The Language of Hackers and Software Developers

Term Paper, 2001

10 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)

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Table of content

2. The interest of hacker language for the field of linguistics

3. The various aspects of hacker language and the focus of this paper

4. Plural inflection

5. Word formation in hacker language
5.1. Suffixation
5.1.1. Deadjectival Nouns ´-ity´-suffix ´-itude´-suffix
5.1.2. Denominal nouns ´-ful´-sufix
5.1.3. Deverbal nouns ´-ation´-suffix
5.1.4. New suffixes
5.1.5. Suffixes avoided in word formation
5.2. Conversion

6. Adopted elements of programming languages
6.1. Logical operators
6.2. Syntax

7. The purpose of hacker language

8. Probability of hacker language elements to be taken over into common language

9. Bibliographical reference

2. The interest of hacker language for the field of linguistics

For a long time, the use of computers and computer-related forms of communication, such as the internet and email exchange was limited predominately to scientists or people who regarded computers as a hobby. They began to set up their own communication conventions and developed their own language. In the on-line hacker Jargon File, which is a rich source of hacker language, the following statement can be found:

Hackers, as a rule, love wordplay and are very conscious and inventive in their use of language. (...) Hackers (…) regard slang formation and use as a game to be played for conscious pleasure. (JF, s.v. Introduction)

Considering that especially hackers and software developers preferably use computer based communication, new formations spread very quickly, and “…the results of this process gives us perhaps a uniquely intense and accelerated view of linguistic evolution in action.”

But the influence of computers on our society, especially of the internet and email communication have been increasing rapidly since a few years. As a result of this change, conventions and expressions used in communication by these computer experts are more and more adopted by common people. So the jargon of these people could be regarded one day as the root of new conventions in common language. Thus it would be not only interesting but useful to know about the background of those. Yet it is proove, if these statements are true and and to examine, how the inventive use of language is put into effect.

3. The various aspects of hacker language and the focus of this paper

One should note that when the term hacker is mentioned throughout the present paper, it describes rather a person which is competent regarding computers and programming than a criminal whose aim is to break illegally into computer systems. Hackers call such persons crackers or phreaks (JF, s.v. Lamer-speak) and separate from this group.

The language of hackers covers various different features. Resulting from the lack of possibilities to express emotions and intonation in computer-related communication, hackers have set up various conventions to emphasise statements or to give them a certain tone. Furthermore they have taken over several expressions and parts of the syntax of computer languages into written language. The most eye-catching aspect is the very playful and inconvenient use of language.

The former will not be discussed in the present paper due to the fact that these conventions are no more longer restricted exclusively to the hacker subculture, also because they are topic of various other papers during this course. Focus will be the playful, often very unconventional use of language, especially the formation of new words. Finally, elements borrowed from programming languages will be presented very shortly as the examples given speak for themselves.

When one takes a closer look at the characteristics of hacker language, he will notice a strong tendency to a conscious non-conform usage of language. Hackers seem to avoid any language that seems from their point of view average and boring. In order to demonstrate this, their language will be examined with regard to the linguistic field of morphology. This will include a short look at inflection, but especially word formation will be focused on.

In hacker language one basic principle is traceable. To various words “… the wrong endings [are added] (..) to make nouns or verbs, often by extending a standard rule to nonuniform cases (or vice versa)” (JF, s.v. Overgeneralization).

4. Plural inflection

The first example, by which the non-conform, yet sharp-witted character of hacker language becomes obvious, is the prevalence of non-standard plural forms used to inflect nouns that actually have a regular plural form. The plural is formed by archaic or foreign inflections - according to the Jargon File - for the sake creativity. As an example, the Anglo-Saxon -en suffix, which is used by only three English nouns (ox, oxen) is used in an analogical way for Acronyms, such as VAX, VAXEN (JF,s.v. VAX). According to the Jargon File, this suffix can be added to almost any lexeme ending in -x.

Among hackers, the use of the Latin plural -ces on nouns ending in - ix and -ex seems to be even more popular. Acronyms such as UNIX (JF, s.v. UNIX) and TWEENEX (JF, s.v. TWEENEX) are frequently pluralized as Unices and Tweeneces analogically to neo- classical words like index, indices or appendix, appendices due to their resemblance of words of Latin origin.

The Hebrew plural ending -im is used sometimes, too, e.g. frobozz, frobtozim (JF, s.v. frobnitz).

The examples show the playful use of language as well as its scientific character as words of Latin origin are predominately common in scientific language.

5. Word formation in hacker language

The tendency to make words that are more complex than necessary for the sake of creativity even shows better by an examination of the means used to form new words. A look at the jargon file shows that new lexemes are hardly formed by compounding. By contrast, the main part of new formations is built through derivation. Prefixation rarely occurs, whereas suffixation has the most important role in word formation. Consequently, a selection of derivations is surveyed.

5.1. Suffixation

One of the characteristics of word formation in hacker language becomes clear: the focus is rather on changing the grammatical function of words, especially the word class, than on changing their semantic modification as in prefixation (Quirk et al. 1985: 1546).

Every already existing suffixation examined produces a derivation into a noun.

5.1.1. Deadjectival Nouns ´ -ity ´ -suffix

In English, the -ity -suffix is used on words of French or neo-classical origin. According to Quirk et al. it is productive with adjectives ending in -able (respectability), -al (actuality) and -ar (regularity) (Quirk et al. 1985: 1551). Hacker language, too,contains a big amount of formations with -ity. In comparison to standard word formations, new words are built that actually are not needed, as there already exist derivations of the corresponding adjectives. In addition, their bases do not end in one of the syllables mentioned above, but mainly in -ous.

Mysterious Mystery mysteriosity

Obvious Obviousness obviosity

Dubious Doubiousness doubiosity

It becomes clear that in cases where the derivation is made by suffixation with - ness, which is “...freely added to any kind of adjective” (Quirk et al. 1985: 1551) and “…one of the most productive suffixes today...” (Bauer 1983, 223) and tends to replace other suffixes, a more complicated and less productive one is preferred. The examples show again the rejection of words that could be regarded as unoriginal or common, but they could also be interpreted as evidences for the elitist touch of hacker language, as the - ness -suffix - which is in contrast to -ity usually not applied to neoclassical words - is rejected.

One interesting formation is ferrosity. Even though there does not exist any noun in English derived from ferrous, ferrosity is derived analogically to ferocity. ´ -itude ´ -suffix

The same method of formation is also applied to the -itude -suffix. It is used to “… abstract a quality from just any kind of adjective or noun…” (JF, s.v Overgeneralization). In most of the cases below, too, a less complicated alternative would exist:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

It is an interesting aspect that this suffix is used in spite of its low productivity

nowadays. Hacker language thus shows also sophistication and consciousness of the roots and development of language. But the use of the suffix could once again point towards a stress of education and cultivation.

5.1.2. Denominal nouns ´ -ful ´ -sufix

A widely spread suffix used for formation is the -ful -suffix. It is freely formed with any noun. In hacker language, it is preferably applied to computer-related lexemes. These formations usually are made to describe a certain capacity. Hackers use to talk of a “cachefull/bufferfull of data”, ” screenfull of text”, or a “headfull of ideas” (JF, s.v. Overgeneralization). The examples given show the contrast to common language as - ful as a bound morpheme is spelled with a double l in hacker language.

5.1.3. Deverbal nouns ´ -ation ´ -suffix

Another frequent suffix yet not used commonly is -ation. Although it “freely combines with verbs ending in -ize, -ify and -ate ” (Quirk et al. 1985: 1550) et al., 1550), hackers even use it on verbs with other endings. Example: to hack - hackification

Here again a very awkward method of formation takes place where not necessary. Firstly, the noun hack already exists and secondly, hackification is build indirectly from a deverbal derivation of hack to hackify.

Nouns with - fication usually derive from verbs of Latin origin ending in - ficare meaning to make, and form nouns of action. This kind of formation is especially common in scientific language (OED, s.v. -fication). So here again the scientific flavour of hacker language is obvious as well as the intended use of unnecessarily complicated formations.

5.1.4. New suffixes

In hacker language, the letter p is added to lexemes as a suffix in order to make out of a expressions an interrogative.

1) Q: “Foodp?´´

A: “Yeah, I´m pretty hungry.”

2) Q: “State-of-the-world-P?´´ A: “I´m about to go home.´´ (JF, s.v. The--P-convention)

A resulting question is a type of interrogative that normally does not exist in

English, since all interrogatives usually start with an auxiliary verb (Yes/No-questions), a wh-word or end with a tag.

The examples show that this suffix primarily shortens the question. It derives from Lisp, a programming language popular in the 50s nowadays rarely used, where it “(...) denote(ed) a predicate (a boolean-valued function)”, that means a function that returned true or false. As an anlogy these questions usually “... expect a yes/no answer, though [they] needn´t” (JF, s.v. The--P-convention).

5.1.5. Suffixes avoided in word formation

Another remarkable fact of hacker language that illustrates the rejection of simple standard formations, is that hackers “…avoid the unimaginative verb-making techniques of marketroids, bean-counters, and the Pentagon. In particular, they have “… a strong aversion …” to verbs formed through suffixation with -ize and - fy, such as productize, securitize, or prioritize (JF, s.v. Overgeneralization). With regard to the fact that these are the “…two main suffixes deriving verbs” (Bauer 1983: 223) of only three existing at all, this neglection of formation shows the tendency to non-conform use of language and the rejection of uncreative formations in the most definite way.

5.2. Conversion

The question is, how hackers form verbs when they reject two of only three

possible ways of suffixation. This is done by conversion. According to the Jargon File, “… all nouns can be verbed” (JF, s.v. Overgeneralization). This quote itself can serve as an example, as well as following sentences:

o “I´ll mouse it up.”

o “… I clipboard it over.”

o “I´m grepping the files.”

It is remarkable that this is the only rule followed in word formation in hacker language that does not differ from or even is opposed to the common language. Conversion from nouns to verbs seems to be accetpted even if not very original, as the unoriginal formation by verbal suffixation mentioned above is to be avoided at any case.

6. Adopted elements of programming languages

The following tables show elements of programming languages taken over into hacker language, especially the written language. This is especially due to the fact that something can be expressed in a short way, but also because it shows dedication towards the subject, an extremely important characteristic of somebody who wants to be accepted within this community. The examples are divided into two groups.

6.1. Logical operators

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

6.2. Syntax

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Not (!clue: clueles s)

Regular expression from Unix editing tools Ed and Sed, also implemented in script languages Perl and PHP3. This command is written in emails to signify corrections to previous text, especially passages that contain misspellings or personal statements.

“Turning a word into a question by appending the syllable p” (JF, s.v. -P- convention). See 4.1.4 New suffixes

Hypertext Markup Language tags used originally to format websites, here to mark emotion, tone.

…”the #ifdef/#endif pair is a conditional compilation syntax from C; here, it implies that the text between

(which is a flame) should be evaluated only if you have turned on (or defined on) the switch FLAME” (JF, s.v. hacker writing style).

7. The purpose of hacker language

With regard to all samples within the present paper, the language of hackers has especially one purpose. It is developed and used in order to separate the subculture from common people, which is among others an average reason for slang development. The separation from other people through language is put into effect by stressing knowledge and intellect as they prefer their language to sound complicated and educated0, especially when considering the preferation of formations related to neoclassical origin compared to other alternatives. The latter could also be due to the mostly scientific background hackers originate from, but as the use of neo-classical formations is not limited on already existing lexemes, but also includes new formations, this fact seems to me not sufficient as the only reason.

Still, quite a humorous tone underlies all formations as well as the explanations of meaning and development given in the Jargon file. So the stress of education should not be taken completely serious, it could even be interpreted as irony. The Jargon File should of course not be considered as the ultimate source of hacker language, but the amount of material and the conscientiousness with which it is compended show that competent persons who are deeply involved in the subculture are responsible for it,

even if it was not written or edited by professional linguists. So it is justified to claim that for hackers in general, the humorous aspect is probably as important as showing intellect.

8. Probability of hacker language elements to be taken over into common language

As mentioned in the introduction, there is a possibility that the language of hackers could be regarded as the base for new conventions in common language one day, due to the growing importance of computers and the internet. Actually there are some examples that demonstrate this development, e. g. the acceptance of new formations such as FAQs, the Frequently Asked Questions (JF, s.v. FAQ) or new formal and emphasis conventions in email communication. But the question is, to what extend the adaption will be realised.

In general, there “...has to be a need (...) for a new lexeme to denote (...) something before a new lexeme will be accepted (...) by the linguistic community” (Bauer 1983: 89). Otherwise, that meens, when there already exists a lexeme that is sufficient to denote that something, a process will take place which is called blocking; new formations are blocked by already existing lexemes and will not be taken over.

Taking this aspect of language evolution into consideration, it becomes clear that especially word formations of hacker language with their very unproductive and complicated character will not be taken over into common language. Even if some conventions will be adapted because of their simplification function, the most remarkable aspects mentioned above will from my popint of view not appear outside this subculture.

9. Bibliographical reference

- Quirk, Randolph, Greenbaum, Sidney, Leech, Geoffrey, Svartvik, Jan . A Comprehensive Grammar Of The English Language. New York, 1985.#

- Bauer, Laurie. English Word-formation. Camebridge, 1983.

- [JF] Eric S. Raymond, ed. The on-line hacker Jargon File - version 4.2.0.

Download version, available at

- [OED] The Oxford English Dictionary on CD-Rom - 2 nd Edition.

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The Language of Hackers and Software Developers
University of Bayreuth
Language in Advertising and on the Internet
1 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Language, Hackers, Software, Developers, Language, Advertising, Internet
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Peter Grafwallner (Author), 2001, The Language of Hackers and Software Developers, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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