TERENCE SMITH: It's a whole new language.
BOY: There's 'g2g.' And that means "got to go."
GIRL: 'lol.' -- for laugh out loud.
TERENCE SMITH: With an avalanche of acronyms and a sea of new words, electronic mail, or e-mail, and its progeny, instant messaging and text messaging, are changing the content and rhythm of the English language.
TERENCE SMITH: This revolutionary new means of communication came into general use less than a decade ago. Today, an estimated 90 million Americans routinely use e-mail.
PATRICIA O'CONNER: We're all sitting down and writing hundreds of little letters every week.
TERENCE SMITH: Patricia O'Conner is co-author of a book about e-mail entitled, You Send Me.
She says e-mail, still in its "Wild West" stage, encourages language that sounds nasty, brutish, and short.
PATRICIA O'CONNER: The result is that even people who are very... ordinarily very nice people, can come across as brutes in e-mail, quite unintentionally.
TERENCE SMITH: With its "to," "from" and "subject lines," she says e- mail is the ideal breeding ground for rudeness.
PATRICIA O'CONNER: If I met you on the street and we knew one another, we wouldn't walk up and just, bam, start a conversation in the middle of nowhere.
There would be a greeting, there would be some sort of pas de deux between us, then we'd explain ourselves, and then there would be a leave taking. Even animals do this when they run into one another -- (laughs) dogs on the street.
TERENCE SMITH: So it's faster, but not as civil?
PATRICIA O'CONNER: Yes. We have the impression that we don't have the time to look again at something, to choose our words carefully, to introduce ourselves, explain ourselves, take leave at the end.
We do have time for those things, what we don't have is the patience.
TERENCE SMITH: The statistics on e-mail are staggering. Estimates run as high as three trillion messages a year in North America alone.
E-mails to and from businesses have grown exponentially as well, with the average employee sending about 20 e-mails daily and receiving about 30, not all of them wanted.
VOICE: You've got mail.
TERENCE SMITH: Because of their speed, e-mails seem almost ephemeral, but they are not.
Wall Street wizard Jack Grubman learned as much when his private e-mail boasting of his influence over stock ratings, came back to haunt him as part of a government securities investigation.
SPOKESMAN: People in an e-mail will say things that I don't think they would ever say on the phone.
TERENCE SMITH: News organizations -- the NewsHour included -- say viewer mail has increased dramatically as e-mail's popularity has grown.
Leroy Sievers is executive producer of ABC News' Nightline.
LEROY SIEVERS, Nightline: I have no idea if they're representative or not, but it also just gives us a window of what some people are thinking.
TERENCE SMITH: Does the e-mail have an impact on the editorial product?
LEROY SIEVERS: We don't change our editorial sense of the story based on the e-mail.
The one thing I do do -- and the one that really brings people out is whenever we do the Middle East. And my thing is as long as we are getting e-mails from people who are pro-Palestinian saying we are biased, and as long as we are getting e-mail from people who are pro-Israel saying we are biased, I figure we are doing okay.
TERENCE SMITH: E-mails have also become a vital part of the government's historical record.
The Clinton administration, for example, generated an overwhelming 40 million e-mails.
The National Archives is currently working with the staff of the San Diego supercomputer to figure out how to preserve them as the software on which they were written becomes obsolete.
But overall, e-mail's most lasting effect may well be on language.
JESSE SHEIDLOWER, Oxford University Press: You'll generally talking about 'c.c.-ing' someone.
TERENCE SMITH: As a verb?
JESSE SHEIDLOWER: As a verb.
You will say things like "offline" meaning "inaccessible," "unavailable," not only in a computer sense.
TERENCE SMITH: Jesse Sheidlower is principal North American editor of the "Oxford English Dictionary."
He says e-mail has spawned any number of new words and phrases, like "chat room" and "snail mail," and the term for that junk mail of the Internet -- unsolicited, unwanted e-mail.
JESSE SHEIDLOWER: "Spam" is one of the best known and widely used words that have come almost directly out of e-mail.
You have spam, you have "spam filtering," you have "spammers," you get "spammed," and anyone who's done any kind of e-mail knows that this is a real problem.
TERENCE SMITH: What's the derivation of the word spam? Does it have anything to do with the tinned meat?
JESSE SHEIDLOWER: Only indirectly. It ultimately stems from a Monty Python routine.
ACTOR: I don't like spam.
ACTOR: Spam spam spam spam...
JESSE SHEIDLOWER: Where a bunch of Vikings are eating in a diner basically shouted out...
ACTORS: Spam spam spam spam...
JESSE SHEIDLOWER: Drowning out any other conversations so that you couldn't communicate, and it's a reference to that.
TERENCE SMITH: E-mail is also changing punctuation, says author Patricia O'Conner.
PATRICIA O'CONNER: An emoticon is a little face made of punctuation marks. You have to look at it sideways.
TERENCE SMITH: Sad. Happy.
YOUNG MAN: Like, when you are not talking to someone in person, you need the smiley face just to show the kind of tone you are using.
TERENCE SMITH: But with the dots, dashes, and smiley faces now common in e-mail, O'Connor worries Americans will forget why punctuation really exists.
PATRICIA O'CONNER: Punctuation has really taken a beating in e-mail. It changes meaning. That's what punctuation is all about. It's not supposed to be decor.
TERENCE SMITH: Among the younger set, e-mail offers a way to avoid social interaction altogether.
For 18-year-old Dorothy, for example, it's a convenient way to connect with former boyfriends, without, of course, really connecting.
DOROTHY: You won't talk to them for a while, and then, you'll just decide, well, perhaps I will e-mail them and see how they are doing without actually having to talk to them.
TERENCE SMITH: E-mail and text messaging are beginning to eclipse that traditional teenage pastime, phone chatter. At least seven million text messages are zipping between phones everyday.
GIRL: I text message during school, because I can't use my phone during school.
SPOKESMAN IN COMMERCIAL SPOOF: Are you tired of the flab around thumb?
TERENCE SMITH: One AT&T wireless commercial spoofs a British study that suggested that thumbs are actually evolving as a result of incessant text messaging.
WOMAN IN COMMERCIAL SPOOF: With all the text messaging you are going to do with AT&T wireless, your thumb is going to need that extra strength.
TERENCE SMITH: Wireless phone companies see the explosion of text messaging in Europe and Asia as the precursor of things to come in the U.S.
SPOKESPERSON: We are promoting text messaging.
SPOKESPERSON: Free posters...
TERENCE SMITH: Cingular wireless gives the uninformed a guide to the abbreviated language of text messaging.
The unanswered question: Will it make short communication even shorter?
GIRL: SUP, which is like "was'up," which comes from "what's up?" What's going on kind of thing.
TERENCE SMITH: Jesse Sheidlower has no problem including many of the new acronyms in English dictionaries.
JESSE SHEIDLOWER: If words like NATO or FBI are in the dictionary, there is no reason why BTW Or AFAIK can't be in the dictionary.
TERENCE SMITH: Sheidlower and O'Conner say not to be alarmed. Historically, as technology has changed, so have manners and language. Society has somehow survived. Is this a revolution?
PATRICIA O'CONNER: With language, there are revolutions going on all the time.
When telephones were first installed, there were protocols about when to telephone, about how to answer, how to ring off, about what kinds of things you would talk about on the telephone, and what kind things you wouldn't.
I don't think e-mail is going to stay rude and blunt and as barbaric as it is. I think its going to evolve.
TERENCE SMITH: From where you sit, is this the end of civilization as we know it?
JESSE SHEIDLOWER: No, not at all. I mean, from where I sit, it is the beginning of civilization because, again, what you see here is people communicating in writing at a scale that they haven't done before. And this is great.
TERENCE SMITH: And so, dear viewer, TTFN -- Ta-ta for now.