Speaking Leet

C “[Ev3]Funkapotamus” J has graciously allowed me to reprint a linguistics paper he wrote on the origins of l33t 5p34k. Enjoy!

Leet Speak

The player sits at his desk mesmerized, staring intently at the flashing colors on his new nineteen inch flat screen monitor. The violent noise created by rockets finding their targets and machine guns firing with crystal clarity in 5.1 Dolby digital surround sound encompass his senses. His computer is a shrine, paying homage to the glorification of high-definition, animated carnage. Unfortunately, the last few rounds of “One-on-One Deathmatch” haven’t gone so well…actually, none of them have. He may have the right equipment, but he can’t seem to gain the upper hand. As his computer screen goes dark and the final score is tallied, he sinks into the polished leather of his fully customized gaming chair, “10 – 0…YOU LOSE!” Then the message box appears and the humiliation really begins:

L33td00d: “j00 d34d f00!! w00t!!”
L33td00d: “u sux0r! n00b!!!!”
L33td00d: “ph33r m3! 1 g0t m4d sk1llz!!”

As if being totally shut out for the fifth consecutive time wasn’t bad enough, his opponent, L33td00d (pronounced Leet dude), has to add this alpha-numeric mockery after every match. The worst part of this pathetic scene is – he can’t understand a word of it! When it comes to leet speak, he is totally inexperienced, a newbie, or n00b. That is the mission behind this essay: to unveil the shrouded past of leet speak, dissect some of its fundamental grammar and usage, and learn what to do with it when you stumble across it…which may be more often that you realize.

The jargon being used by L33td00d is called “leet speak” (leet being an abbreviated version of the word “elite”). The origin of leet speak can be traced back to the early 1980s. Back in the days when the BBS (Bulletin Board System) was the primary interconnection medium for most computer users, a large portion of systems were used for the soul purpose of downloading and uploading software. Some of these systems specialized in illegal software (Warez), others discouraged it, and some provided a mixture. That is, when you were on the BBS long enough, and proved yourself a real user your account was given a higher status giving you access to more chat-rooms, more file libraries, and more services. These users were called the Elite, and it is from them that the phrase “l33t speak” came.

Once you got onto the more open BBS systems, it became more dangerous to share warez. For those systems where trading was discouraged, you wanted to keep your conversations private. Some BBS software allowed a SYSOP (System Operator) to scan all conversation for keywords, allowing them to spy on any illegal sharing that went on. Even on the systems where warez was commonplace, users were paranoid of governmental robots sitting scanning all conversations for Warez talk.

An article posted on the website Aquarionics, titled “A Basic History of l337 Sp3aK” has this to say about the original purpose of leet speak, “The solution to this was to not talk in any way that would trip the sensors. Sensors were looking for words (Warez, Software, Zero Day, The titles of the latest games, etc.) and for talk of the mythical higher level (Elite) that would allow you access to the Cracker Cream, all the warez your phone bill could take” (Aquarionics). By substituting different characters and numbers for these buzz words; one could theoretically talk about whatever they wish without fear of getting caught by the government.

In 1994, id Software began to add Internet connectivity to their top selling shoot ‘em up games Doom and Doom II, leading to a revolution in PC gaming and also to the rise of l33t speak. These games also included a feature that allowed players to communicate with each other while playing. The general premise behind the Doom games, and the hundreds of copycat titles, is to simply kill as many moving things as possible. Thousands of aggressive males (and a few females) were having the ultimate “Mine’s Bigger” contest by seeing who can rack up the most impressive head count in their computer generated, science fiction fantasy worlds. As with any type of competition, ‘smack’ talk became prevalent in online gaming. Phrases such as ‘I am elite’ became common place, and somewhere down the line leet speak crept in, reforming the phrase into ‘1 4m 3l1t3′ in order to demonstrate that the speaker was a hacker and someone to be feared. It was further exaggerated by purposeful bad spelling and eventually wound up as something like this, ‘1 4m 3l33t!’ and simplified to, ‘1 4m 133t’.

The first things to learn about being leet are the basic substitutions. Let’s have a look at them. First and foremost, the most common letter used in English is ‘E’. The leet version of this is, of course, 3. 3 is the origin of the whole leet language, so it is the easiest to remember and to use. Roughly speaking, ‘T’ is the next most common letter, which is represented by either a 7 or +. A, O, I, and S are the next most popular letters on a rough basis, and characterized by 4, 0, 1 and 5 respectively. None of these pose much trouble as they are all numbers with a basic visual similarity to the letters they portray. The chart attached to the back of this essay outlines some of the most common substitutions.

Although it may still seem to be utter nonsense, the basic word formation strategies that apply to English are present in leet speak as well. It utilizes some common rules of morphology and the concepts of bound and free morphemes. Kolln and Funk’s Understanding English Grammar defines a morpheme as, “A sound or combination of sounds with meaning” (UEG 359). The root word, or base, has attached to it an affix. The root word that can stand alone is called a free morpheme; bird, for example, is a free morpheme. Adding the affix, in this case a suffix, “-s” to bird creates the new word birds. Leet speak has a few common affixes of its own. An article on the British Broadcasting Company’s website titled “An Explanation of l33t Speak” outlines a few of those morphological oddities, “As a general rule, in l33t, rather than use ‘s’ to make something plural, a ‘z’ is used instead. Also ‘f’ is normally changed to ‘ph’. The short ‘u’ is often changed to ’00’, as well” (BBC). Another grammatical oddity is the “-or” suffix. “The -0r suffix can be used in place of -ed or -er, for example, ‘1 0wnz0r’” (BBC). All of the derogatory banter used by the fore mentioned L33td00d display these characteristics, omitting the ‘f’ to ‘ph’ transformation.

A couple of lesser known substitutions are given in an article found on PlanetQuake, a website devoted to online gaming, “The simplest Grammar rule to remember is that verbs that end in ‘at’ (‘at’ verbs) drop the ‘at and acquire an ‘@’. With this rule, cat becomes ‘c@’ (‘k@’ in pure l33t) and phat becomes ‘ph@’. However, ‘@’ can also just mean ‘a’, so be careful” (PlanetQuake). If you are in a particularly arrogant mood and want to prove just how leet you are, try using this obscure rule, “Much like ‘at’ verbs, ‘ash’ nouns loose their ending and gain a ‘#’ symbol. There aren’t too many nouns that end like this, but watch out and use it when you get a chance, because it’ll really impress anyone on the forums who can understand it” (PlanetQuake). A couple examples of this substitution are backsl# (backslash) and c# (cash). After all, why use an encoded language in the first place if you can’t flaunt it every now and then?

Leet speak has an interesting take on the common convention of tenses, ignore them entirely! Now, actually, this is harder than it sounds, since a literal transliteration in leet of “He ran to the shop and washed the dog.” is “He runs to the shop and washes the dog.” But this will become more comfortable over time (you’ll never use leet to talk about shops or dogs anyway). Quite simply, it’s an easy rule to obey, but if you don’t, you’ll be spotted instantly, and ejected from the forums as a person of common intelligence. One more thing to remember: Capitalization is optional. It may not happen at all, or could quite possibly run rampant. And don’t be surprised if a random letter is capitalized in the middle of a word or sentence.

Before we move on to another grammar content area, here is a list of the most commonly used words found in leet speak:

0w|\| or 0wn3d – One of the most popular l33t words it is very loosely defined as beaten or can simply be an expression of awe, for example, ‘I 0wn3d you’ means ‘I have beaten you in a very humiliating fashion’, or ‘0wn4ge!’ which means ‘That was (or is) very nifty’.
w00t – Derived from ‘hoot’, this is defined as ‘yay’, it can be used, for example, upon victory or, possibly, the release and procurement of a new video card.
ph33r – Fear, most commonly used in such phrases as, ‘Ph33r m3!’ or ‘Ph33r |\/|y 1337 sk1llz!’ It can also be written as, ‘ph34r’.
sk1llz – Obviously derived from ‘skill’, referring to skill in some type of online game, programming or hacking. Many times used in conjunction with ‘m4d’. As a general rule, if one has sk1llz, one is to be ph33r3d.
m4d – Mad, mostly used as a descriptive term meaning great, for example, ‘h3s g0t m4d sk1llz’.
j00 – You, commonly used in such phrases as, ‘j00 d34d f00′.
f00 – Fool, one who isn’t very bright or skillful.
j0 – Yo, as in the greeting.
d00d – Dude; an expression of comrade, or just used to address a random person online.
sux0r – Sucks, as in ‘7h1s sux0r’, one of the few common examples of the -0r clause.
n00b – Short for noobie, misspelling of newbie; someone who is new to something, or just not very good at it.

This list is not comprehensive by any means, as the limitations of leet-isms are only restricted by imagination.

Another example of the leniency handed out by leet speak is its openness to misspellings of varying degrees. The more commonly misspelled words in leet are usually only three to four letters long. Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia of internet know-how, rated a list of these words. Among the top three are:

“yuo” for “you”
“teh” for “the” (also sometimes used as an intensifier: “He is teh lame”)
“pwn” for “own” (to defeat badly, as in a game: “You got pwned”) (Wikipedia).

How did leet speak evolve from the original secretive “members only” club status to the belligerent banter of thousands of internet gamers around the world? Well, just as English has changed since the time of its origin, leet has evolved as well. The fundamentals of the languages are still present, but the context has changed significantly. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives insight to the natural evolution of languages:
English usage today is an area of discourse – sometimes it seems more like dispute – about the way words are used and ought to be used. This discourse makes up the subject matter of a large number of books that put the word usage in their titles. Behind usage as a subject lies a collection of opinions about what English grammar is or should be, about the propriety of using certain words and phrases, and about the social status of those who use certain words and constructions. A fairly large number of these opinions have been with us long enough to be regarded as rules or at least to be referred to as rules. In fact they are often regarded as rules of grammar, even if they concern only matters of social status or vocabulary selection. And many of these rules are widely believed to have universal application, even though they are far from universally observed. (DOE 7a)

While the encoded leet speak was chiefly used to avoid any possible repercussions from the government regulating software piracy, it has since evolved into a language used primarily in online gaming communities and their forums as a form of simian-like chest beating. Essentially, the primary issue that has been altered in the world of leet is its underlying meaning. The field of English that deals with this area is that of Semantics.

The text used for this class, Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication, defines semantics as, “The study of meaning, reference, truth, and related notions” (Linguistics 587). A commonly raised question at this point is, “How do you study or measure meaning?” Good question. A truthful answer would say, “It depends on the situation and context.” For any of the possible conditions that one might use leet speak, the theory of choice would probably be the “Use Theory of Meaning”. It is summarized in section 6.2 of the Linguistics text, “The meaning of an expression is its use in the language community” (Linguistics 236). The fundamental difficulty in converting verbal conversation into typed communication comes from the limitations of both mediums. Language is first acquired verbally and is then paired with kinesthetic expression. The kinesthetic aspects have been removed from the telephone as well, the dominant form of long-range communication, but telephones rely on vocal inflection to imply subtlety. The internet actually harks back to when letter writing was the only form of long-range communication, isolating the text as the vehicle of meaning.

This brings an interesting question into focus, “How much is too much?” If the message is confined to the text and its surrounding context, burying the message too deeply in leet may prove more problematic than helpful. Granted, if the reader isn’t able to decipher the author’s writing, the author is obviously more elite and worthy of the title, but at what cost? The fundamental purpose of leet speak is to not be understood by the majority, thus elevating your importance. Is there a potential risk of becoming too leet and not being understood at all? Isn’t the sole purpose of any language to communicate with others who can, in turn, communicate back?

Outside of the online piracy and multiplayer gaming communities (and their respective forums), the next largest source of leet speak could arguably be found in MegaTokyo. A brief story synopsis is given by Fred Gallagher, co-creator of the story, art, and online population of the website www.MegaTokyo.com,
“Piro, and avid anime/manga/ dating sim fan, and Largo, a hard-core gamer/l33th2x0rm2st3r (leet hacker master) fly to Japan on a whim and find themselves stranded, unable to afford the trip home. In their struggles to find places to crash and money for tickets home, we experience Tokyo from their unique – and drastically different – points of view.” (MegaTokyo v 1)

Along the course of their stint in Japan, Largo encounters a fellow gamer who speaks entirely in leet. They meet on the airplane on the way to Tokyo, when Largo is able to translate his leet into English for the flight attendants. Later on, they meet again at an arcade, of all places, and he is able to return the favor to Largo. Largo has been challenged by a girl named Tohyo to a winner-take-all pride bout on any game of his choice. The nameless leet speaker pulls Largo aside saying, “c4r3phul d00d3, d0n7 l3t h3r +r1ck you. joo 9o77@ ch00$3 +h3 r19h7 94m3, 0r 5h3 w1ll 0wnz0r you” (MegaTokyo v 2). Translated, “Careful dude, don’t let her trick you. You’ve got to choose the right game, or she will ‘ownzor’ you.” MegaTokyo has found a hospitable niche in their online community forum. Artists, gamers, computer nerds, and even an occasional average Joe can feel welcome at MegaTokyo.

James Rome, in his essay “relax, we understand j00”, addresses the topic of leet abuse on the forums. “Instead of judging the l33t post by its form, which may actually be an impressive coding job, they will judge the post by its content and by the demands it makes on the reader. The demands on the readers are very extensive, as they must decode something purposefully obfuscated without a key and with no standard usage” (Rome). His motives are not totally out of line. People do not like being told that how to use their time, nor do they like their time to be wasted. He continues,
“If a short message in l33t takes several minutes to read, it should have a great deal of content value, or the time spent decoding it will have been wasted. Unfortunately, those writing in l33t are not trying to communicate something profound, but are instead trying to establish their own greatness. This tends to annoy a great many people who see l33t used excessively.” (Rome)

Excessive leet can be defined as leet that requires so much decoding by the reader that the message derived from it is not worth the time. For some, this is the primary problem associated with leet, but it is a problem that can be solved. The MegaTokyo Fan Network has posted a guide to “The Correct Uses of L33t” which contains four rules. They are “1. L33t is not a language. 2. L33t is not to be used for whole sentences. 3. L33t shall not be used ALL the time. 4. L33t is for exclamations, and point making” (Jester). These rules seem to have been created to prevent the use of excessive leet, by limiting its usage to very specific conditions. If leet is only used for exclamations, it should not take too long to decode. By following these rules, and recognizing that leet can be used to have an “inside joke” without trying to show how great one is, leet came to a variety of new uses. One such joke is the fully functioning “h4x0r” Google search engine. Its website, http://www.google.com/intl/xx-hacker/, is nearly identical to the commonly known Google, with one catch – everything is translated to leet speak. It can also be accessed by typing “h4x0r” in the search bar on Google’s main page and selecting the first available result. Go ahead, try it. You know you want to. I’ll wait.

Now that the issue of leet speak is a bit clearer, you may be wondering, “How can I become leet?” An online article titled, “How to become l33t” may be able to help. Below is an abbreviated version of the list authored by the otherwise anonymous “Leet Gods That You Should Worship”, this article gives the following suggestions for those who seek to become leet:

1. Being l33t
l33t is all about pretending to be superior even though the obvious truth is that you are a geek who will probably never get a date. l33t people are not easy to spot, because they are never outside. Night after night they sit in front of computers chatting, gaming, and doing l33t people things, and this is the reason they sleep all day.

2. l33t food
What you eat when no one is looking is totally unimportant. What is very important is that your workspace, wherever it may be, is filled with empty pizza boxes and empty bottles that previously contained something with lots and lots of caffeine.

3. Am I the most l33t person out there?
No, you are NOT. You are a n00b!

4. When can I brag to my friends that I’m l33t?
Never. The truly l33t would never say it or even consider themselves as l33t. You are 1337 when people, without being asked or bothered about it, tell you that you are. (How to Become L33t).

Leet speak is still very young as a language, but has managed to survive several substantial changes in regard to its meaning, internal structures, and accessibility. While it probably won’t ever dominate the linguistic world, it has managed to make a very noteworthy mark in its history. Hopefully, you won’t be called a ‘n00b’ when you encounter l33t 5p34k.

Original Document
Works Cited
Conversion Chart