A journalist asked me about the degregation of language in electronic communications, so I told him about the eloquence of blogs and the subcultures of leet and the art of codework and machine English. I looked up a piece I wrote mentioning NN and Mez’s emails, and found this quote from NN:

From: integer@www.god-emil.dk
Subject: [!nt]n2+0

mor konfusd kr!!!!ketz. ! sh!ne m! metal!k zurfazez modulated b! 01 z!lnz Envelope + ztep at dze edge + uat !z ! z +? Dze modulaz!on korezpondz 2 dze beat!ng patern. !

I ignored emails like these (sent like spam to listservs) for ages, assuming they were garbage. When Amanda Steggell finally interpreted them for me, explaining that you just read ! as i, k as c and z as s, I began to see their beauty, though I still struggle to translate them. Amanda and her collaborators used NN’s words as part of the text for their performance Please try to speak English!, and she read them so beautifully!

I think the words above say the following:

More confused critics (crickets?)
I shine my metallic surfaces modulated by silence.
Envelope and step at the edge
+ uat !z ! z +?
The modulation corresponds to the beating pattern

There is beauty in this, and such a fittingness, that the words of a cyborg or of a machine (a being with metallic surfaces) should speak a language we must strain to understand. There is a beauty too in the idea that such a creature, should it exist, might spam mailinglists with its infuriatingly incomprehensible poetry. Who is NN? Grethe Melby wrote a wonderful article about her, them, it, in Norwegian. Salon wrote about her, too.

Can any of you read “+ uat !z ! z +?”? And is it true, that with practice, you can read words like these as easily as English?

5 thoughts on “machine poetry

  1. Ella

    I’m not sure about this “machine talking”, it’s too new to me. However, today there’s lot of grumbling that children and young people don’t read or write as much as before, but I think they at least write much more than say 10 years ago. I see my 17-year-old son. He writes at least a couple of e-mails every day plus HOURS of chatting on the net. I don’t think I wrote that much when I was in his age. Plus I think they might get an wider understanding of our written standard language when they’re capable of constructing sms and chat languages.
    And the best of all. They’re talking and learning a lot of new stuff from people around the world.

  2. Brandon

    And what is, is and?


    And what is I see and?

    I found that I stopped noticing mez’s transliterations the more and more I read them. The same thing happens with any text replacement, doesn’t it? I remember struggling through the first chapter of Clockwork Orange and then later almost forgetting the russified slang was being used.

  3. Jon

    + uat !z ! z +?

    and you at eyes I see and why

    funny english, but it makes sense to me 🙂

  4. Jill

    Several quite different yet all quite appealing possibilities there, in other words. I like the idea of a cyborg speaking machine language that is entirely ambiguous.

  5. Dennis G. Jerz

    Jill, are you talking about 133t? (Read that “leet”, short for “elite”.) I wouldn’t say that I’m fluent in 133t, but I do appreciate the subtle shadings of meanings when geeks in their natural environment drop a phrase in 1eet.


    There’s also the bizarre subculture of writing poetry using perl programming syntax.


    Hugh Kenner once parsed a Samuel Beckett passage as a Pascal program (the literary text featured a series of complex if-then statements, but the program didn’t actually do anything once the final statement was reached). I that was in The Mechanic Muse.

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