At the root of all internet dialects is leet, the most impenetrable of them all. Leet was what hackers and gamers spoke to each other on bulletin boards back in the 1990s. Since then, it has grown and morphed, hitting a peak in 2005. “Leet”, often spelt “l33t”, is, as mentioned, a phonetic version of the word “elite”, a reference to the technocrats who used it. Leet grew in chat rooms as a means of creating a linguistic in-crowd that excluded uninitiated newcomers, or “n00bs”.
This is how leetspeak (l33tsp34k) is explained by Anna Leach in a fascinating article in yesterday's Independent. With internet slang becoming mainstream and even your granny knowing something about LOLcats and perhaps even having her own level 27 Nightelf hunter in World of Warcraft, the article takes a look at where it's all come from and how it connects to other forms of slang.
As the lexicographer Jonathan Green (speaker at next June's SFX Language workshops, fact fans!) explains "BBC English is what the establishment speaks. Slang is the language that intentionally does the opposite. We are hard-wired as humans to take the piss – we do it politically and socially, and we do it linguistically". And internet slang is very much part of this.
David Crystal (another speaker in June) adds “Fifty years ago, if you invented a word it would take approximately 20 years to get it into the dictionary. Now you can invent something and it’s all over the net in days,” making it clear that while many of the sources of slang are not new - abuse, in-group markers of identity, terms of approval and excitement - that the speed at which they proliferate is something we haven't seen before.
The article goes on to explain how l33t words are often formed and how they are used:
A combination of typos, computer-game references and tech jargon, leet is intentionally baffling. It is also the common ancestor of lolspeak and snark: lolspeak has inherited its linguistic tinkering, while snark has taken on the ethos of the egotistical put-down. “To make leet,” says Kat Hannaford, news editor of T3 magazine’s website, “you manipulate language by adding -xor or -age on the end of words.” Some leet words, such as “w00t” (hooray) and “I have skillz” are becoming mainstream, while other words and phrases reflect the preoccupation of the élite with putting down n00bs, or the analogous pleasure-rush of hacking someone else’s computer system. “Elite speakers are arrogant,” Hannaford says. “There’s a lot of ego in leetspeak.”