I received a text from a friend a few days ago that read, “IVE STARTED SAYING PLEATHE….. U HAVE RUINED ME.” A self-satisfied cackle escaped my mouth as I typed back immediately, “PLEATHE omg my child :’) this is my tru legacy.”
Pleathe, a word that I once used sparingly on the Internet (and only accompanied by an appropriately massive dose of sarcasm) has become a regular element of my informal speech. In fact, my casual conversations, both face to face and virtual, are loaded with slang that I began using ironically, only to find it sliding its way into the most candid of my sentences: swag, werk, rip and yaaass, to name a few.
As an English major, grammar and spelling enthusiast and copy editor, I wonder why I am able to suspend my passion for elegant language so dramatically in my everyday interactions. Why do I find it humorous when my friend texts me “donut tuch me” but visibly cringe when someone mixes up “your” and “you’re”? And why am I overwhelmed with satisfaction when somebody else begins to adopt my linguistic quirks?
A couple of years ago, I subconsciously began developing what I’ve come to recognize as my “Internet persona” — the voice that I use when communicating with friends online or over text. It began with small innovations like a tongue-in-cheek series of hashtags, but now I find myself engaged in full-blown conversations on my phone that could be completely unintelligible to the person sitting next to me.
Anybody could attempt to parse out the basic meaning of my texts, but my friends and I have abused the conventions of the English language to the point of developing our own nuanced vernacular that seems too complex to explain to an outsider. Last week, when I asked my sister why she called and left a voicemail, she texted me back, “Bc u were so ignore all the day,” to which I responded with a characteristic “pleathe” and then informed her that “I was sleep.” I don’t even think twice about replacing verbs with their corresponding nouns or lamenting with “rip in rest” when I encounter an emotionally taxing situation — that is, when I’m talking to my inner social circle, because they get it. My BFF knows that when I say “I’m so ,” I’m looking into the invisible camera on “The Office.” (Oh, the power of a well-placed space comma.) And I don’t have to explain to my family the subtle yet weighty implications of using a tilde as a nose in my smiley face, which generally follows some sarcastic banter. The thing is, I can’t fully explain it. You have to experience it. As my friend Carrie Holt once put it, “A nose in a smiley face is worth a thousand words.”
I think the main reason why I’m totally unfazed by this distortion of language is because it is intentional and effective. I died a little bit inside when someone wrote “try’s” instead of “tries” on Yik Yak today, but when I unlock my phone and see “what r u do” or “it me” on the group message entitled “$ibz” (siblings), I feel nothing but fondness because I naturally shift into my Internet persona when talking to them.
This vocabulary, replete with neologisms and marked by bizarre syntax, offers a unique social intimacy that standard English does not. I bond with my friends over ridiculous turns of phrase because we have a sense of mutual understanding — and a sense that we are in on the joke. If I talk to you about “lollege” and “aesthetic” or tell you that “Childish Gambino is my lifeblood tbh,” our friendship is real.
An informal language also addresses the issue of nebulous tone that pervades virtual communication: How can you be sure of what a person is actually saying in the absence of body language and auditory cues? When I ask my friend “r u ok,” I’m probably laughing about the baffling text she just sent me. But if I text her, “are you okay?” she knows that I’m genuinely concerned about her. All I had to do was spell it out and add a question mark. Such subtle shifts in writing affect the whole timbre of the conversation. After months or years of exchanging our own little idiosyncrasies, my friends and I can perceive fluctuations in tone and personal connotations that would easily escape an unfamiliar reader.
So even as an editor, I don’t feel weird using goofy punctuation or texting my friend that “I am v #strug rn.” He knows that I’m capable of writing eloquent prose. But I’ll save that for my research paper. :~)