THE conversation begins on the computer, nothing too atypical for a pair of teenage boys bored on a Friday night:
Garret: wut r u doing 2nite
Need a translation? Not if you're a 13-year-old who's been Internet-connected since birth. For the rest of us, welcome to the world of Net Lingo - the keyboard generation's gift to language and culture. "sup" is not a call to supper, but a query: "What's up?" And Josh's "n2m" reply? "Not too much."
As in every age, teenagers today are adapting the English language to meet their needs for self-expression. But this time, it's happening online - and at lightning speed. To some, it's a creative twist on dialogue, and a new, harmless version of teen slang. But to anxious grammarians and harried teachers, it's the linguistic ruin of Generation IM (instant messenger).
Whatever it is, the result fills Internet chat rooms, e-mail, and the increasingly popular instant messenger, on which correspondents fire off confessions, one-liners, and blather in real-time group chats or, more often, fleet-fingered tête-a-têtes.
"This is really an extension of what teenagers have always done: recreate the language in their own image. But this new lingo combines writing and speaking to a degree that we've never seen before," says Neil Randall, an English professor at the University of Waterloo and author of "Lingo Online: A Report on the Language of the Keyboard Generation."
The result, he says, is the use of writing to simulate speech - a skill not formally taught. In the process, typed communication has entered a new era of speed.
In a third-floor bedroom in Houston, Garret Thomas has three online conversations going at once. That's nothing, he says. Sometimes he chats with as many as 20 people at a time - chosen from his 200-plus "buddy list" that shows which of his friends are online and available. "I'm a really fast typer," says the redhead.
Though creating unique speech patterns is nothing new for the younger set, this generation is doing it in a novel way.
New acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons - keyboard characters lined up to resemble human gestures or expressions, such as smiling :) - are coined daily. Indeed, almost 60 percent of online teenagers under age 17 use IM services, offered free by Internet providers such as Yahoo and America Online, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.