that it represents a cross between a number used as a numeral and a number used as a shape. Because people’s roots are mercantile, the swarm is actually empowered to communicate by the need to talk, (or write), trade and barter – a fundamental activity of humanity after securing food and shelter, and the ubiquitous propagation of the species – and alpha number language is quickly finding its way into nooks and crannies of the society, making it a type of koine’. It quickly translates across East/West boundaries as well, in that adoption of a mixed character set, alpha numeric “slang” is often used in game chat, where players come from around the world to play. Just about every flash game site, for example, has it’s own chat frame, which often is as entertaining (or as gross) as playing the game.

In some cases, alpha number language reflects agreed-upon conventions. In others, it is a free expression of creative use of number shapes to form words. In every case, with a little thought, it is an effective means of rewriting words that are otherwise just taking up too much bandwidth. There are several threads of number usage creeping into written languages. I am calling the resulting “word” an alpha number word, and the use of these words in written speak in particular “alpha number” language. I believe eventually non-verbal forms of number usage will also come into verbal speak (such as using two fingers to represent the preposition “to”, and perhaps some signs from the language for the deaf) as people explore ways to save time. Increasing globalization and the need to communicate between disparate cultures, just to trade if nothing else, will lead to a form of alpha number language that uses numbers and gestures as well as words. Again, to save time, the swarm is creating its own method of communicating, as it has done from the days of the silk-road traders, and probably into prehistory.


Most alpha number language antecedents these days have their roots in something related to technological communication, whether it be from the world of computers or from the newer mobile technologies, such as cellular phones with message screens accommodating Short Message Service (SMS).

In its earliest forms, the needs for this type of abbreviating probably came out of the use of communications screens in CICS systems, and before that from information fields restricted to 24 characters in flat files. Over the years this has gradually expanded, but so has the need to communicate more information quickly, in even shorter bursts. There is no limit to human creativity when functioning as a swarm trait.

In other situations, such as short order cooking scenarios, abbreviated languages have long been in use.

Alpha number languages, I believe, have deep roots in languages of all people. This is why they are so easily accepted. Because I am an English speaker, it is easier for me to analyze how they appear in Romance and Germanic schools. I have, however, no doubt that in Oriental languages number symbols play an important part as well.

In the western world, for example, evidence of shorthand shows up in the fourth century BC in Greece. This piece of archeological evidence merely points out to me that the ciphering process was already in such common use, someone “wrote it down” by carving it on a rock, probably as a permanent teaching tool. Wikipedia is loaded with references on both the subjects of shorthands and abbreviations. I am looking at the class of ciphers in which letters and numbers appear in a single word.


Since this is an essay, and not a scientific study, I am choosing to present some cases to the reader as to how this written common language may help improve communications. I have no doubt this will cause moans and groans among members of generations of people for whom proper spelling was considered a badge of learning. The flaws in that theory are pointed out many places, but my favorite site for discussions of these topics has to be at here , where the reader can find all sorts of interesting stories on what’s happening and why it needs changing. The swarm, in essence, will not wait for educators and the learned to catch up. If a language is needed for communication, especially for trade, it will be generated. I think that is what is happening with alpha number language.

I see several areas in which alpha number words are used to convey very high context ideas. The most significant of these is in the area f the international computing environment, which of necessity, has created its own very efficient language.

These international consortiums, such as IBM, have agreed that certain long words will be abbreviated, in fact written, using an alpha number language. This usage is increasing in importance as questions of saving bandwidth, or simply making typing faster, become more prevalent.

In these symposium and computing environments, common words are abbreviated using numbers, such as i18n for “internationalization” or g11n for “globalization”. The numbers here refer to the number of letters between the first and last alpha character of the word.

These usages go back to the 1970s and 1980s and have now percolated into industry standards, as well as common webspeak.

Again, Wikipedia is loaded with examples, some key words are “internationalization”, “localization”, “globalization”, etc. Computer software today must be adapted for non-native environments, especially other nations and cultures outside the USA and UK. Internationalization is designing a software application so it can be adapted to various languages and regions without engineering changes. Localization refers to adapting software for a specific region or language by adding locale specific components – including translating text. Just how pervasive is this? This morning’s (6/11/2008) search on “i18n” using brought up 7,711,408 hits. Google brought up 10,200,000 hits. These words are now Microsoft and IBM standard, insuring their survival.

That gives us some examples among professional communities, but what about the use of alpha number words among common people? Several areas were easy to identify as virtual breeding grounds for alpha number words. In principle, areas where phonically -unreliable words must be written are prime candidates for the use of ciphers of the alpha number variety. English, of course, is loaded with such words. Since English, too, is becoming more and more a common language of trade, alpha number words are going to show up more frequently, than in perhaps, written Finnish, which children pick up easily in comparison to English.


Today the most specific use of alpha number speak actually comes from the chat environment. This refers to chat rooms (which have been around a long time) and the use of text messages. The following, from Wikipedia section at text messaging, will lead the reader down some great rabbit holes.

“Text messaging, or texting is the common term for the sending of “short” (160 characters or fewer, including spaces) text messages from mobile phones using the Short Message Service (SMS). It is available on most digital mobile phones and some personal digital assistants with on-board wireless telecommunications. The individual messages which are sent are called text messages, or in the more colloquial text speak texts.”


So, how is an alpha number word made?

Constructing these words is simple. Generally, single digits can replace words – like “ate” becomes 8, “for” becomes 4, “to or too” becomes 2. It is an easy jump from that to using a single digit to replace a syllable. “Great” becomes “gr8”, etc. “Greater” becomes “gr8r” or better yet, “gr8+”, this leading to “Greatest” becoming “gr8++. “Before” becomes “b4”, and so on. By now, most people have seen uses of this phenomenon.


Pretty much, no, but the swarm plays creatively with the shapes of letters as well. Leetspeak (1337 speak) has been around a very long time in the minds of the computer literate, so much so that it is now looked on as obsolete. It is completely characterized by the usage of nonalpha characters to stand for letters bearing a shape resemblance (also a number of spelling changes but we will not go into that here). The origins of “b4” and “u2” were most probably leet, for example, although that is being debated in some circles. Leet was originally the province of hackers but quickly caught on to other online communities, such as bulletin board systems and among gamers, swarm classes that I’ll have to address in another article sometime.

LEETwas quickly adopted by chat room slangers, and leet speakers often refer to this innovation as “AOL speak”. Users who used ISPs like AOL were “newbies” in comparison to leet users. Chat roomers quickly added their own innovations, with the use of “stickycaps”, LiKe ThIs, which capitalizes every other letter, or “LiKe THiS” which capitalizes consonants. A great online dictionary of Chat Room slang is given here

I’m sure other sites exist, but I believe this one will give people who read this article a basic introduction to communications that have their origins based in short bursts of information in a computer environment. In particular, alpha number language asserts itself here in phrases like “f2f”, slang for “face-to-face”, and “NRN 1” for “No Response Necessary”. In most cases however, in chat room slang, letters are used. This may change as the number glyphs themselves assimilate new meanings.


By now, if you’re over 40, you’re asking yourself, why is this happening to me. I sympathize but the answer is a complex one and is not going to be easy to fathom.

Why is this all happening? Correspondent Anushka Asthana reported in the June 8th 2008 Observer that “The English spelling system is ‘absolutely, unspeakably awful’. That is the conclusion of new research that has found that children face 800 words by the age of 11 that hinder their reading because of the way they are spelt.”

I have noticed that children, and indeed some adults, are often nonplussed by letter combinations pronounced a different way, and are also confused by words with surplus letters (for example, the word “friend”, which does not change sound if the “i” is dropped). This presents a particularly hard learning curve for non-English speakers.

Later in that same article Asthana references the work of researcher Masha Bell, who has argued “that the spelling system was a huge financial burden on schools and was to blame for poor literacy results compared with the rest of Europe. In Finland, where words are more likely to be pronounced as they look, children learn to read fluently within three months… In the UK, academics have found that it takes three years for a child to acquire a basic level of competence.” I have no doubt that the results are about as typical in the USA as well. This goes double for children and working adults from disadvantaged families, or children and adults with disorders like dyslexia. If we are facing the results of years of sentence diagramming and spelling bees, and are coming up this short in the education areas designed to propagate the three R’s, then how can we blame the swarm for taking matters into their own hands with respect to the development of communication methods like alpha number language?

By far, my favorite use of alpha number language is found in restaurants. To speed up communication between non-English speaking cooks and English speaking waitstaff, the swarm has organized its own shorthand using alpha numbers. One local oriental restaurant uses “2B/ 2T” for “two buffets with 2 tea”. I’m sure if I looked, I would find countless examples of human ingenuity in the use of letters and numbers to communicate food orders.


I believe the trends I’m seeing here will continue to increase, in particular for words which are commonly used, or words that are problematic for reading. Simplifying the system will transform literacy results, but there are two problems. One, people are resistant to change, unless the need exists to change amongst the swarm — as it does while trading and playing games. Two, how do you measure literacy results if you transform the system? I am leaving the last up to the experts, because I believe the swarm will take care of the first whether the experts want them to or not. People will simplify the way in which word are spelt (or spelled as we say in the USA), especially if given limited space on a chat screen. In addition to the use of numbers, you will see greater phonetic uniformity emerge. People might not want to contemplate it, but based on the number of hits I’m getting on search engines alpha number word usage is a fact of global life. For example, Google just hit 66,300,000 occurences for “b4”. “4u” generated 27,200,000 hits. Now, if someone could just do something with the list of 100 of the most difficult words Asthana reports on, possibly we’d be in business.

(Excerpted from 100 of the most difficult words – c. Guardian News and Media)

Orange, foreign, rhinoceros, properly, vomit, tambourine, tournament, tourist,
heaven, engine, exquisite, opposite, advertisement, gnarled, rigid, risen, sinister,
spinach, video, vinegar, tie, wheelie, quiet, science, crier, pliers, soldier,
hazard,..,hexagonal, imagine, panic, radish, powder, cauliflower, plant, raft,
rather, salami, task, vast, kiosk, kiwi, machine, encourage, somersault, swollen,

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