"Netspeak" – the distinctive language that young people are using more and more to talk with each other on the Internet.

Purists should relax, a panel of experts declared at a recent symposium on "Language on the Internet" in Washington. This rapidly spreading digital dialect of English is doing more good than harm, they contended.

"The Internet is fostering new kinds of creativity through language," said David Crystal, a historian of language at the University of Wales in the United Kingdom. "It’s the beginning of a new stage in the evolution of the written language and a new motivation for child and adult literacy."

Netspeak is the language of computerized instant messages, Web logs (or "blogs"), chat rooms and other informal types of electronic communication. It also pops up in wireless jottings on hand-held devices such as BlackBerries and cell phones.

Some examples are "cu" for "see you," "bfn" for "bye for now" and "lol" for "laughing out loud." A popular feature is a colon followed by a space and a parenthesis to make a "smiley face" to brighten up a message – like this : ) – or a sad face like this : (. To give a hug, the writer types ((((name)))).

Critics object that Netspeak ignores or violates the usual rules of punctuation, capitalization and sentence structure. It’s peppered with strange abbreviations, acronyms and visual symbols. Its spelling can be, well, different.

Professional linguists say not to worry. They claim that Netspeak has become a third way – in addition to traditional speech and writing – for people to communicate with one another. It brings freshness and creativity to everyday English, they say. It’s even reviving the almost lost art of diary keeping.

"The Internet has permitted language to evolve a new medium of communication, different in fundamental respects from traditional conversational speech and from writing," Crystal said.

Even Netspeak enthusiasts acknowledge that young people need to learn how to speak and write proper English to get ahead in school, hold a job or write official documents.

"Children have to be taught about their language," Crystal said. "They have to learn about the importance of standard English as a medium of educated communication."

As it’s used on the Internet, Netspeak has some features of both spoken and written English. But even though it’s typed on a keyboard, scholars say it’s closer to how we talk than to how we write.

Like conversational speech, it uses short, back-and-forth statements, sometimes consisting of single words. Its vocabulary is relatively small. It’s relaxed about the rules of grammar. The smiley faces and other so-called "emoticons" help compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact.

Instant messaging, or IM, "looks more like speech than it does like writing," said Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University in Washington who analyzed more than 2,100 such conversations at her university.

It’s become "a mainstay of online communication, especially among teenagers and young adults," she said. The exchanges often involved multiple partners at the same time, much like a group conversation in a room.

The college students Baron studied usually were doing something else – listening to music, watching TV, talking on the telephone, writing memos or letters on the computer – while they were exchanging instant messages.

Contrary to purists’ fears, only 171 of the 11,718 words she collected were misspelled – less than 2 percent. Unusual abbreviations and symbols were relatively rare. The most common was the letter "k" standing for "OK."

Another branch of Netspeak is blogs, periodic messages posted on the World Wide Web, usually with the latest entry on top. Blogs range from individual journals to accounts of presidential campaigns. Many of them allow visitors to leave comments, which can lead to a community of readers centered on the blog.

Blogs are "already providing evidence of a new genre of diary writing, which a few years ago was though to be dying out as a literary domain," Crystal said.

Crystal took issue with "prophets of doom" who complain that new technology is corrupting the language, as other critics did when printing was introduced in the 15th century, the telephone came along in the 19th century and broadcasting took off in the 20th. In fact, the Greek philosopher Plato said more than two millennia ago that talking was more important than writing.

Thanks to the Internet, the language’s "resources for the expression of informality in writing have hugely increased, something which hasn’t been seen in English since the Middle Ages, and which was largely lost when standard English came to be established in the 18th century," Crystal said.

"Rather than condemning it, we should be exulting in the fact that the Internet is allowing us to once more explore the power of the written language in a creative way," he added.

© 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.