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The Cryptology of Spanish SMS

Enter the Inner-Circle of SMS Codebreakers in Less Than 15 Minutes

When typing is a pain, less is more!

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Every book, every classroom, every course teaches you the correct Spanish. And that’s why it gets less fun by the day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing proper language here. It’s important. But not always practical. In an ideal world, everybody would write and talk like Shakespeare and Cervantes. But we don’t live in that world. The world we live in makes mistakes. All the time. Often deliberate. Why, you ask? Out of laziness.

Speaking of laziness-driven errors, have you ever noticed how chat-room language often seems alien? Or text messages, for that matter! Great becomes gr8 and see you later becomes cul8r. It’s super-annoying when kids type like that. I mean, is that even English? But like it or not, it’s here to stay. And grow. So you might as well embrace it. Even if you have vowed to – you should – never write like that, it pays to learn it anyway. You still want to be able to decipher it when you have to, don’t you?

For whatever it’s worth, English is not the only language that suffers this millennial degeneration. Every language spoken today suffers this fate. That includes Spanish which brings us to today’s topic.

If perfect immersion is what you want, nothing beats chatting with native Spanish speakers. The least you wanna do is participate in others’ conversations. Online Spanish-language chat-rooms are a dime a dozen these days. Sign up with any of them and you can sit through a stream of never-ending rants in 24-carat Spanish. Just reading what others are typing can drive home a lot of Spanish. Expressing yourself, of course, is gonna get you even better results. But there’s only one problem. It doesn’t even look like Spanish!

You would face this problem even on Twitter® where every letter counts and turning you into u is kind of necessary. In case you’re wondering just how serious the issue even is, take a look at this:

Hla, km tas?

Bn, y tu?

K acs?

Toy spr bn.

What the heck is that? I know, right? That’s why it’s important to learn this shorthand Spanish even if you wouldn’t use it unless at gunpoint. Luckily, this is no rocket science. If clueless kids can do it, so can you. Just takes a little, very little, practice. To be fair, less is always more when it comes to texting on your phone where SMS costs can escalate quickly. Especially when texting someone abroad, e.g., a language partner. Even if you live by Whatsapp®, chances are your partner still texts in these hieroglyphics.

Ways SMS Shorthand Works

When more is less, shrinking words and expressions is as much a science as it’s an art. There are several ways you do the job. You could remove redundant or less-important letters. You could replace an entire word with a symbolic placeholder. You could use initials instead of an entire sentence. Or you could even go all-out using numbers and special characters! Let’s explore each method in detail.

Remove Redundant Letters and Syllables

Just like in English, this is the most intuitive way to shorten a word or expression. Just remove all the fluff. By fluff here I mean vowels and syllables that won’t be much missed if removed. That’s how we turn come into cm and train into trn.

Vowels are vocales in Spanish, just so you know. So removing vocales leaves us with gnl for genial and bn for bien. The letter h also suffers a similar fate because although it’s a consonant, it acts like a vowel. The biggest argument against this letter is that it’s always silent. In a world where letters are being axed indiscriminately, being silent is bad for you. This is why ahora becomes aora and hora becomes ora.

Even consonants are lost at times if they don’t serve a crucial purpose. Take todo, for example. The d is often dropped making it too. You may argue that the milliseconds saved by this stupid contraction is hardly worth it. But hey, it’s hard to argue with Twitter’s 140-character limit, don’t you think?

But why d in particular? It’s not even silent like h! Well, that’s because the letter suffers this fate in spoken Spanish too. Blame it on the accent. Especially in coastal Latin America where the letter is often rendered mute. If you ever listen to a native from one of those regions talk, you’ll notice this trend easily. Words like cansado and llegado almost always turn into cansao and llegao. But don’t be indiscriminate about it. Words lose their d only if it falls either at the tail-end or between vowels. So, día doesn’t become ía and dormir doesn’t become ormir.

Let alone letters, there are times even entire syllables get the axe! The most common victims are words like estoy and está, both of which become toy and tás respectively. This does not mean you can blindly go about shooting es at sight. Not all words lose their es. Esposo doesn’t turn into poso and escuela doesn’t become cuela. That would be awkward because esposo means husband and poso means residue. It would be even more awkward because escuela means school while cuela is the third person singular of colar which means to strain!

To keep things simple just remember that es- is lost only if the word is a conjugated form of the verb estar. In fact, you could even try out this elision in your speech to give an illusion of fluency. This is just like you’d render America as ’Murica or excuse as ’scuse.

So now you should easily be able to decode an expression like toy bn or ta en la cls. In case you’re lost, the answers are estoy bien and está en la clase.

Phonetic Replacements

Brevity isn’t always the motivation behind mutilating words in chat-rooms and text messages. Sometimes it’s just a matter of looking cool. How else would you explain words like kool and kewl in English? Turning c into k is clearly not saving you any time, is it?

This penchant for coolness has caught on in the Spanish-speaking world as well. Consonants are increasingly being replaced by their more phonetically appropriate versions. The most ubiquitous example is where the /k/ sound is rendered as the letter k, even though Spanish doesn’t have it in its alphabet. That’s how casa becomes ksa and que becomes k. Que also sometimes contracts to q but k is slightly more prevalent. You can blindly try this stunt with almost every instance of q. And also instances where c represents a /k/ sound. Think examples like kién and kuál. This should probably be the easiest of all codes to break since we’re already guilty of doing it in English.

Speaking of phonetic replacements, the combination gü- also comes to mind. See the two dots above the u there? It’s called a diéresis and serves an important purpose. You see, whenever gu- comes with an e or i, i.e. gue- or gui-, the u goes silent. That’s why guisante is pronounced /gee-sahn-tay/ and not /gwee-sahn-tay/. However, there are times when pronouncing the u is necessary. That’s where we add a diéresis to indicate that u in question is not to be muted. A very prominent example would be güey, a slang term for buddies common in Mexico.

Now, if you pronounce güey correctly, you’ll go /g-way/. In real life, though, most native speakers tend to soften the g in situations like this. In fact, they soften it to such an extent that it becomes practically inaudible. That’s why when they say güey, your untrained ears hear way. Actually, some even actually pronounce it as way, which is why it’s often written as wey in chat lingo. This is the reason the combination gü- is generally rendered with the letter w in shorthand Spanish.

Again, just to be clear, the letter w doesn’t exist in the Spanish alphabet. And replacing gü- with w- is pretty non-standard. But nothing about chat-room language is even remotely standard which renders the issue moot.

The most fun case in point, though, is that of written laughter. Confused? Written laughter is when you write haha or hehe to tell the reader that you’re laughing. Now if you remember, h is silent in Spanish. Always. Without exception. But the sound of h in English is not alien to Spanish. In this language, that guttural sound is handled by the letter j. This should explain why you see so much of jaja and jeje in a Spanish-language chat-room.

When typing is a pain, less is more! When typing is a pain, less is more!
Jhaymesisviphotography licensed cc by 2.0

Plain-Vanilla Abbreviations

These are probably the easiest to wrap your head around. Initials were the first to appear when the need for curt messaging was felt. And they are the most natural to come by as well.

We abbreviate commonly-used expressions in English all the time. Yes, the perfection Nazis among us – including me – might find them cringe-worthy. But we can’t argue the fact that they’re here to stay. Some have even started invading our dictionaries! Take LOL and ROFL, for example.

In fact, we were abbreviating phrases long before the Internet or SMS even came to be. Case in point, ILY for I love you. Our Spanish-speaking friends do the same with tqm, i.e. te quiero mucho (I love you a lot). Spanish is littered with such abbreviated expressions and more are getting added by the day.

If you are ready to let go of your linguistic ego, these shorthand expressions can come in super-handy. Imagine how easier it would be to type b instead of bien. Twitter will surely thank you for your sense of tweet-economy (did I just invent a new term?).

Want more examples? How about también (also)? In case you’re using an English keypad, typing the accent might just be an extra step. That is besides the word already being long enough. On the other hand, you could just make do with tb. Efficient, no? Or nph for no puedo hablar (I can’t talk). There’s also npn for no pasa nada (nothing is happening) and pq for por qué (why).

If Spanish is the lingua franca at your workplace (in case you’re an expat in, say, Mexico or Uruguay), you’ll often receive emails saying PTI. This is their FYI. For your information becomes para tu información in Spanish.

Abbreviated expressions aren’t always in the shape of initials. Sometimes they can also be in the form of contracted words, such as kbza for cabeza (head). We have already discussed tb for también above.

The contraction group has plenty of examples from kntm for cuéntame (tell me) to kyat for cállate (shut up). Kids might type kls for clase (class) and finde for fin de semana (weekend). If you ever meet someone and say mucho gusto de conocerte (so glad to meet you), they respond with an igual (likewise). On chat, this igual often turns into iwal.

Still pining for more? Try dfcl for difícil (difficult), dw for adiós (goodbye), and eys for ellos (they). If you ever read dim in a Spanish chat-room, they’re not talking about dimming your light. It expands to dime meaning tell me. And if someone of the opposite sex offers you bs, count yourself lucky and don’t get offended. That’s because bs is besos (kisses)! The number of s’s is directly proportional to the number of kisses on offer. So bssss is plenty more smooches than a plain bs. There are many more fun abbreviations and contractions and am not gonna list them all here.

Letter for Word

We have already seen how b can stand on its own for bien. The letter q does the same for qué. But that’s not what I want to talk about in this section. This is about letters that just represent an entire word without even being a part of the said word! Confused? Bear with me while I explain.

The most common example here is x when used for por (for). If you know por and para, you’d know how por can indicate exchange in certain contexts. Take for example millas por hora (miles per hour). It’s like miles in exchange for hours. Coincidently, por even rhymes with per to a good extent. Isn’t it great when a difficult alien-looking word rhymes with something familiar? Makes word-association so much easier! In English, the idea of exchange is often expressed with the letter x. This should explain why x stands for por in shorthand Spanish.

Since x represents por, it’s only fair to extend it as xa for para. Speaking of para, you could also try pa’ and this is very easy to spot in the wild. Native speakers rarely pronounce the entire word in an expression. Try it and you’ll see how fluent you sound all of a sudden. Try ven pa’ca instead of ven para aca (come here). See the difference?

Now that you know x is por, a lot of doors open for you so far as deciphering cryptic tweets goes. Now, xfa won’t stump you because you’d immediately know it’s por favor (please). Speaking of por favor, it can also masquerade as porfa and you’re free to use it in your speech as well. Native speakers do that all the time. Can you now guess what xq might mean? Hint: It’s a question word!

But x is not done yet. This letter is mighty versatile. It can also stand for the combination ch in any contraction. So, if you ever see someone type exo, read it as hecho (act). Similarly, don’t read mxo as a lazy Mexican’s rendering of Mexico. It’s mucho (a lot).

You have already seen how x can mean por. But the letter can also be read as the syllable per- at times. That’s how we get xdon for perdón (sorry) and xo for pero (but).

Another fun letter is z. And this one’s a no-brainer since we already use this notation in English. You use the letter, in repetition, to represent sleep in English. And you do the same in Spanish too! So if you want to say dormir (to sleep) or any of its conjugated form, just type z as many times as you will. The longer the string, the sleepier you are. Duh.

Alright, I confess z was not a surprise here. But how about y? Yes, it’s a word in and of itself and means and. But I’m talking about y as a placeholder for ll here. Since ll and y sound exactly the same when part of a word, the swap is inevitable. That brings us to expressions like ymm which stands for llámame, Spanish for call me.

Unconventional Placeholders

This might not be a very common practice in English. But Spanish-speakers do it all the time. Actual numerals and symbols can often represent an entire syllable. I must admit I’m not a big fan of such usage though. But it still pays to learn them if you want the ability to read every nonsense out there.

Take the number 100 for example. It’s hundred in English and cién in Spanish. Now cién kinda sounds like the first syllable of siempre, Spanish for always. This is exactly why you’ll often see the word rendered as 100pre in chat-rooms!

Another case involves the number two, dos in Spanish. Since dos is a very common syllable used in several words, it’s often replaced by a much simpler 2. The most ubiquitous example is salu2 which stands for saludos (greetings).

Want more shorthand gems? What do you think might a10 be? No, it’s not the name of some new microprocessor in the market, nor a sentient robot. It’s adiós! Ten is diez in Spanish and the latter sits well with diós. So a10 makes perfect sense if you think about it. Some even go a step further and just type a2. Same thing. Dos and diós don’t sound too different either, do they?

Numbers aren’t the only thing that serve as shorthand here. You also have symbols! Take the addition-sign (+), for example. It’s not just addition, it also represents an increase of any kind. That shouldn’t be hard to comprehend for even non-Spanish speakers. In Spanish, más means more. See where this is going? More. Addition. “+”. That’s right the plus-sign represents the word más in Spanish!

If that’s obvious to you, the converse should be even more so. Menos is Spanish for less and it even rhymes with minus to help you remember. Now you should see why +o- is nothing but más o menos, meaning more or less. Fun, isn’t it? I bet you’re already feeling like a seasoned code-breaker now! Well, you are and you should be proud of yourself.

The at-symbol (@) is also special in Spanish and you could use it even in formal settings. You see, Spanish has genders. Words can either be masculine or feminine. Barring exceptions, masculine nouns end in -o and feminine in -a. But what if you want to talk about a mixed-gender bunch? Yes, you could go with, say, amigos y amigas (male and female friends). But that’s such a handful, isn’t it? Now since “@” looks like a hybrid of a and o already, you could do the smart thing and write amig@s! You can do this with any noun – chic@, muchach@, etc.

Other symbols that are very common are the ones used in the universal language of emoticons. The smiley face and others are as ubiquitous in Spanish as they are in English.

Final Word

Goes without saying, shorthand notations are just a matter of how creative you can get. These are not standard Spanish which makes them kinda open source. What this means is that virtually anyone could come up with a new notation depending on how creative and lazy they are. Whether it catches on is a different story though. I haven’t personally seen +o- or a10 being used a lot but others like bss and tqm are extremely common. It all depends on how convenient your invention is. Tackiness is another factor. Despite being super-convenient, it might fail to take off if it’s too convoluted.

Having said all that, It’s my moral responsibility to warn you against their abuse. No matter how cool they might look, they’re still unconventional. Using them indiscriminately would only earn you disdain from the natives, older folks in particular. And no matter what you do, do not use them in a formal setting! Never! There’s a place for such shorthand and that place is casual chat-rooms and Twitter. Use it anyplace else and you’ll risk appearing uneducated, immature, or both.

It’s obvious that I have just scratched the surface and there’s hundreds and hundreds of such examples in currency out there. Check out this article for a longer list. Do you have any experience with Spanish chat-rooms? Have you come across any intriguing word that we should know about? Please share it with us in a comment below!


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