August 31, 2007

Own, pone, poon, pun, pwone, whatever

Christopher Rhoads ("What Did U $@y? Online Language Finds Its Voice", WSJ, 8/23/2007) describes the the straw in the wind that broke the camel's back. Or is it the finger in the dike, for want of which the shoe was lost?

The central question is how to pronounce the characteristic typographical quirks of leetspeak:

Jarett Cale, the 29-year-old star of an Internet video series called "Pure Pwnage," enunciates the title "pure own-age." This is correct since "pwn" was originally a typo, he argues, and sounds "a lot cooler." But many of the show's fans, which he estimates at around three million, prefer to say pone-age, he acknowledges. Others pronounce it poon, puh-own, pun or pwone.

"I think we're probably losing the war," says Mr. Cale, whose character on the show, Jeremy, likes to wear a black T-shirt with the inscription, "I pwn n00bs." (That, for the uninitiated, means "I own newbies," or amateurs.)

Robert Hartwell Fiske is wheeled out for his traditional cameo, guarding the moon from wolves:

"There used to be a time when people cared about how they spoke and wrote," laments Robert Hartwell Fiske, who has written or edited several books on proper English usage, including one on overused words titled "The Dimwit's Dictionary."

But dude! Jarrett cares! And he's losing the war for the traditional pronunciation of "pwnage", while you mutter to yourself on the sidelines...

In fact, the article offers several examples of the strength of social norms, even if they're not exactly the norms that Fiske prefers:

"I pone you, you're going down dude, lawl!" is how Johnathan Wendel says he likes to taunt opponents in person at online gaming tournaments. Pone is how he pronounces "pwn," and lawl is how "LOL" usually sounds when spoken. Mr. Wendel, 26 years old, has earned more than $500,000 in recent years by winning championships in Internet games like Quake 3 and Alien vs. Predator 2. His screen name is Fatal1ty.


Mr. Wendel ... says he makes a point of using proper capitalization and punctuation in his online missives during competition. "It's always a last resort," says Mr. Wendel. "If you lose you can say, 'At least I can spell.'"

I'm hoping that he's expressing disdain for noobs who write "pone" instead of "pwn", and so on. I mean, a society is generally as lax as its language. A typical symptom of degeneracy is Roads' WSJ article itself, which includes quite a bit of dubious sound-influenced spelling:

In an episode of the animated TV show "South Park," one of the characters shouted during an online game, "Looks like you're about to get poned, yeah!" Another character later marveled, "That was such an uber-ponage."

From the point of view of substrantive linguistic description, my favorite part of the article deals with the evolving form, meaning and sound of "teh":

Those who utter the term "teh" are also split. A common online misspelling of "the," "teh" has come to mean "very" when placed in front of an adjective -- such as "tehcool" for "very cool." Some pronounce it tuh, others tay.

However, this seems to be incomplete and perhaps also partly false, at least according to the description in the wikipedia entry for "teh", which includes examples with verbs ("this is teh suck") and proper names ("teh Jeremy").

For more information about Pure Pwnage language and lifestyles, you might check out an episode.

[Update -- Alexis Grant writes:

I found your material on "teh" in "Own, pone, poon, pun, pwone, whatever" pretty interesting. One thing that stuck out at me was the quoted material 'such as "tehcool" for "very cool." ' No one I know would ever write "tehcool" without a space intentionally. (Actually, I don't know many people who use it at all anymore, but I used to. Now my friends make fun of me for sometimes using it.) So I wondered if that's a typo in LL, a typo in the article, or just a confusion of the author.

I was once referred to with the definite article in front of my name, and I took it as meaning that I was a notable and important instance of the name. I wouldn't say "teh cool" means "very cool", but something more like "an instance of cool that has high cool value". I wonder what units cool value has...

But I don't think Wikipedia has it right either: "that is best" and "that is the best" aren't related in the way that they seem to want them to be, and I don't think "teh [adjective]" really means that something is, e.g. the lamest, or that a person is the coolest (teh cool), but more "the essence of lame" or "the essence of cool".

Of course, it's hard for either Wikipedia or the WSJ to really pin down something that's still so much in flux, so I guess they should be excused for their confusions.

The string "tehcool" with no spaces is how it's rendered in the WSJ article. I don't know if that was a typo or Christopher Roads idea of how to spell it, but the WSJ is generally quite carefully edited, so I'd guess it was his choice. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 31, 2007 06:42 AM