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Internet Abbreviation and Daily Communication

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Introduction

There is a joke on the Internet which is quite popular: A father joined Facebook. His son updated his status: “Dad on FB, WTF!” Then the father saw it and commented, “What is WTF?” His son replied, “Welcome to Facebook.” (Jokideo.com, 2012)

dad-is-on-facebook-wtf

 

There are two abbreviations in this joke: FB and WTF. The first abbreviation, FB, appears in the son’s status which stands for the social network Facebook; the second abbreviation, WTF, is the core of the joke. In most situations, WTF is short for “what the fuck” and it is often used to express extreme emotions such as shock or anger, which was exactly what the son was trying to express in his status initially; yet he lied to his father by saying that WTF means “welcome to Facebook” and successfully hid his initial intention in his status. The joke is funny because it is simple but effective — the son fooled his father by playing with the meaning of the abbreviation WTF. A further punch line of this joke is that the father might start using the abbreviation WTF to communicate with his Facebook friends with the meaning he was taught by his son, which would definitely cause more funny misunderstandings.

The abbreviation WTF from the previous joke was one of the abbreviations created for online communication, AKA (also known as) Internet abbreviations. Other abbreviations that we encounter frequently nowadays such as LMAO (laugh my ass off), NVM (never mind) are also Internet abbreviations. It is difficult to define the term “Internet abbreviation” as the society nowadays changes so fast (Yan, 2006); the term that was suited 20 years ago may not be proper to use in current days. People use Internet abbreviations so often that they even use Internet abbreviations in reality life as well. Internet abbreviations influence language not just on the Internet, but in offline communication as well. The abbreviated language that is a central feature of Internet communication will be part of the major impact on the future development of language that the information age will make.this joke: FB and WTF. The first abbreviation, FB, appears in the son’s status which stands for the social network Facebook; the second abbreviation, WTF, is the core of the joke. In most situations, WTF is short for “what the fuck” and it is often used to express extreme emotions such as shock or anger, which was exactly what the son was trying to express in his status initially; yet he lied to his father by saying that WTF means “welcome to Facebook” and successfully hid his initial intention in his status. The joke is funny because it is simple but effective — the son fooled his father by playing with the meaning of the abbreviation WTF. A further punch line of this joke is that the father might start using the abbreviation WTF to communicate with his Facebook friends with the meaning he was taught by his son, which would definitely cause more funny misunderstandings.

What is Abbreviation?

According to Dictionary.com, an abbreviation is “a shortened or contracted form of a word or phrase, used to represent the whole” (Dictionary.com, 2013). Abbreviations can have many different forms. The most popular form is a capitalized letter combination of the first letter in every word of the phrase; for example, we use SFU to represent Simon Fraser University, and HIV means “human immunodeficiency virus”. Also, in many cases, an abbreviation of a single word is the first couple of letters of the word with the first letter capitalized, following with a period at the end of the abbreviation. This kind of abbreviation is usually used for titles such as Prof., which is short for professor, and Mr., which means mister. Another common form of abbreviation is to take only one or two letters, which are not necessarily from the original word, to stand for the meaning. In this way, unit symbols such as lb (pound) and m (meter) are examples of how this type of abbreviation is created. There are a lot of other particular ways that abbreviations are formed, yet all abbreviations follow one rule: they are created to save people’s time, space and effort in textual or oral communication, and they are used in particular contexts where they are familiar. For example, MU can mean McGill University to a post-secondary student in Canada, it can mean the movie Monster University to cartoon movie lovers, and when you see MU on a sports channel, it usually stands for Manchester United, a well-known soccer club in England.

Abbreviations are used to save space and time in daily communication, both oral and textual. In oral communication, we rarely say “the United States of America”, but 99 times out of 100, we say “the USA”. In fact, the abbreviation USA is so frequently used that it has become another form of representing the country. This “distortion” of dialogue is capable of facilitating communication across cultures, so even people in non-English-speaking cultures know the meaning of the abbreviation (Peters, 1999). For instance, the abbreviation “USA” is recognized not only in the Western world, but also in non-European cultures such as China, where most people do not speak English, but nonetheless recognize the abbreviation (baidu.com, 2008). Textual abbreviations are also widely used. For example, when broadcasting sports events between two opposing teams, the broadcasting agencies usually use abbreviations of both teams’ names on the scoreboard in order to save space on the screen. Also, at conferences where name tags are provided, the titles are usually abbreviated so that the information will not look too dense on the name card.

Abbreviations have been used for many hundreds of years, but have become much more widespread since the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century, and especially since the explosion of the electronic age (Beauchamp, 2001). Abbreviations have evolved from the SOS (save our ship) in the telegraph age to LOL (laugh out loud) in the Internet age. Grammar and spelling were highly valued in the study of English language, and abbreviations were only used to stand for long phrases, organizations and so on. Yet the universalization of Internet has brought an essential change to abbreviation, eventually gave birth to Internet abbreviation.

What is Internet Abbreviation?

Internet abbreviations can be defined as abbreviations created and adopted by Internet users. Despite the Internet technology having been invented as early as the 1960s, it did not start its rapid expansion until the late 1980s (Segal, 1995). In 1996, the earliest IM (Instant Messenger) software was created by a company called Mirabillis, then it was bought by American Online (AOL) in 1998 (Hansell, 1998); this software was called ICQ, which is the euphony of “I seek you”. This software enabled instant textual communication between computers and it started an era in which people could have textual communication on a brand new platform. Before ICQ was invented, instant textual communication was limited to old telegraph system and cell phone text messages, but the latter was still far too expensive for consumers to afford. The invention of ICQ not only delivered a fatal blow to the telegraph system, but also created a couple of new forms of textual communication, including Internet abbreviations.

The majority of Internet abbreviations follow the pattern of a combination of capitalized first letters of each word of a phrase. However, there are some significant differences between traditional abbreviations and Internet abbreviations. Traditional abbreviations, such as UN (United Nations) and NHL (National Hockey League), are mostly nouns, while Internet abbreviations, such as BRB (be right back) and LOL (laugh out loud), are phrases that in most cases describe an action or express an emotion. Such phrases are frequently used in Internet conversation occasions such as Instant Messengers, as well as chat rooms and online forums.

There are many platforms where Internet abbreviations can be created. Instant Messengers such as ICQ, eventually Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, are the very first batch of platforms, as well as the most significant platforms where Internet abbreviations are given birth to. Compared to other popular communication means such as making phone calls and writing letters, textual communication on Instant Messengers are much more high-tech and convenient. Many Internet abbreviations such as GTG (got to go), CU (see you) were invented to facilitate faster textual communication.

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are also an important platform for Internet abbreviation. However, it is so much better to say that social networks are platforms to practise Internet abbreviations rather than to create them. Many social media were founded in the mid 2000’s when Internet abbreviation was almost 10 years old. The structure and contents of Internet abbreviation was rather saturated, and there was little space for social networks to create new Internet abbreviations. However, online games are the latest platforms where Internet abbreviations are created due to the special circumstances. Because of its special communication environment, Internet abbreviation in online games are more limited the game itself. For example, AFK is an Internet abbreviation used only in online games, which means “away from keyboard”; HP and MP are also two common abbreviations in many games, meaning “health point” and “magic point”.

These Internet abbreviations that evolved from Instant Messengers, social networking and gaming, became so frequently used that they spread to cell phone text messages, and eventually spread to oral conversations, especially among the young generation that grew up with computers and cellphones. Therefore, the impact of Internet abbreviations on daily language usage has been enormous (Dixon, 2011).

There are so many Internet abbreviations nowadays that they need to be categorized into several groups. Internet abbreviations can be grouped into nine categories, including greetings, relationships, mood or reaction, negative descriptions, affection, closings, disclaimers, timing, and others (Dixon, 2011). Greetings abbreviations are usually used in starting a conversation, such as HUD (How you doing?) and RUOK (Are you ok?); relationship abbreviations are BF (boyfriend), GF (girlfriend) and BFF (best friend forever), etc.; mood or reaction abbreviation includes OMG (Oh my God!), WTF (what the fuck) and so on; negative descriptions abbreviations are BS (bullshit), FOS (full of shit) and affection abbreviations are ILY (I love you) and XOXO (Hugs and kisses); TTUL (Talk to you later), CU (See you) are examples of closings abbreviations, and AFA (as far as) is the most significant disclaimer abbreviation; timing abbreviations include B4 (before). Other than all the categories listed above, there are still so many Internet abbreviations that are hard to be categorized and they can be only marked as “others”.

Internet abbreviations also serve the same purpose as the regular abbreviations: they are created to save time, space and effort; they are also used in particular contexts so they are not easy to misunderstand. For example, LOL can mean “laugh out loud” when chatting with friends, but it can mean “lots of love” when flirting with a lover, and for game lovers, LOL is “League of Legends”, the most popular online game at the moment. The ability to distinguish the different meanings of the same abbreviation is actually the ability to place a word or a term in contexts. Therefore, in the same way as regular language, Internet abbreviations also have a “structure of expectation” (Lakoff, 2000). In making a place for themselves in contemporary language, Internet abbreviations follow the traditional purposes and requirements of regular language.

For this reason, Internet abbreviations, together with Internet slang, can be considered as a language of its own, or at least a dialect or a branch of the English language (Johnston, 2004). Internet language has influenced millions of people online, and its impact has even extended to offline communication.

Internet Abbreviation in Daily Life

In 1992, the first SMS (short message service) message was sent over the Vodafone GSM network in the United Kingdom by an Engineer called Neil Papworth (Ahmed, 2002). Like instant messaging, text messaging was also another form of instant textual communication. Therefore, Internet abbreviations were adopted in texting in no time. People typed Internet abbreviations such as LOL, RUOK on their mobile phones and they just worked fine. This can be seen as the very first step of Internet abbreviation stepping into broader daily life. Nowadays, instant messengers, as well as social networks and online societies, are all accessible through smartphones, and Internet abbreviations are even more widely used over the phones.

Other than smartphones, some Internet abbreviations have been adopted in daily oral conversation. In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, a student in Sheldon’s class uses the abbreviation KMN (kill me now) to express his dissatisfaction with Sheldon’s unpleasant way of lecturing (TheLukasNet, 2011). Although not frequently heard, people sometimes use Internet abbreviations such as OMG and LOL in their speech to emphasize their feelings (Knibbs, 2013).

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Internet abbreviations are more accepted by the younger generation than by the senior generation because they have grown up in the Internet age. The majority of teenagers in the US take part in different kinds of electronic communication, and instant messaging is one of the most popular forms (Varnhagen et al, 2009). As a result, adolescents tend to create a language that includes abbreviations, new words and slang. According to the study done by Varnhagen et al, a teenager uses about 2.9 Internet abbreviations as well as more than 28 short cuts in each conversation with a peer (Varnhagen et al, 2009). The frequent usage of Internet abbreviations is creating a new language, yet destroying some traditional language at the same time by replacing it in popular use.

The frequent use of Internet abbreviations has brought convenience to daily life, but it has also created some issues in society. For example, many teachers and parents are concerned that children are unable to spell words correctly due to a constant use of abbreviated forms (Humphrey, 2003). Children are so used to typing on their cellphones and Instant Messengers that they are unable to spell words fully. For example, instead of writing “through”, many children write “thru”. This situation is not limited to English speaking countries. In China, in order to follow the instructions of the Cultural Department of China, the popular online game Jinwutuan has banned the usage of Internet language, also known in China as “Martian Language”, in order to reinforce mainstream culture and protect correct spelling (ChinaNews, 2008). According to mainstream ideology in China, the rise of Internet language will erode the traditional language forms, especially since Internet language is developing and expanding so quickly.

Trends of Internet Abbreviation

            Internet abbreviations, as well as the entire Internet language, are evolving. The further development of Internet abbreviation can be predicted. First of all, the conformation of Internet abbreviation will evolve into different forms: letters are not the only characters that can be used in abbreviations; numbers and symbols will be added too. Internet abbreviation will then expand onto media platforms other than online ones, such as TV and newspapers. Last but not least, Internet abbreviation, as well as Internet language, will further impact the conventional language, will become accepted, and will initiate a revolution in language education as well.

            The forms of Internet abbreviation are already changing. A combination of letters and numbers has become the new Internet abbreviation fashion. For example, “see you later” is now abbreviated to “c u l8r”, as “ate” sounds the same as “8”. Thus, Internet abbreviations will not be limited to the forms mentioned previously, but will evolve into a more complicated, yet easily understandable system of language.

Regardless whether Internet abbreviations bring convenience or cause linguistic damage to the next generation, the trend of where Internet abbreviation is going is quite clear. After starting only in ICQ, Internet abbreviation has expanded onto almost all Internet media platforms in merely 20 years. It is certain that Internet abbreviation will expand onto still more platforms, including even the traditional media such as newspapers and TV.

Because more and more media will be starting to adopt and use Internet abbreviations, language may become more concise. There will be more and more terms, phrases and daily sentences that can be replaced by abbreviated forms. Eventually, because of the integration of Internet abbreviation into daily communication, grammar and sentence structure may also change in order to accommodate the increasing usage of Internet abbreviations.

Therefore, in order to cope with the changes that Internet use will force upon language, educational institutions will also change their attitude towards Internet abbreviations. Teachers and parents will no longer insist on the use of old-school grammar and spelling only; instead, language education will switch to a reasonable combination of Internet abbreviations and conventional language depending on contexts.

Conclusion

Internet abbreviation is a fast developing sub-language that is going to make a significant impact on conventional language forms. In fact, all languages are evolving all the time, and the young generation is usually the pioneer force that brings changes to the language. So it is not the Internet itself that changes our language, but the young people who use it the most and who find new language forms that work best with the new technology. The Internet is simply a platform on which the language evolution takes place. At the same time, the Internet also creates the conditions that encourage the evolution of language. Therefore, the idea that Internet abbreviation changes daily language is not an idea based on technological determinism, but is based more on cultural determinism.

As discussed earlier, Internet abbreviations are used in particular contexts so that the meanings of the abbreviations will not be misunderstood. Therefore, it is controversial whether Internet abbreviations are open text, implying they will have different meanings for different people or different contexts, or closed text, implying they will have the same meaning for everyone in every context. In fact, most Internet abbreviations, such as WTF, are limited to only one meaning (“what the fuck”), so they can be considered as closed text. Yet some other Internet abbreviations, such as LOL, can have different meanings in different contexts. However, in a particular context, an Internet abbreviation can only have one fixed meaning, which effectively makes the abbreviation a closed text as well.

Finally, there is no doubt that Internet abbreviations are making a significant impact on our use of daily language. However, the debate on whether Internet abbreviations, as well as the entire Internet language, will benefit or damage the existing language structure is ongoing. Yet the fusion of Internet language and daily language is unavoidable, so the meaningless debate should stop and we should address the question of how to mediate the conflicts between Internet language and conventional language. Both languages will benefit and develop a healthy relationship if this problem can be solved sensibly.

References
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Baidu.com (2012). What does USA mean? Baidu Zhidao. Retrieved from http://zhidao.baidu.com/question/43574147.html
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ChinaNews. (2008, July 6). “Martian Base” banned “Martian Language”. ChinaNews. Retrieved from http://www.chinanews.com/it/hlwxw/news/2008/07-16/1313823.shtml
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