The following are some real words produced by real human beings on Twitter:
totes tradge (tragic): David Bowie dying is totes tradge.
bluebs (blueberries): Bluebs in yog are my favorite snack.
totes emosh (emotional): When Cookie hugged Jamal it made me totes emosh.
iPh (iPhone): OMG I dropped my iPh!
If you’re not a millennial — and even if you are — you might think totesing is atrosh and unprofesh. But get used to it. Though no one is quite sure where it came from, this way of speaking has been around for well over a decade. The linguists point out that "totes" was on Urban Dictionary as early as 2003. Since then, totesing has shown up in Hollywood blockbusters, major newspapers have devoted time to decoding it, and expressions like “totes presh” had to be included in a recent FBI guide to Twitter slang.
Is this a joke? Where are all these abbrevs coming from? How did all the kids learn this inane babble?
Spradlin and Jones, PhD students at CUNY's Graduate Center and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, recently collected and analyzed hundreds of examples of totes-speak in order to understand these questions. At this past weekend’s conference of Very Important Linguists, they presented their grand unified theory of totesing.
People might use totes-words in silly contexts, but this is a serious topic because totesing represents a surprising new direction for the English language. If the words sound weird, that’s because they are weird. They contain unexpected sounds in unexpected places.
And that’s the first thing to understand about totesing, the linguists say. It’s not a game that people play with spellings or character-count limits. It’s about rearranging sounds. People disagree on whether “casual” becomes caj, cazh, or cajs, but they all agree on how to pronounce the shortened word.
“This is not just some random thing people do with written words,” Jones said. “Totesing is about sounds and it conforms to the sometimes complicated sound system of English.” In this way, studying how people make up these words is like studying a construction site — you get to see all the pylons undergirding the English language.
Spradlin and Jones have come up with a step by step guide to totesing, which they explained on Sunday. To “totes” a word is to truncate it in a very specific way. Native English speakers usually have some intuition about this. There’s no secret millennial handbook to totesing — that’s because most people subconsciously understand the patterns behind it after only seeing a few examples.
Step 1: Find the stress
Take the word “subconsciously,” even. In totes-speak, that would be subconch, as in “My subconch is totes playing tricks on me.” (People on Twitter actually say things like this.)
To arrive at subconch, the first step is to break the word into syllables. Most people say “subconsciously” with the stress on the second syllable. Sub-CON-chuss-lee. So that’s where the word gets cut off.
Another example: “Aphrodisiac” is aff-ro-DEE-zee-ack. So it becomes aphrodeez, because the stress is on the third syllable.
A lot of language phenomena, by the way, are guided by the stress patterns in a word. A famous example is where we put the “frick” in an expression like fan-frickin’-tastic. We don’t say “fantas-frickin-tic.” We put the “frickin” right before the stressed syllable in the word. Aphro-frickin-disiac. Sub-frickin-consciously. This is what feels natural to native English speakers.
Step 2: Cram the consonants together
The second step in totesing, after you’ve cut off the word at the stressed syllable, is to look at what you trimmed off and to salvage as many consonants as possible. People don’t say “aphrodee” or “subcon.” They say aphrodeez and subconch. As the linguists demonstrate, this smooshing even happens in compound words.
“Fo sho” is fo-SHO. So it becomes fosh, not “fo.”
“Wheelchair” is WHEEL-chair. It becomes wheelch, not “wheel.”
“Homeboy” is HOME-boy. It becomes homeb, not “home.”
This is trickier than it sounds. The word “pregnant” becomes preg, not “pregn.” The word “fiddler” becomes fid, not “fidl.”
This reflects rules in English about how words should end. After a sound like the “g” in “pregnant,” for instance, English speakers do not like to pile on more consonants. It’s an instinct we acquired when we learned the language. Other languages, like Polish, are looser, and allow words such as metr (pronounce like “metruh”) and “filtr” (“filtruh”).
The rules about sounds in English are complex and there are all kind of exceptions, but most people follow them without thinking. And these rules are reflected in the way that people play with words in totes-speak — why they say repub for “republican,” not “republ,” even though “republ” is a perfectly fine way to abbreviate “republican.”
Step 3: Bedazzle the word with suffixes
The last step to totesing like an honest-to-God millennial is to add a fun suffix if you want. Spradlin has collected several examples of these. The word “jealous,” after getting abbreviated, becomes jeal. But many speakers like to say jeal-y or jeal-sies or jeal-o. Here’s the table that she made:
It really happens, though it’s optional. The linguists found that people not only say things like bluebs for blueberries, but even bluebsies.
This is all a way for people to sound friendly or playful — perhaps because on the Internet, it’s very hard to intuit someone’s tone. When you tweet I love Novembies (and spell it like that), you’re signaling to people that you’re having a little fun, maybe being a little ironic.
OK, but why does it all sound so weird?
Totes-words sound strange because they often end on strange sounds. This is a fascinating fact for linguists. There aren’t any English words, for instance, that end on “nf” or “aish” — which is totally arbitrary, Spradlin says, because we use these sounds all the time in the middle of words. Sinful. Infamy. Vacation. Relationship. In totes-speak, those words become: Sinf. Inf. Vacaish. Relaish.
We’re very unused to hearing words finish like that, and that may be why people react so negatively to these abbreviations. They sound funny.
But sounding funny is also part of the point. There’s something else very strange going on with totes-speak, Spradlin says. People are putting “-sh” sounds at the end of words to sound cute. Instead of saying imposs for “impossible,” people like to say imposh. They even say things like maybsh. This happens in other languages such as Japanese and Russian, because the “-sh” sound tends to be associated with baby-talk. But Spradlin says it has never been observed in English, at least not in this widespread way.
The linguists don't really know why this happened, but there's some speculation. A lot of totes-words already end on a “-sh” sound, just naturally, like appreesh for “appreciate.” It’s possible that, once totes-speak became popular, people started to realize how interesting the “-sh” sound was and started festooning other words with it.
This is all very exciting for people who study languages, and how languages evolve with the cultures that speak them. Of course, totes-speak is not the first time that people have shortened words in English. As Jones points out, words like legit, delish and babe are abbreviations that happened decades or centuries ago.
The difference today is that millennials are doing this a lot more, and they’re doing it not primarily to be efficient, but to be expressive — to add dimension to words. It’s something to celebrate, Spradlin says.
“All the media coverage is like, ‘These girls are being silly and they're ruining the language,'” she said. "But this is actually really creative — and it’s following all the rules of English."