Internet Abbreviations as Discourse Particles








I find it really interesting that abbreviations online have abandoned sound-based abbreviations (is there an actual term for it? Things like “c u l8r”) in favor of actual abbreviations for things that have nothing to do with the content itself and are more like qualifiers (lbr, tbh, imho). 

This reminds me of John McWhorter’s observations about lol and hey as discourse particles: he describes “lol” as marking empathy and “hey” as a topic shift. I’d say that the other current abbreviations like tbh, imo/imho, iirc, idk/idek, omg/omgz, wtf, etc. can have a similar type of function in marking the attitude of the speaker (well, writer) towards a particular idea.

Notice how the same statement (chosen to sound pragmatically appropriate in an informal, tumblr-like context) has a very different illocutionary force when accompanied by different markers.  

(1) tbh they’d make a terrible couple. (certain knowledge)
(2) imo they’d make a terrible couple. (belief)
(3) iirc they made a terrible couple.  (uncertain memory)
(4) idk they’d make a terrible couple. (uncertain, disbelief)
(5) omg they’d make a terrible couple. (strong emotion, excitement)
(6) wtf they’d make a terrible couple. (strong emotion, disbelief)
(7) lol they’d make a terrible couple. (empathy)

Perhaps this is the closest that English will get to having a system of evidentials

I find this both fascinating and evidence of dialectical variation— “lol they’d make a terrible couple” would PROBABLY not be used to express agreement with the previous poster/your conversational companions, but I’m having a hard time nailing down the exact emotion it’d express. It’s not really positive. It’s almost antagonistic? Like if someone reblogged an enthusiastic gifset of the Little Mermaid and someone else tagged it “lol they’d make a terrible couple” (in reference to Ariel and Eric). Though it occurs to me they’d mark that usage with “tho” at the end. “lol fuck hemingway for real tho” for instance. Or if I was like, “ugh I love Aranea and Roxy’s interactions” and someone IMed me back “lol they’d make such a terrible couple” I would infer from that that they probably don’t share my emotions of fondness towards Aranea and Roxy’s interactions, but they want to get me onto a topic where we will agree, such as how hilariously shit they’d be at dating.

I don’t know! Is this wrong, dash members? Thoughts??

To me the #7 usage with “lol they’d make a terrible couple” reads as a more mocking or dismissive tone. In the example you cite re: Aranea/Roxy though, it sounds fond. I think that “lol” may actually be a more context-dependent particle than the other 6 demonstrated.

Well I mean “lol (topic)” in tumblr tags are also used as the hate/wank tags, so it def doesn’t show empathy. How I see it used it usually implies you’re laughing AT the thing you’re mentioning.

I read idk and lol as actual meaning, but most of the time, stuff like iirc and tbh as gets kinds of skimmed and contributes to a casual discussion tone for me? 


I think a lot of the use of these abbreviations as tone markers is context dependent.  lol especially, can be laughing *at* something or laughing *with* someone, it really depends.  (and the latter feels like more of a newer/tumblr usage to me, but, like many tumblr-isms, I think it probably comes from the ontd area of LJ, and maybe somewhere else before that.)

And I am fascinated by how many of these are qualifying phrases.  I don’t now, if I recall correctly, let’s be real, to be honest… we soften our statements here a lot (I certainly too), and I think that has a lot to do with what comes out as a ‘casual discussion tone.’  And then the others are markers of emotion, which, likewise – a casual, and *social* discussion, wants to leave room for disagreement (and mark that it’s doing so), and wants to share FEELINGS about the things that we’re saying as much or more than the actual content.

Other abbreviations are similar, too.  Like smh (shaking my head or so much hate, we just don’t know).  Hey, “we just don’t know” as a phrase that’s used, despite the fact that it’s not an abbreviation (yet?).

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