A blog post was added to the OAC sometime last week by M. Izabel introducing "Jejemon", an evolving Filipino web/hybrid linguistic phenomenon that has been causing quite a stir among linguistic elitists and traditionalists:

The current hot cultural issue in my country is the "jejenese" of the "jejemons". Jejenese is the electronic language or sociolect used in sending electronic texts by jejemons, who are usually teens who share unique language codes, virtual experience, and unconventional worldview influenced by their use of technology such as cellphone and computer. Jejemon is a combination of "jeje" from "hehe", an expression when someone laughs, and "mon" from the video game, "pokemon" … [rest of post no longer available]

The Jejemon movement has attracted a strong following of "Jejenese" as well as a backlash against them by so-called "Jejebusters". A quick search on Google pulls up Facebook groups for and against, as well as various sites extolling, bemoaning and analyzing this interesting script.

As shown by M. Izabel in her post and according to Wikipedia, Jejenese has its own alphabet (jejebet), which is rendered in these examples:

Filipino: "3ow ph0w, mUsZtAh nA?" translated into Filipino as "Hello po, kamusta na?, translated into English as "Hello, how are you?"
English: "i wuD LLyK tO knOw moR3 bOut u. crE 2 t3ll mE yur N@me? jejejejeje!" translated into English as "I would like to know more about you, care to tell me your name? Hehehehe!"
aQcKuHh- means me/ako
lAbqCkyOuHh- means I love you
yuHh- means you
jAjaJa- garbled words conveying laughter
jeJejE- a variation of jAjaJa; conveys sly laughter
iMiszqcKyuH- means I miss you
eEoWpFhUeEhsxz - means hi/hello

I couldn't help but immediately associate this Jejenese/Jejemon with elite hacks. My response to the post and subsequent exchanges no longer appears on the OAC, so I would like ro recreate them here to keep a record, as well as to add additional items which I intended to include in a later reply before the post (and M. Izabel, temporarily) disappeared. (This post is therefore not a detailed analysis, but a point of departure.)

My original response:

Jejenese looks somewhat like 1337 h4x (elite hacks or “leetspeak”, a hybridized ASCII English substitute borne of online gamer exchanges), crossed with text message shorthand used on mobile phones/instant messaging platforms and a smattering of Lolcat.

In these and similar cases, hyper-conservative and hyper-liberal interpretations of any detrimental or enriching impact on standardized language are overstated and misguided. It’s people using linguistic codes. Technological influence notwithstanding, it’s nothing new. Some of the created forms will stick; others will drop away or not catch on because they are too confusing, time-consuming or incompatible with existing modes of transcription (e.g. keyboards at present are not suited to touch-typing many symbols interspersed with text).

I agree about the dynamic nature of culture and language. The evolution of written language – even given technological influences – is notably less dramatic and considerably more gradual. Jejenese and leetspeak evolve parallel to, and
as part of, the other spoken and written languages that we use in informal and formal communication. (I think it’s a stretch to call all web-based substitute alphabets “languages”, although I recognize that the distinct grammars and syntax in more elaborate cases might justify this among linguists.)

So, for example, many non-leetspeakers on the web (an increasingly off the web) recognize the term “pwned” without requiring an in-depth knowledge of leetspeak and its quirks. “Pwned” becomes part of gamer English, then web English, then offline English, etc, and is also absorbed into other languages via its web presence, rendering leetspeak dictionaries redundant. It’s no longer “just” leetspeak. In short, what we are witnessing is not an evolution of a new web language, but an unavoidable expansion of whatever language(s) the newly “hacked” alphabet is based on (English, Chinese, Spanish, French, etc, or a mixture of slangs and dialects).

The resulting linguistic hybrids are also usually subject to considerable codeswitching, even in the online chat environment: when and with whom is it appropriate to converse using this alternative script? At some point, all practitioners are required to drop into more formal (universal, shared, recognized) scripts to be understood within a given speech act. Even committed 1337 h4xx0rz will drop out of 1337 (leetspeak) to talk about serious things. Not to mention that these “languages” incorporate numbers and symbols (&|/\@#$^) that are notoriously difficult to “speak” aloud. Spoken conversations take a lot of effort to sustain.

Because they are based upon hacking existing (contemporaneous) languages, the ability to read/decipher web substitute alphabets/scripts like leetspeak and jejemon is more widespread than actual fluency or inclination to write in it all the time. Casual use is not entirely organic, but a product of calculated, direct transcription. Eventually, fluent “speakers” are able to make unique expressions and styles beyond simple substitution. The resulting dynamic script is not entirely “new”, but is dependent upon existing linguistic and grammatical forms (even if just to adjust and contest them). One can therefore not wholly replace the other, not least of all because English and jejemon and leetspeak are all evolving simultaneously and borrowing from each other.

I wouldn’t say that any of this is equivalent to cave paintings [as M. had indicated in her original blog post] because while the use of these codes is a type of symbolic representation of a shared concept, much like a drawing, it is firstly an alternative representation of a “word” (or its component phonetic parts) which then signifies the concept. So there is that double-layer processing which depends upon literacy, not just imagery.

Not all sectors of society embrace/understand new slang or symbolic language at the same rate. What I find most interesting as an anthropologist is how some people find slang, texting and other informal speech so severely repugnant, while others embrace it as liberating for humanity. People love inventing exclusive codes and jargons, but we naturally dislike being excluded. Playing with language is probably what humans do best. It makes us feel free, but the flipside is that it disturbs us immensely at the same time.

M. had replied something to the effect that (I'm paraphrasing from memory) leetspeak and Jejenese are actually very different, because leetspeak is used to provide both secrecy and brevity, while Jejenese is more playful and not about abbreviation at all. She also indicated that Jejenese is never spoken, only written, and it is therefore based on imagery and audio-visual representation that is somehow analogous to cave drawings. I'm still not convinced on these points.

Although it is a product of Filipino culture, Jejemon shares many features with older and current web slangs and codes. I suspect there are fewer differences in the uses and purposes of both leetspeak and Jejenese, and that they share more than just numerical substitution. "3110" could be hello in either script, but number-for-letter substitution is nothing new in technologically mediated human communication. It has been popularly utilized at the very least since numerical beepers (pre-dating the text-capable pager) were the trendiest form of communication when I was a kid.

The leetspeakers I've encountered are mostly not "hackers" per se, in the sense of having the required skillset to perform actual "hacks" on other computers or networks, although they do subscribe to a symbolic techno-culture of hacking as an ethos (much more on this to come in future posts). In this respect, they do not often use leetspeak to convey secrecy or brevity, but the opposite: to perform and widely convey specialist knowledge, a badge of belonging to what is actually a fairly varied subculture of tech geeks. Leetspeakers are often young tech and web fans who therefore use it playfully and intermittently.

Furthermore, writing things out in 1337 is more laborious than quick abbreviation and its cumbersome grammar makes lengthening simple statements part of the "fun". For instance, "You win" may be lengthened and transcribed as "y0u 4r3 t3h w1nZ0rz!1!!1", or more elaborately, "Y0|_| ar3 73|-| winz0Rz!1!1". The grammar and syntax is inventive and unique, but there are rules. So there is more going on here than brevity or secrecy alone, as I imagine is the case with Jejemon.

Jejemon is a web/mobile technology phenomenon for sure, but one that has quickly crossed between public and personal domains, traversed domestic and political fields, and stirred up a mini-storm of generational confusion and class controversy (especially surrounding the "proper" use of English). Markers of identity which are borne of online media rarely stay locked into a single communication channel, but spread, mix and continue morphing into new configurations.

Despite reflecting a confluence of many media types and channels, its simple and mundane use as a personal shorthand for communicating with friends shines through for Jejemon "speakers". At some level, then, both 1337 and Jejemon are equally about secrecy and brevity and the creation of in- and out-groups. Fluent speakers can keep their conversations free from undesirables like adults, parents or authorities. But creating secret languages to keep parents in the dark predates computer-mediated communication.

More significantly, Jejemon appears to be directly related to class relations in the Philippines. There are definitely culture-specific online-offline contrasts that the above comparison is overlooking and I'd like to learn more about the (on-the-ground and on-the-web) class dynamics behind it. Is leetspeak also subject to "class" differentiation, and do these classes come from offline social structures or are they generated online?


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