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“Yo what’s up? how bout those rams. *grin*. erm, gotta run, ttyl :]”

Words to this effect, or lack of effect, are gaining currency as more and more people find themselves hooked on the biggest stimulus to small talk since coffee: instant messaging. Content-free, off-the-top-of-the-head, formulaic exchanges are nothing new in themselves. What is new — and experts warn that it could have revolutionary consequences for the language — is the medium.

Not so long ago, “shooting the breeze” was a purely verbal phenomenon. One used it in passing, greeting someone in the street or waiting for an elevator. There was no need to compose sentences or worry about grammar, since the words evaporated as soon as uttered — and anyway, things had to be kept snappy if one were to get a word in edgewise or not be labeled an ear-basher. Nobody thought to write any of it down. When someone did, like James Joyce recording for posterity the street and pub patter of turn-of-the-century Dublin, the man was deemed a genius. (“Phenomenon!” his Dubliners would have snorted just hearing the word. “The fat heap he married is a nice old phenomenon with a back on her like a ballalley.”)

Written exchanges, even casual ones, were different. People would consciously decide to sit down and write — eons ago with pen and paper, more recently with a computer. There was time, and a certain pressure, to draft and adjust, to polish images and respect grammar and punctuation. After all, there was no telling who might keep the thing, like those letters of the subsequently famous, collected and published after their deaths to the eternal mortification of their descendants. Correspondence was a serious business: The marvelous, coruscating letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge run to six fat volumes.

The advent of e-mail had a subtle but significant effect on written communication. Suddenly, the idea dawned that one’s effusions were unlikely to be kept; how many people print out and store e-mails that are not work-related? The new evanescence proved liberating, especially to the impatient young. Capitals quickly vanished, along with paragraphs. Stream-of-consciousness was back in vogue.

Yet compared with the even newer phenomenon of instant messaging, e-mail still has about it the whiff of composition. IM — a system of communicating online with one or more people simultaneously, like a conference call for the deaf — removed at a stroke the luxury of time, the sine qua non of a considered style. The pressure to respond at the speed of speech has produced a kind of oxymoronic new dialect: written conversation, so highly compressed that it is incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Not only are capitals and paragraphs out, but so are spelling, multi-clause sentences, even big words. Not, as it might appear, because the writers are Bears of Very Little Brain and Big Words bother them, as Winnie-the-Pooh put it, but because they simply don’t have time to type all those syllables. Phenomenon? Not likely! People are waiting.

Instead, all is abbreviation (ttyl = talk to you later; brb = be right back; lol = laugh out loud; even OK has become the Kafkaesque k) and emoticon (that’s smiley and frowny faces to me and you). Asterisks are liberally used to signify an “action response”: *chuckle*, *grin*, *whatever*.

Does any of this matter? It might. According to industry reports, IM is becoming ubiquitous in the online community — and that community is growing exponentially. Once perceived as the preserve of teenagers and college kids, IM is now the preferred medium of many adults as well, from businessmen to doctors and lawyers to long-distance parents. As services are delinked from the PC, spreading to cell phones, hand-held computers, pagers and even televisions, people will be able to stay connected 24 hours a day. *gasp*. Serious users, of course, will shun the “cuter” aspects of IM-speak, but the obligation to compress will remain the same.

What does this mean? No one knows. But linguists and psychologists have expressed concern about the ramifications of IM for language, for the depth and clarity of thought, for efficiency of communications and for the quality of relationships. Thoughts formulated on the fly are rarely complex. A frowny face cannot be called nuanced. Least predictable of all is the long-term effect of habit. Good writing, like clear thinking, depends on time (the French novelist Flaubert once spent a morning putting a single comma in and the afternoon taking it out again) and practice. Practice quick-time IM enough, and there is a chance that slow-time qualities like patience and critical discrimination will rust. It’s worth thinking about.

But hey. we’re outta space. :[ ttyl

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