PHILOLOGICA.NET
An Online Journal of Modern Philology ISSN 1214-5505
 

The Language of Chat

 

Markéta Johnová

2004-01-13

The article explores the language of chat. It compares online conversation with face-to-face conversation and describes the features characteristic of chat communication. Some of the attributes are statistically processed.

1 Introduction

In accordance with all the other media, the Internet has brought along its own language and culture. The language of the Internet mirrors the new communications technology – it is unpredictable, unrestricted and it evolves at an incredible speed. The following study hopes to provide a framework for a deeper understanding of Internet English, and the language of chat communication in particular.[*]

There is a number of possible designations for the language of the Internet. For this study I have chosen the term Netspeak. Although it originally started as technical jargon of computer experts, today Netspeak easily qualifies as slang open to anybody with Internet access.

Internet English is characterized by changes in spelling and grammar and widespread use of acronyms and abbreviations. The reason for this is to accelerate the communication (intentional misspelling of swear words is used in chat also in order to avoid exclusion from the room) as well as to sound colloquial. Informality is a typical feature of Netspeak. Neologisms are created primarily by affixation, blending and compounding. Some other productive ways of creating new words in Netspeak are changes of word classes and meaning. Specific use of punctuation and capital and lower-case letters and distinctive features such as emoticons or the use of non-alphabetical characters are employed in Netspeak in order to enhance the means of expression. Internet English reflects the general trend towards the economization of language and illustrates the playfulness and originality of the Internet users.

2 Preliminary notes to the analysis

At first sight, it may seem that Netspeak is used on all sites that have English as their official language and therefore a record of a discussion in any such chat room can provide a corpus for the analysis of Netspeak. However, if we take a closer look at the users of the majority of these chat sites, we shall see that this assumption turns out to be false.

There are thousands of chat sites in English, yet only a small number of these sites are visited solely by native English speakers. The vast majority of the best known chat sites (such as http://chat.yahoo.com, http://www.icq.com, http://www.msn.com) are multinational. The participants come from various countries and have different mother tongues; they often  go to the international chat sites in order to practise and improve their knowledge of English. Although Netspeak is also used on these sites, it happens so only to a certain extent. Acronyms, misspelling of a limited number of the most frequent words or the use of soundalike letters are popular in multinational chat rooms, but blending, compounding or changes in grammar are rarely if ever seen. The reason for this is simple - it is virtually impossible trying to play with a language we are not fully acquainted with. Since the primary goal of every communication is to convey the message successfully, many users of multinational chat rooms are unwilling to run the risk of being misunderstood by complicating the language they use. From the student’s of English point of view, Netspeak is a complication. There are many who have not yet mastered the morphology, lexicology and syntax of standard English and using Netspeak requires learning yet another language (even though it is a variant of English). Also, students of English certainly wish to be able to use the language outside the Internet environment and thus prefer learning (which is conditioned by using) it correctly.

Moreover, on big chat sites where one room usually hosts over 50 and more participants, a discussion on the main screen virtually does not exist (a good example of such site is http://chat.yahoo.com) or is rather scanty and often consisting of contributions which are not related to each other. The users then meet and chat in private rooms (an activity called whispering) which are not accessible for the rest of the participants. It is therefore complicated to analyse the language of such chat sites.

From the linguistic point of view, analysing the language of a randomly chosen chat room is likely to bring distorted results. Due to the anonymity of chat and the lack of credible information in the users’ profiles, it is impossible to identify the nationality of participants on international chat sites, not talking about their mother tongue. Since we cannot rely on the foreign users’ knowledge of English, we are unable to decide whether e.g. omission of an auxiliary verb is an example of non-standard usage typical of Netspeak or whether it is merely a grammatical mistake. Moreover, many users come from the countries where Standard West Indian English, Caribbean English, pidgin English or other variations of English are spoken. In such cases the non-standard usage of English has nothing to do with the language of the Internet. The matter of unintended mistakes (especially misspellings), whether they are caused by the user’s illiteracy or are the result of a typing error, naturally includes the native speakers too, but presumably these mistakes do not appear to such extent that they would degrade the validity of the analysis.

On the basis of the preceding facts, I was looking for a chat where the majority of the users (or possibly all of them) are native speakers. A way to find such a site is to preferentially search for chat sites addresses which end with the code of an English speaking country - ‘.uk’, ‘.us’, etc. instead of the general ‘.com’ or ‘.org’. Small and rather unknown chat sites or chat pages of Web sites popular only within a particular country proved out to be the most suitable ones.

The British chat site http://www.justchat.co.uk is relatively small – it includes 4 chat forums and 12 chat rooms (each forum has 3 rooms). The number of users in one chat forum is limited to the maximum of 100 participants at the same time. The popular search engine http://www.google.com offers 52,900,000 links for the keyword ‘chat’, http://www.justchat.co.uk being the 80th entry. [1] I have chosen one of the chat rooms and visited it for several months gathering information about its users and monitoring and analysing the language of the room. Although people usually do not give any personal information (they are even discouraged to do so by the chat safety rules), in most cases they answer the basic asl (age/sex/location) inquiry. Moreover, the fact that people habitually tend to visit the same chat room facilitated the survey. It was therefore possible to make sure that all the visitors whose contributions were used for this corpus are native speakers.

3 The analysis

The corpus of over 10,000 words I have used for the analysis is a record of several continuous discussions on the British chat site http://www.justchat.co.uk, chat forum 1, room ‘pub’. This room proved out to be the best for my study since it is the most frequented room on the site. The following figures  show the entry page of http://www.justchat.co.uk (Fig. 1) and a sample of chat in the room ‘pub’ (Fig. 2):

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

General conclusions and comparisons of various chat sites are based on empirical observations or statistics based on samples of 100 contributions to the discussion on chat sites http://chat.yahoo.com, http://www.spinchat.org or possibly http://www.icq.com.

3.1 Nicknames

The use of nicknames is a phenomenon characteristic of chat. One of the reasons why people feel so free in the virtual world is that they can choose a name under which they appear in cyberspace, therefore obtaining a new identity. There are two things which represent us in a chat room – the way we “speak” (i.e. our manners, vocabulary and readiness) and the nickname we use. The choice of the nick can tell us a lot about its user. While in the real life it is our parents who choose our name and then our friends who give us our nicknames we then identify with, in the virtual world we choose the nick ourselves and the only obstacle that can prevent us from using the nick we like is the fact that somebody else has already taken it. Apart from that there are no restrictions when inventing a name under which one appears in the chat room.

Dušková [2] explored the use of nicknames on Czech chat sites with the result that the majority of users have at least one permanent nick and that men change their nicks more often than women. Interestingly, 5.1% of men adopt more than 5 nicks, women do not have more than 3 nicks. Many people regularly visit several chat forums using different nicknames for each of them.

In real life it is our appearance and body language that (together with the way we speak) create the first impression. In chat it is the nick that conveys the message according to which users form the opinion of their partners. Originality and playfulness of nicknames is what counts in chat. The more catching the nick is, the bigger are the chances of being addressed by other users. The nick can comprise of one word (linzi) but it can also form a whole sentence (addicted_2_pain), it can include numbers (Kayuza720), non-alphabetical symbols (+*bat*+) or smileys (adam:O)), it can be a combination of capital letters and lower-case letters (cOrAL_gIRL). However, we should be aware that other users are likely to shorten the nicks which are too long and complicated, moving the meaning of the nick away from the original idea. It is difficult to predict which part of the nickname will be retained and which part will be dropped (sexy_cyber_male > sexy, Lady_Dragon > dragon). Often several variations can be used (father_xxxmas > xmas, father, santa) with each user choosing their own variant. Nicknames can be divided into several categories:

  • Legitimate names of the users (or their variants): lisa32, marty, Jonesy, **L@uReN** (names are more likely to be seen on small chat sites with open access).
  • Short characterization of the user (can include user’s age, sex, location, physical or character description): 19_m_scotland, angel_@_heart, Cardiff_Chick, maverick, huney, brown_eyed_girl, THE_CHARMER, mad4it.
  • Names of famous people or characters: Bridget_Jones, Dave_Gahan, father_xxxmas, DON_JUAN, ozzy, nixon (nicknames of this kind work on the principle of a carneval mask; the other users are always keen to join the game and play pretend since it is a productive topic.)
  • Animals, flowers, objects: mr_mole, queen_bee, petal, snow_flake, perfume, TheBigCheese.

The preceding division includes only the most frequent types of nicknames. Many nicks are ambiguous and are difficult to classify. [3]  

The major advantage of chat sites requiring membership is that once we subscribe no one can take our nickname. However, that inevitably means that each member has to come up with a new original name. On chat sites with thousands of subscribers this is getting increasingly difficult. This is why many nicks on these sites do not have name-like character and they largely include numbers and non-alphabetical characters.

Choosing a nick on a site that does not demand membership is much easier and it allows the user to adopt a new nick anytime they enter the chat room. Sometimes the participants even leave the room during the discussion and immediately come back under a different nick in order to confuse (or amuse) the others. Experienced users are able to log into one room several times using various nicks simultaneously and contribute to the discussion as different users answering their own questions or disputing their own statements. Here is an example of one user adopting three nicks at the same time (chatwithme, Davey, momy):

chatwithme >  momy will be here in a min so there nerrrrrr nerrrr
Guilty >  oi oi oi oi
Guilty >  hold it down boy
porphyria >  pml yep
huggybear >  pml
porphyria >  sort of but not quite
Davey >  whoops - here comes chats mum
* STARSKY  pulls gun on chats mum *
Davey >  nooooooo Star
porphyria >  whats with the mum jokes
=> momy Has Joined The Room
STARSKY >  lol

In this case the user sends two postings under two different names (chatwithme >  momy will be here in a min so there nerrrrrr, Davey >  whoops - here comes chats mum)  giving an indication that chatwithme and Davey are the same person and hinting that this user is about to enter the chat room for the third time under the name momy. From the reactions of the other participants we can see that STARSKY most presumably took the hint whereas porphyria did not understand immediately.

The disadvantage of chat sites with open access is that anybody can - knowingly or unknowingly - take the nick we use. There is an unwritten rule that one should not intentionally steal nicknames. Nevertheless, not everybody follows this rule. In the following sample of a chat conversation a user had adopted the nickname of a regular participant ~*Kayleigh~*  and tried to strike up a conversation with ~*Kayleigh~*’s friend ROBBO: [4]

=> ~*Kayleigh~* Has Joined The Room
~*Kayleigh~* >  Robbo babe xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx mwahxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxmwah :o)
-
ROBBO >  its fake
~*Kayleigh~* >  its meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
-
ROBBO >  bye bye FAKE KAY
~*Kayleigh~* >  its me
ROBBO >  nope
-
ROBBO >  pc me our password
-
bad_boy >  cya fake kay
~*Kayleigh~* >  s.j.goodall@hotmail.com
<= ~*Kayleigh~* Has Left The Room
ROBBO >  wtffffffffffffffffffffff
-
Leeanne >  was that kay?
ROBBO >  no

3.2 Greeting and addressing

The netiquette of salutation on chat does not correspond to the greeting rules in etiquette. In real life, entering a room without saying hello is considered to be impolite. On chat greeting is rather optional; it depends on personal liking, whether we know somebody in the room, the number of the participants in the room, etc. No rule states whether it is the newcomer or the members of the room who greets first. Many users take greeting as an opportunity to draw the attention of the others, to point out that they have entered the room. Strictly speaking, this is not necessary because the information about the entering and leaving of all users automatically appears on the communal screen:

=> TICKLISH_F Has Joined The Room
<= TICKLISH_F Has Left The Room

A few years ago some chat rooms used software which automatically responded to people’s greeting. However, this practice is now regarded as unacceptable, an indication that netiquette changes and develops.

While etiquette is  fairly specific about what salutation is appropriate in certain situations, there are no rules distinguishing various kinds of greeting on chat. This is presumably due to the fact that chat is an informal environment and everybody is equal there. On chat it is for obvious reasons impossible to follow the basic conventions where it is the man or the younger person who shows respect. Besides, it is hard to keep formal when addressing someone who is called huggybear or sexy_irish_male even when we know their sex or age.

Especially in big chat rooms with tens of participants entering and leaving every now and then, greeting tends to be omitted for the screen would be permanently flooded with hellos and goodbyes and there would be no place for a conversation to develop. A common practice is for the newcomer to write some kind of a general greeting (such as ‘hello room’ or ‘hi every1’) and taking no offence when no one replies. Often the participants are involved in the conversation and they may not be able to pick up the threads again. Likewise, it is not considered unbecoming when a newcomer joins the discussion without any previous notice - here I mean not only greeting but also introducing ourselves. What is the most unusual in real life has become common in chat.

In chat rooms with fewer participants greeting is more likely to take place, especially when the participants already know each other. In this sample the user ~FIFI~ first greets her friends DILLA and ROBBO and then the rest of the room:

=> ~FIFI~ Has Joined The Room
DILLA >  lol i dont think i ever done none
ROBBO >  ello fifi xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
ROBBO >  pml dilla
ROBBO >  lazy cuuuuuuuuuuunt
DILLA >  hi fifi
~FIFI~ >  yo robo xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
~FIFI~ >  hi dilla xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
~FIFI~ >  hello every 1 else

In some cases when the conversation in the room is dying away, the participants welcome the newcomers hoping they might initiate a new discussion. In a sample of 300 contributions 40 (13.3%) concerned greeting.  Since “silence” in a chat room is even more apparent and oppresive than in face-to-face communication, exaggerated greeting often takes place only in order to “say” something and thus to get over a pause in a conversation. In the following sample of a chat conversation 8 participants made 21 remarks and none of them moved the discussion forward:

=> bad_boy Has Joined The Room
MARTY >  ello bad
Volks >  hi bad xxx
Linzi >  star x
bad_boy >  ello marty
Linzi >  volks
~*Lucky*~ >  bad, u sexy lil fu cka xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Linzi >  x
bad_boy >  ello volksxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
~*Lucky*~ >  lucky not lucy
kash >  bad xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
bad_boy >  lucky u sexy scotxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Sefro >  hi
Linzi >  brb
bad_boy >  linzixxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
kash >  peeps xxxxxxxxxxxxx
DERBY_LAD >  so lucky
bad_boy >  kashxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Volks >  KKAAAASSSSSHHHHHHHH
zak2003 >  hi sefro
=> addicted_2_pain Has Joined The Room
Sefro >  hi
kash >  vvvvvoooooollllllkkkkksssss

Generally, saying goodbye is more likely to take place than saying hello. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, many users consider leaving the discussion without salutation to be more impolite than entering it. The chat often becomes rather heartfelt and it would be hard as well as discourteous parting without a word. It follows that usually only those who were involved in the main screen discussion sign off. Lurkers (lurking is a the process of reading the postings without initiating any) and those who hold private conversations hardly ever say goodbye.

An interesting phenomenon is saying goodbye to a user who has left the room and is therefore unable to see it:
<= TheBigCheese Has Left The Room
Volks >  bye cheese
Volks >  lol
[SCAR] >  yer bye cheese

It is presumably because of the fact that the submissions remain on the screen even when the user has left, which gives the feeling of their presence and the others tend to requite the greeting despite the fact they know that the user has already signed off. Some of these submissions may be written when the participant is still in the room saying goodbye, but are sent after the user has already left:

Luke >  got to go
<= Luke Has Left The Room
Summer >  bye then luke

In this case, the user Summer had most presumably started writing goodbye before Luke left the room. The netiquette rules advise not to leave the discussion immediately, but give the others the chance to write a goodbye posting.

Another reason for signing off are the technical confines of chat, namely the lack of visual contact. The others cannot see when someone is about to leave. It is therefore advisable to inform them not to send any more messages since the user is leaving and would not be able or willing to answer them. Since many users chat at work, they often have to leave the room abruptly. In these cases a common practice is to inform the others they are coming back later (the acronym brb = be right back or afk = away from keyboard are used). When a user leaves the computer but not the room, they also tend to notify they are not going to react for a while.  

When the contribution is meant for everybody in the chat room, no addressing takes place. Private chats are either set in special rooms or they appear on the main screen and are visible solely to the two (or more) participants of private interaction. The distinction between private and open discussion is usually held via different colours of the contributions. Both users have to agree to private conversation. When the user wishes to address one particular person and yet wants the others to see their submission, they simply write their comment, adding the nick of the addressee. Here are some of the ways to do this:

~*Lucky*~ >  if its that bad y u still here cheeky
~*Lucky*~ >  if its that bad y u still here @ cheeky
~*Lucky*~ >  @ cheeky if its that bad y u still here
~*Lucky*~ >  cheeky >  if its that bad y u still here
~*Lucky*~ >  cheeky ->  if its that bad y u still here
~*Lucky*~ >  cheeky: if its that bad y u still here

Due to the lack of visual contact, deictic addressing [5] (the second person deixis) in chat takes place only when there are two participants involved (in private chat) and sometimes also when a user is immediately reacting to an addressed message. In the following case deictic addressing took place since it was clear from the context that ‘u’ in cOrAL_gIRL’s answer refers to STARSKY’s question and there was no need to address STARSKY by name:

STARSKY > asl coral?
~FIFI~ > brb
ROBBO > i’m young   
cOrAL_gIRL > 20 f uk u?
STARSKY > 25 m uk

3.3 Turn-taking

The principles of turn-taking in electronic conversation differ from those in face-to-face communication. [6] While in  a face-to-face conversation the overlap is under 5% (and even less in a telephone conversation), in chat the situation is, for technical reasons, rather different and it moves the chat conversation away from speech.

Time lags between contributions can be a great test of patience. Often it takes several seconds before the submission appears on the screen. Due to the lack of visual contact we do not know whether our submission has already appeared on our partner’s screen, whether they noticed it (the contribution could have been missed in the overlapping conversation or the participant could have left for a moment and in the meantime the submission may have scrolled off the screen); likewise, we do not know whether we have not received the answer due to a system error, because the partner has decided not to react or because they have not yet finished writing their response. This is why everybody carries on writing and does not wait for the answer to come. We shall now examine the principles of e-turn-taking on a short example of a chat conversation:

*vicky* >  where u from leeanne
Leeanne >  so, wot we all chatting bout now
Leeanne >  Im from bristol vicky, you?
*vicky* >  not much
*vicky* >  Bolton
=> Jesse Has Joined The Room
Leeanne >  kool

Clearly, chat violates the organization of conversation into adjacency pairs. *vicky* attempts to start a conversation with Leeanne but before she finishes writing her question (or more precisely before the question appears on the screen), Leeanne decides to address the room in order to strike up a conversation with any member of the room. *vicky*’s submission appears on the screen after Leeanne has sent her contribution. Both Leeanne and *vicky* then answer their partner’s question, Leeanne being the first to send her response. *vicky* then replies to Leeanne’s second question and Leeanne reacts to it. In a face-to-face conversation, following the rule of adjacency pairs, the sequence of the contributions would presumably be:

  1. *vicky* >  where u from leeanne
    Leeanne >  Im from bristol vicky, you?
    *vicky* >  Bolton
    Leeanne >  kool

  2. Leeanne >  so, wot we all chatting bout now
    *vicky* >  not much

The part B of the conversation would then not take place for the simple reason that after *vicky*’s first remark,  there would be no need for Leeanne to initiate it.

As we have seen, it is especially the lack of either visual or auditive contact as well as time lag that brings up a different conception of turn-taking in e-communication.

The preceding example of a chat conversation was relatively simple since there were only two participants involved. Mostly, the number of users is much higher with several independent conversations taking place at the same time. The contributions then necessarily overlap.  A question rises how chat users orientate in multiple conversation? Also, the more participants writing their remarks are in the room, the faster the screen scrolls. It may seem that chatting requires full attention in order to be able to follow the discussion. However, the reality is that many users keep running away and yet always smoothly join the conversation. How is this possible?

In face-to-face communication when several autonomous conversations proceed within a group of more people, the participants are usually able to follow the main discussion in addition to their private conversations. Moving from one discussion group to another and actively participating in all of them is a commonplace phenomenon. Visual and auditive contact as well as proximity of individual members of the discussion enable us not to get lost in multiple conversation. What are the means that prevent chat users from confusion? Firstly, all experienced users of chat are capable of selective reading, i.e. they only read the contributions relevant to them. However, they usually find time to scan the other submissions and react to them as well. Many chat sites offer its users a choice of type, size and colour of their contributions; the participants can also add a picture or a smiley to their nick. All this simplifies the distinguishing between the individual users and their submissions.

What allows easy integration into a chat discussion is the perpetual change of topics. This is why it never takes too long for a new participant to grasp the point of a chat discussion independently on the moment of entering the room. While in newsgroups any contributions off the given topic are prohibited, in chat this practice is welcomed; any newcomer can seize the initiative and introduce a new subject of debate. Whereas the objective of newsgroups is to exchange information on a given topic (this explains the strictness of newsgroups administrators who delete any contribution out of focus), the aim of chat is to exchange gossip and personal opinions about virtually anything. The language used there mirrors this objective – it is much more colloquial and fragmentary than the language of any other Internet situation. [7]

Despite the fact that chat violates the pragmatic rules of turn-taking, adjacency pairs and overlapping, its users do not seem to mind the chaos that reigns this kind of communication. On the contrary, chat users most undoubtedly enjoy this linguistic anarchy.

3.4 The length of the contributions

Another attribute characteristic of chat is the length of the contributions. A sample of 300 submissions contained 1021 words with an average of 3.4 words per one contribution. The longest contribution had 18 words (this occurred only twice). The most frequent contribution, which occurred 89 times, contained only one word; however, in 39 cases the word was an acronym (lol = laughing out loud and pml = pissing myself laughing being the most frequent).

The reason for the briefness of chat contributions is of technical character and is closely connected to the principles of turn-taking in chat. Not all the chat users are skilful typists and even the fastest data transmission cannot equal the swiftness of face-to-face communication. It takes some time for a remark to be written and than again some more time is needed before it appears on the screen. In order to minimize the lag, the users keep their contributions short. The participants keep the contribution brief also in order to be able to send more of them.  The more submissions we send, the more replies we are likely to receive. Answering all the responses then decreases the time spent idling in front of the screen. It makes the user feel more involved and the relatively quick exchange of remarks makes the discussion look more lively.

When the conversation is held in submissions whose length is only a few words, the screen scrolls fast. The danger of longer entries is that it takes time to write them and it is possible that when the submission appears on the screen, it is irrelevant to the current discussion and the contributions concerning the subject of the response may no longer be on the screen. This is why when writing a wordy submission, many users tend to send it in parts:

Mikey >  ave foned aboot 3 times to yer 1
Mikey >  lol
Linzi >  lol
Linzi >  ave never got money in ma cellfone
Mikey >  and u say
Linzi >  pml@cellfone
Mikey >  a dinnae fone u

In a face-to-face conversation the user Mikey would most presumably say his remark in one sentence (ave foned aboot 3 times to yer 1 and u say a dinnae fone u) without being interrupted. The user Linzi would simply keep the eye contact to show she is paying attention and react after Mikey has finished.

Interestingly, the length of the entries does not differ when there are only two participants involved. Although the topic of private conversations does not change so often and the opinions expressed here are more detailed, they still tend to be sent bit by bit. The reason is presumably to keep the conversation continuous. The partner can concurrently react and add their ideas. Also, in the communication of only two participants, the lags are even more oppressive and there is a danger that the partner gets bored waiting for a response and breaks the conversation up. The incessant flow of messages is intended to draw attention:

~*Lucky*~ >  they’re comin to take u away
~*Lucky*~ >  lol
~*Lucky*~ >  hide
~*Lucky*~ >  quick

3.5 Acronyms

The need to keep the messages short initiated the widespread use of acronyms in chat. In the sample of 300 chat submissions 20% of the utterances included an acronym, 13% of the utterances consisted solely of an acronym. In the 10,000 word corpus 7.2% of the words were acronyms. The acronym lol was also the second most repeated word in the corpus. The following graph shows the proportional representation of the most frequent acronyms:

Fig. 3

The most frequent acronyms lol and pml do not forward the conversation in terms of topic. The use of these acronyms accelerates the communication in the chat room, but it also crumbles it. The aim of these acronyms is mainly to display the user’s presence in the room, it is the result of the need to participate even though the user has nothing to say but still wants to react:

DILLA >  guy >> are u wearing underwear
DILLA >  DILLA -> yeah boxers mate now fu ck off
DILLA >  lol
ROBBO >  pml
~FIFI~ >  pml @ dilla
DILLA >  shes doing better fifi thanks
ROBBO >  m8,,did she eat those advent calender chocys?
ROBBO >  lol   
DILLA >  whole day is easy when you play pml
ROBBO >  pml
DILLA >  nah i did
ROBBO >  oh u cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunt
ROBBO >  pml
DILLA >  lol
ROBBO >  u do fu ck all?
DILLA >  yeah its a fu cking doss
ROBBO >  pml

The information value of acronyms such as pml, lol, lmao (laughing my ass off), ffs (for fuck’s sake), wtf (what the fuck) is low. Pml, lol or lmao are clearly overstatements; it is hardly imaginable that the users would really laugh aloud during the preceding conversation. In most cases these acronyms express either contempt or approval or they are meant to display that the user does not take (or mean) the statement seriously. The majority of the purposeless acronyms contain swear words and are thus abbreviated not only in order to save time, but also to avoid rejection from the room.

For the other group of the most frequent acronyms the situation is rather different. The acronyms asl, brb (be right back) or pc (private chat) serve the information purpose. The acronyms ty (thank you) or wb (welcome back) are social phrases which occur many times during a common chat discussion and they started to be abbreviated in order to quicken the communication.

3.6 “Actions” and  “emotions”

Describing actions and emotions in chat is used in order to compensate for the absence of the non-verbal dimension of  electronic communication. It enriches the means of expression and makes chat conversation look more real, giving it the feeling of face-to-face conversation. It is also another way of demonstrating one’s presence in the room and to draw attention.

Many chat sites offer their users a choice of “actions” and “emotions” (blushes, cries like a baby, laughs out loud, listens, looks around, pours a drink, screams, smiles, starts to panic, sulks, waves goodbye, will be right back, etc.). The user simply clicks on the chosen item and it appears on the communal screen with the user’s name attached to it. Apart from that, the participants can come up with any description of a feeling or an action. The user writes the message in the third person singular and clicks on the button ‘action’ or ‘think’ (in Justchat) according to the character of their contribution. For example, a user called ~FIFI~ writes throws ice around room to chill every1 and clicks on the button ‘action’.  The  message then  appears on the screen as * ~FIFI~ throws ice around room to chill every1 *.

In some cases “actions” at the same time denote feelings and vice versa. For example, *porphyria cries like a baby* could be viewed as both “action” and “emotion”. In this study I have decided to classify those cases that in real life can be observed as “action” (therefore the message *alex starts to panic* was categorized as an “emotion”). The following graph shows the proportional representation of “actions”, “emotions” and “speech” (standard contributions) in chat in a sample of 2,000 contributions:

Fig. 4

The main motive for the use of “actions” is to introduce life and motion into chat discussion. “Actions” help to visualize the users. Sometimes the conversation in a chat room can resemble a film script. All the contributions that are marked with asterisks denote the users’ feelings or actions:

STARSKY >  right i’m off 4 a shower
STARSKY >  byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
porphyria >  have a goodnight star
Guilty >  nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
Guilty >  star 
porphyria >  pml you dont smell that bad *laffs*
STARSKY >  yeah
Guilty >  noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
huggybear >  cya star
porphyria >  guilty will miss you
STARSKY >  bye all
porphyria >  i think he about to cry :(
Guilty >  noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
huggybear >  lol porp
* Guilty  cries like a baby *
porphyria >  pml
huggybear >  lol
* Guilty  sulks *
* Guilty  waves goodbye *
* STARSKY  slaps guilty and runs out *
<= STARSKY Has Left The Room
porphyria >  huggy he is crying
Guilty >  ouch]
Guilty >  *poor jonesy*
porphyria >  nope soz he hasnt been on today
porphyria >  poor jonesy *laffs*
* Guilty  slits his wrists *
* Guilty  dies *
* Guilty  goes to heaven *
porphyria >  bye jonesy
=> reddevil61 Has Joined The Room
* Guilty  is shaggin the fit angels *

The use of “emotions” is not so popular as one would expect according to the fact that chat is based on expressing feelings and personal opinions. (The personal pronoun ‘I’ was the most frequent word in the corpus.) However, “emotions” in chat are more about description of what the user says they feel rather than really feeling it. Once described, any feeling becomes a matter of thinking, not emotions. While in face-to-face communication the others can learn a lot from our facial expressions, gestures and posture, in chat it is easier to hide true feelings. Chat users are left to guess their partners’ mood from the way they write. The weight of “emotions” is equivalent to standard contributions. The use of “emotions” is rather a graphical variegation of chat communication.

3.7 Swear words and aggressive behaviour

According to a research, 86.7% of chatgroup members like the anonymity of chat; for 12.1% of users anonymity is the main motive for visiting chat sites. [8] Anonymity of chat allows people to freely express their fantasies and desires, they are more open and able to discuss problems they are not willing to talk about in real life. It is common knowledge that it is easier to discuss personal problems with someone we do not know and are likely never to meet again. In chat the anonymity is even greater since we cannot see our confessor. Some users also appreciate that in chat they are not judged  according to their appearance. 

However, losing restraints has also negative effects – it is especially the use of foul language and aggressive (often sexually motivated) behaviour. Anonymity gives the impression of impunity. Many people cannot resist the temptation and behave in a way that is unacceptable or even punishable in real life. Every user who has a female nick or announces they are female in their profile are likely to become an object of sexual harassment. Characteristically, vulgarities and aggressiveness is what 47.6% of the users (predominantly women) dislike most about chat communication. [9] The following graph shows the representation of swear and taboo words in a sample of 1,000 contributions:

Fig. 5

The excessive use of swear and taboo words in chat is not caused by the anonymity of cyberspace merely. People are emotionally bound up with the way they speak;  there are words that many people would not utter although they know them. Yet, the emotional burden seems to diminish in the case of a written text (the condition here is that it must be  anonymous). Moreover, the burden is even lesser for misspelled swear and taboo words - they are perceived as euphemisms. What supports this assumption is the fact that filters which detect swear words in chat do not include their misspelling variations although it would be easy to do so and that chat guides who are present in the room usually tolerate misspelled foul expressions. Moreover, many people misspell some words even though they know they would not be ejected from the room if they wrote them correctly. The use of graphical euphemisms minimizes the emotional burden.

Although a considerable part of the swear words used in chat is not of a primarily abusive character, there are still too many which are connected with some of the aggressive techniques known in chat.

The practice which makes use of swear and taboo expressions to a great extent, is called flaming. A flame is an offensive message usually aimed at one particular user. The aggressor hopes to initiate a flame war - an emotional discussion consisting of insulting and provocative postings. Since everybody has a different view of what is insulting and provocative, it gets rather treacherous specifying what is a flame and what was meant as a common contribution to the discussion. To be a flame, the message must be both meant and viewed as abusive. It is therefore advisable to wait until the following message before we accuse somebody of flaming and likewise to choose the language carefully in order to avoid an unintended offence. Trying to determine whether a message is a flame merely according to its language is likely to lead to inaccurate conclusions. For example, although the following sample of a discussion abounds with swear words, its participants do not seem to perceive it as flaming. All the users employ the same language, i.e. they have all mutually agreed on using swear words and none of them take the others’ remarks amiss:

=> father_xxxmas Has Joined The Room
DILLA >  i hate this 1 m8
ROBBO >  yeh i bet u do m8
STARSKY >  lol
~FIFI~ >  xxxxxxxxmas xxxxxxxxxxx
father_xxxmas >  hi all
DILLA >  lol
ROBBO >  i bet u can’t wait until it gone
STARSKY >  MERRY XAMS
DILLA >  whats so fu cking merry about it?
ROBBO >  wots da day?
* the_bear  looks around *
ROBBO >  fu ck all
DILLA >  lol
father_xxxmas >  me
father_xxxmas >  lol
STARSKY >  what a big bulging sack u have got @ father xams
-
~FIFI~ >  its when you is pished
ROBBO >  jesus tha cu nt
STARSKY >  lol
-
ROBBO >  all his fu ckin fault
ROBBO >  wa nker
father_xxxmas >  ho ho hoo......merry xmasss
DILLA >  yeah tw at got born
~FIFI~ >  wot you got in yr sack 4 me xmas??
ROBBO >  pml dilla
father_xxxmas >  wot u want
father_xxxmas >  lol

Flaming can take place on the communal screen or in a private room. There are several ways of avoiding flaming. When someone is flaming us in a private room, we can send their contributions to the communal screen in order to discredit them. If a chat guide is present in the forum, we can ask them to exclude the user from the room. An easy way to stop flames is not responding to them or at least not responding in the same manner. Some chat sites offer filters that auto-ignore chatters after more than 3 offences or remove messages that are written all in capital letters (a Netspeak synonym for shouting).

The difference between spam in chat and in e-mail communication is that in chat the only purpose of spamming is to annoy other users and obstruct the conversation in the room. The user sends an excessive number of contributions that promptly follow one after another which precludes the other users from their conversation. In order to be able to send the messages as quickly as possible, these usually contain only one word (sense or nonsense), sometimes one letter:

19_m_scotland >  i aint ugly thank u
~*Lucky*~ >  in who’s opinion?
kash >  pml@lucky- strap on lol
19_m_scotland >  ur mums
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
K_S >  19_m_scotland > i really want to stab Mikey_Bhoy do you know where he lives?
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j  
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
19_m_scotland >  j
~*Lucky*~ >  lol, she aint got no taste though, afterall she’s
shaggin my dad
lisa32 >  19 go play wi your fu cking toys

Often the screen scrolls so fast that other users are unable to read their contributions. The quickest way to get rid of those who send spams is to ignore them, since any response not only encourages the attacker, but is also likely to grow into a flame war. Left on their own, the aggressor soon gives up and leaves the room. Some chat sites also provide filters that automatically remove a message identical to the previous message and messages which are flooding the chat room.

Trolling is the process of sending provocative comments in order to irritate the others. The more heated responses the user receives, the happier they are. Experienced users usually recognize that the contribution is a troll and they either do not respond or play the game together with the initiator and spoil their intention of striking up a flame war. However, some trolls may at first look innocent:

deanb >  Can I ask you all a question??????
STARSKY >  yeah
huggybear >  no
deanb >  aye laddie
huggybear >  jk
porphyria >  dean questions are open
Davey >  go on
deanb >  You know 24 hour shops
Davey >  yup
STARSKY >  yeah
porphyria >  no
huggybear >  yup
porphyria >  i dont know that shop
deanb >  Well if they are open 24-7
STARSKY >  yeah
Davey >  goon
porphyria >  what about them
deanb >  Y the bloody hell are there locks on the doors?
porphyria >  is that your question
deanb >  yea
STARSKY >  to stop idiots like u getting in

In this case, the other users swallowed the bait and realized the user deanb has sent a troll only when it was too late. Deanb stroke up the conversation with a harmless question which awoke the interest of the other participants. Then he kept them in suspense by sending his troll bit by bit waiting for  the others to respond and  delaying the final touch (deanb >  Y the bloody hell are there locks on the doors?). Although this time the discussion did not develop into a flame war, deanb has partly reached his goal for he succeeded in provoking STARSKY into sending an offensive message (STARSKY >  to stop idiots like u getting in).

Here are examples of some more obvious trolls:

1. If a turtle loses its shell is it naked or homeless?
2. Whats the definition of blue tack?
3. What is the average wing speed of an african swallow?
4. Why don’t sheep shrink when it rains?
5. What is the speed of dark?

Spoofing is a practice similar to trolling. A spoof looks like a troll with the difference that the others do not know who has sent it. The fact that a message arrives unatributed can cause confusion and frustration to other users. Spoofing therefore tends to be strongly disapproved of. Spoofs can be inserted by the software in order to introduce a new topic into the discussion, but they can also be sent by a participant. However, chat software normally disables participants to send messages anonymously and those who want to send a spoof have to hack the software and program the new command. That also makes spoofing an illegitimate practice.

4 Conclusion

The aim of this study was to present a characterization of chat communication.

In order to obtain samples of genuine Netspeak I had to search for a chat site visited exclusively by native speakers. It was the only way of ensuring to the greatest extend possible that non-standard use of English is an example of Netspeak, not an unintended spelling or grammatical mistake.

The use of nicknames is a characteristic phenomenon of chat. Anonymity of chat communication allows us to obtain a new identity. Nicknames can be divided into several categories – legitimate names of the user (and their variants), a short characterization of the user, names of famous people or characters and animals, flowers or objects. The choice of a nickname is important since it is the nickname that creates the first impression of a user and is therefore the first condition for successful communication.

The greeting and addressing conventions in chat differ from those used in face-to-face communication. Unlike in real life, greeting in chat is rather optional. Users often enter and leave the chat room at such frequency that the potential salutation would rule out any other conversation. On the contrary, addressing is due to the lack of visual contact desirable.

Despite the fact that individual contributions in chat greatly overlap violating the principles of turn-taking and adjacency pairs in face-to-face conversation, chat users do not seem to mind the linguistic anarchy that rules this kind of communication.

Time lags caused by technical limitations are the reason for the briefness of chat messages. Even wordy contributions tend to be sent in parts. The users can react concurrently which minimizes the time spent idling in front of the screen. The relatively quick exchange of messages also makes the discussion look more lively and authentic.

The need to keep the postings short initiated the extensive use of acronyms. 20% of the sumbissions in the corpus included and acronym, 13% of the utterances consisted solely of an acronym. According to their purpose, acronyms can be divided into two major groups. Acronyms that fall into the first group do not have much information value, their aim is mainly to display the user’s presence in the room and their attention. The vast majority of these acronyms contain swear words. For the other group of acronyms the situation is rather different. They either serve the information purpose or are social phrases that started to be abbreviated in order to accelerate the communication.

An interesting phenomenon and a graphical variegation of online communication is the use of non-alphabetical characters (such as asterisks, hash signs, angle brackets and others) in order to express actions or emotions. Each chat always tends to keep one way of marking.

The excessive use of swear and taboo words and generally aggressive behaviour is one of the ills of chat communication. Anonymity of chat gives the feeling of impunity. The temptation to behave in the way that is deprecated by the society is great. Also, the feeling of unreality of the virtual world leads people to forget that they do not communicate with robots but human beings and therefore do things they themselves consider unacceptable in real life. The immoderate use of vulgarisms is also caused by the fact that the emotinal burden seems to diminsh when the taboo or swear word is written. Many people use graphical euphemisms (intentional misspellings) in order to minimize the burden.

Although a considerable part of the swear words used in chat is not of a primarily abusive character, there are still too many which are connected with some of the aggressive techniques (such as flaming, spamming, spoofing and trolling) known in chat.

5 Notes

[*] This article is based on Chapter 4 in “Changes in the Language of the Internet”, a Diploma Thesis by Markéta Johnová presented at the Institute of Foreign Languages, Faculty of Philosophy and Science, Silesian University in Opava, Opava, Czech Republic (April 2003).

[1] Since the Google search is not limited to English merely, many of the links are in different languages and they only include the now universal word ‘chat’ in their summary submissions. Moreover, only some of these entries lead to chat rooms, the rest concerns chat software, chat netiquette, etc.

[2] Dušková, 2001, p. 34.

[3] For another classification see http://www.ascusc.org/jcmc/voll/issue2/bechar.html.

[4] In this sample simultaneous contributions of other participants which do not concern the topic have been omitted; the removed lines are marked with dashes.

[5] See Levinson, 1994, p. 62.

[6] For an analysis of turn-taking in face-to-face conversation see Levinson, 1994.

[7] In her study Dušková (2001, pg. 34.) states that 30.2% of users perceive chat as a means of amusement and distraction, only 7.9% go to chat in order to obtain some information.

[8] Dušková, 2001, p. 36, 33.

[9] Dušková, 2001, p. 34.

6 Bibliography

Primary sources

http://www.justchat.co.uk

http://chat.yahoo.com

http://www.icq.com

http://www.msn.com

http://www.spinchat.org

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http://www.wordspy.com

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http://www.transl8it.com

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