Author's Note, 2005.03.22: This paper was written in 2001, when some notable Internet communication methods (webcams, LiveJournal, SMS messaging, Wikis) were not known to the general public very well at all. As more new non-technical users engage in connectivity, "L33t" has fallen out of favor somewhat, replaced with a different sort of Internet Shorthand, which would make yet another excellent paper topic. This paper is also sorely lacking in failure to address script kiddies, general hacker culture, and fanimutation.


Image © 2000 Fred Gallagher

The Cultural Groups that Speak L33T

Communication is a natural outgrowth of having communities of people. Often, a language develops in its own way, governed by the environment that a cultural group lives in, or by their supernatural beliefs. An interesting phenomenon has occurred in recent years that changes typical views of language: The Internet.

A language that is spoken does not always agree with how it is written. Even in English, there is a notable amount of vagueness in the written word that is not apparent in speech. Observe: The teacher said the student was unfair. A sentence as simple as this can be vastly changed in meaning by inserting oral pauses: The teacher, said the student, was unfair.

Our written English combats this effect by introducing marks for quotation, pause, emphasis, and the like. But these marks and not necessarily even known by the majority of the population. So, what happens when they need to convey written information? Most often, it is left out.

The Internet is a broad term used to describe the electronic interactivity of different people. People can write electronic mail (e-mail) to each other, chat with large groups of people (chat rooms and newsgroups), send instant messages (IM), and even play games together, all while relying upon text rather than speech.

How do people fully express themselves when they are confined to only words? Amazingly, people have actually found ways to represent emotional states using only keys found on a keyboard. They can show happiness [ :) ], anger, [ >:( ], even disgust [ >:P ] and the phrase "kiss my ass" [ (_x_) ] using only keystrokes, and in a variety of ways [ :), :-), ^_^ ].

This online culture has affected language in other ways. e-Mail, the most common form of written communication today, tends to be very informal and loose, like leaving messages on an answering machine, rather than writing a pen-and-paper letter. Due to that emphasis on speed, poor spelling and grammar have become fairly common in the online world. But, such misspellings can actually be useful.

Computers can be programmed to scan for certain words and block messages that contain those words. However, these filters do not check for misspellings of these words. So, by misspelling the word "porn" as "pron", a user dodges the filter, which can cause profanity and other such undesirable sentiments to be shown.

And such filtering software could not be used to detect misspellings because they may be misspellings of different words. "Pron" could be a misspelled "prom" or "peon".

People who use the Internet for various activities may occasionally wish to avoid detection through such filters. As a result, a pseudo-writing system has evolved known as "L33T" (pronounced "el-eet" initially, currently corrupted to "leet"). This writing system originated on newsgroup lists, where a person who had access to certain newsgroups was considered to be better than the majority who did not have such access. These privileged few became know as 'The Elite'. (Raymond 12)

Naturally, those who did not have such access were jealous, and sought to gain those permissions themselves. To get into the computer culture of that time, one had to have a command of computer programming, the ability to craft and manipulate algorithms, which is known as hacking.

As a quick side note, hacking does not mean breaking security or malicious destruction of information. The proper use for that disreputable activity is 'cracking', where a person attempts to gain improper access to computing facilities. True hacking is the act of manipulating a computer to have it perform a desired activity, not to gain access.

So, these newcomers to the Internet desired to pass themselves off as hackers, merely for their curious nature of what was discussed on the Elite's newsgroups. So, they tried to appear as a knowledgeable hacker, rather than actually become one. But they did not often succeed.

L33T Keyboard

Not everyone that used the Internet's functions was fully literate in the "manners" present there. It is considered impolite to type messages entirely in uppercase, which is known as shouting. HI EVERYONE, when typed, does indeed seem like someone is shouting at you from the screen as you read it. So, the Elite did not have trouble discerning those who wanted to belong, but had no conception of what they were doing.

But, those newcomers still tried, mostly through attempts at hacking, the majority of which became cracks or merely copied hacks from others. After a while, these boorish types tried to 'break the systems', so to speak. It started with something as simple as dodging such text filters.

By combining misspellings with symbols, these newcomers developed a new writing style, L33T. No longer did a person "cracked the security on a site and stole some porn and pirated software", but instead he or she "h4x0r3d ur b0x & p1R473d sum pr0n & w4r3z!!" Translated from the symbols, that phrase would read as "hacked your box (computer) and pirated some porn and warez", warez being software that has its copyright protection removed.

The writing system itself is almost phonetic. Most sounds are simply substituted by a combined sound: 'ck' and 'ch' become 'x', 'sh' becomes '#' (the octothorpe symbol is called "hash" among computer programmers), and 'at' becomes '@'. A more noticeable feature is that letters are interchanged with symbols that look similar to it. The letter 'A' looks like '4', '@', or more rarely '^'. Often, letters will be randomly capitalized.

Punctuation is ignored, save for giving an ending emphasis. The ending punctuation for L33T has been described as "pound[ing] the space between the '1' and '2' key while tapping shift" (Kenickie). No periods or other forms of punctuation are used, mostly due to the fact that the punctuation is used for letters. Thus, "| 0w|\| j00!2!@1@!!" is considered a good ending.

Some have actually noticed different 'dialects' of L33T. Llama, concept, advanced forum, Eblanix, Ultris, semi-organic NYC, and pure are all known dialects of this writing system (Rio, Everything2). They tend to differ in their use of punctuation to form letters. 7, +, and t all represent the letter t, but in differing dialects (concept, NYC, and Llama, respectively). This also means that L33t itself can be spelled in a variety of ways, such as L33t, |_==+, |33+, or !_|=|=T.

However, there is no 'official' way to speak L33T. To do so would almost defeat the purpose. If there was only one way to say "porn and warez" (two items very important to those of the L33t culture), then such words fall easily into a text filter. So, not only are there "pr0n & w4r3z," but "Pr[]n n \/\/^|P3z," and "P|20|\| 4|\||) W4|2=Z".

The natural culture of L33T speakers is one of attempting acceptance. The speakers of this language tend to be angry because they are shunned by those who have greater knowledge and resources, and thus they turn towards each other, deepening this rift that exists.

Naturally, by being reviled, those people that extensively use L33T tend to be insecure in themselves. "[A L33T speaker] will not have a handle like 'Pink Daisy' because they are insecure... given a sample of 100 people, the one named 'Hellraiser' is the last one you would pick." (Raymond, "Lamer") To combat this insecurity, they adopt highly aggressive stances, like animals puffing themselves up to seem bigger than they actually are. Obscured profanity, insults, and goads are typical sentiments spewed forth by an L33T speaker.

While this writing style originated in newsgroups, it quickly spread to chat rooms, especially ones that deal with games, where such aggressive nature is put to good use. Some of these L33T phrases are actually moving into a more mainstream culture. Phrases like, "All your base are belong to us," "You camper," "Bomb da base," and "I own you" all gained popularity in these chat rooms (Echlin). Of course, they all have different degrees of notoriety (and while the phrases are repeated in L33t, they originated elsewhere).

Use of L33T was greatly raised in the early 1990s when the game "DOOM" was released. This was not only the first simulated-3D shooting action game, but it also featured a chat feature within the game. Now, taunts could be issued mid-game, in a format where those who spent time typing were sitting targets for less chatty types.

So, as discussed, the main reason for mingling the punctuation symbols with regular text is for obscurity purposes. But, in reality, there are other reasons behind this, which actually stem from the cultural uses of this language online.

I spent four weeks lurking in chat rooms for discussion of pornography and games, the two areas most frequented by people that use this writing form. I was very surprised at a particular discovery.

Most people that make heavy use of the Internet loath people that speak L33T. They see such people as a nuisance, who do not understand the first thing about using computers, but attempt a bluff that they are very poor at doing.

It is true that that does make up a large majority of the people that use this writing style. Insecure, outspoken individuals who are trying to puff themselves up to bigger than what they are. But, there is a second group.

In gaming chat rooms, I noticed that some people made heavy use of L33T, gouging their opponents with verbal stings such as, "j00 81zn1+x!!!! 1 0wn j00!!! j00 @1n+ g0+ 0 0n m3!!!!!!!" ("You bitch! I own you! You ain't got nothing on me!"). However, these particular L33T d00dz (dudes, a common title) were quite adept at the games they played, and seemed to have a high degree of computer literacy.


Image © 1999 Krahulik/Rollins

These were Elite that talked L33T.

Why? I myself could not understand it for some time. Then, it began to make sense. The people that played against this kind of L33T d00d would adopt a cocky attitude, thinking that they were playing against a twelve-year old. As a result, they played sloppily, becoming easy prey for the L33T d00dz. And, with each loss, the d00dz would verbally rail on their opponents, making those opponents feel like they were being beaten by children with too much free time. The d00dz had won by playing with a psychological edge.

It was astounding. From my viewpoint of being technically literate and being repulsed by those who falsely acted like they were knowledgeable, I had trouble believing what I saw. But, nevertheless, these were people that would be considered an admirable part of online culture. Their indulgence in using L33T was solely used as a way to intimidate opponents.

This use of L33T was actually deeper than I expected, upon further research (Kenickie). L33T is a difficult language to decode. "You camped on the green lawn" is a message so simple that most native speakers of English don't even think about the words. However, "u k4m+ 0n d4 gR33n 14wN" is difficult enough to understand that a speaker must concentrate on the phrase.

That heavy concentration is the key to this strategy. When a person has to concentrate on a nasty comment or prideful boast, it leaves that much more of an impression on the reader. That is what accomplishes the fulfillment of the psychological edge.

Also, when an opponent was busy reading an obscure message, they were not as alert as to what was going on in the game. The users of L33T preyed on this fact and would often attack while a player was probably busy trying to figure out what a particular message said.

This phenomenon of people impersonating a cultural group has definite implications. On the Internet, impersonation is easier than most other places. But, this should not be a cause for alarm. Even though this is a cultural group that is reviled, the mere fact that others have enough knowledge of their behaviors to impersonate them says something. Namely, the fact that being able to impersonate a person of a culture requires an awareness of that culture.

Certainly, I doubt that being able to "5p34x L1x d15" (speak like this) is crucial towards defining a culture, or even linguistic evolutionary progress. However, I feel that people that speak L33T form two distinct groups, both of which have well-defined cultures. The acceptance of that by society at large, however, is not as guaranteed.

Works Cited

Copyright Liam Echlin © 2001.05.02