FYI Internet slang nothing to LOL at

Young adults have become so accustomed to thumb-typing messages on their BlackBerrys and chatting over Instant Messaging (IM) programs that they’ve spawned an entirely new language variety that has started to crossover into advertising and business culture world, according to experts.

Internet slang, text speak, or SMS language – call it what you will, but researchers now identify the acronym filled syntax used to communicate over new technologies as a new language type. It’s separate from formal English and comes with its own common set of language features and standards, according to the study out of Kent State University.

The Kent, Ohio-based school’s English department released a study on May 1 of 32,000 words of instant messaging conversations archived by volunteer college students. Across 70 conversations, a confidence of the language rules was demonstrated, almost as if the chatters were working from an Internet slang dictionary.

Such a dictionary would include the words LOL, TTYL, and BBIAB. But aside from some Web page reference guides, the rules behind IM language are established implicitly, says associate professor of English Christina Haas.

“That fact is that there has quickly become a standard set of rules of usage operating here,” she says. “It’s not just a matter of cutting down on time or key strokes, sometimes people will actually include more key strokes to create emphasis or emulate speech.”

For example, a person wanting to convey excitement might type “SWEEEAT!!” instead of merely typing “sweet” into their IM, she adds. “There’s something else going on here.”

Advertising has recently tapped into the use of this new language by using the IM language in social network advertising and in conventional media such as billboards and magazine ads. The ads are making a bid at targeting the youth audience familiar with the technology, says Cheryl Sylvester, president of Toronto-based Beyond Brand Thinking.

“It sort of presupposes the audiences can translate the message because they’re comfortable with it when they use technology,” she says. “A strategy like using IM language would be best employed with a brand that is speaking to a younger technology-savvy generation.”

Young adults use the IM language mostly to develop their social relationships, Haas says. A conversational exchange lasting 30 turns might only contain enough relevant facts that it could be conveyed in one-sixth of the length, but the language is wrapped up in social interactions, even at the office.

“People just check in with IM to say ‘Hi’ to their co-workers, and to let them know they’re around,” Haas says. “It’s different from setting a meeting time at 3 p.m.”

If using such language can win over the target audience’s trust with the socially-focused language type, it might just be successful. An Ipsos Global Ideas white paper says that the more people trust a given institution, the more likely they are to believe its advertising.

The messaging is also a good way to funnel down a target audience and hone communications style. For example, instead of targeting the large demographic of Canadians between 18 and 30, targeting technology users in that group with the right message makes it more likely the message will get across effectively.

But not every brand can wield the power of Internet slang properly. If the target audience feels the message-messenger fit is not authentic, then they will discredit the message they’re being presented with, according to Ipsos.

“Smart advertisers always try to speak in the language of their audience, but it is subtle when and how to do that,” Sylvester says. “If it doesn’t resonate with your brand and what it stands for, then it looks like you’re trying to get in from the outside.”

Moving the technology-attached language to a conventional media might also be a problem, warns Haas. Taking the language off of LCD screens and putting it on large billboards might not translate the way advertisers hope for.

“People use a different register in different contexts to talk with oral language and with written languages,” she says. “When you talk with your family at home, you use a different register than you do in the office.”

Technology has always driven language adaptations throughout history, the English professor adds. Where many linguists might decry the seeming bastardization of the language through the dropping of vowels and destruction of syntax, they should instead recognize that those using IM are savvy language users.

Kent State will now move their study of the IM language on to its effects in the workplace, and possibly in advertising as well, Haas says.

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