By Bev Schellenberg
I admit it: I’m a Logophile.
I believe in the evolution of language. I understand that referring to something good as “rad” is no longer the norm, and that something “phat” is, if nothing else, large in all sorts of ways. With reluctance, I even accept that “a lot,” which my computer still automatically corrects, will sooner than later exist as “alot,” even in Webster’s Dictionary.
However, after joining the throng on a few penpal sites, I find myself longing for a return to a world where a more extensive vocabulary prevails.
It was with reluctance I visited a penpal site in the first place. I choose my friends in person and meet people face to face, so avoid personal ads and chat rooms. But when a high school senior informed me she was learning another language from someone living across the world from her, she captured my interest, especially when she added that she gives no personal information and the service is free.
And that it’s a penpal site. It’s funny how one word can make all the difference. Sure, attaching “free” to the idea helped, but the word “penpal” clinched it for me. Suddenly the warning lights flashing the word “predator” turned off in my mind and morphed into softly lit memories of my own childhood. Suddenly the notions of multiculturalism, idea exchange, and worldwide connection danced in my head. I remembered being thrilled as a child to receive letters from my male friend in Turkey, another from what was then called Papua, New Guinea, and another from Calgary. After years of corresponding, I met the fellow Canadian as a young teenager, and acted as a proud tour guide through Victoria’s tourist sights. Although I lost contact with all three penpals as an adult, receiving those letters, with the unique stamps and airmail envelopes, and learning about other cultures was a highlight of my childhood.
When I googled penpal sites, I was initially astounded at the number of options, including: penpalsnow.com, interpals.net, easypenpals.com, and penpalworld.com. But then I readjusted my thinking. The internet, after all, is a world buffet of information: lots of unhealthy options with unknown contents, but also plenty to check out.
It was easy to sign up for the site I chose, and it really is free if one is willing to put up with the incessant pop-ups.
Having recently discovered the fun of the Photo Booth program, thanks to my elementary-aged children, I was able to include a recent photo of me staring into the computer screen. I gave minimal particulars, and was set to have a penpal. I hoped for one or two, maybe somebody from Japan because of my recent visit there, and possibly another from Russia because of my background. Instead, the responses were overwhelming: I sat and watched as more and more people signed up to correspond.
For about an hour I responded to incoming comments. At first I picked people over the age of 25 (because I talk to enough children and teenagers in my daily life) and focused on Japan and Russia. Soon, however, picking individuals with whom to correspond stopped being about ages and places and quickly became about vocabulary choice — theirs.
It was initially flattering to receive comments like “Your hot. I want to talk to you.” But such comments really did nothing to endear me to the writer. Even when I tried, naively, to further the conversation in a more friendly vein, my attempts were futile. In one case I responded to a 35+ year old fellow apparently from Italy, stating that I wished to have a friendship only, and was married. I also commented on his picture of him holding a gun at a shooting range by saying I thought his picture was scary. I soon received the reply: “Your hot and I like talking to hot married women. And I think my pictures funny.” In another case, a 20+ year old man, after commenting that I was hot, replied to my response that I was married and wanted only to write in friendship. He said that he still thought I was hot, and especially liked older women. Hmm . . . . “Delete” became a valuable option as I became more proficient on the site.
And that’s when I found myself most drawn to people with a more extensive vocabulary: I didn’t care about the spelling or the inaccurate grammar, as many people on the site are using English as a second language. But I cared about the attempt to actually converse, and thus be able to share meaningful dialogue. Those who didn’t comment on my appearance tended to be a lot more appealing than those who did, because the former seemed to use language with a lot more depth — such as the 40+ year old poet geologist from Russia who discussed the many bears around his home, and Canadians’ optimism, or the 50+ year old Japanese woman who wrote of sitting by the bed of her terminally ill father.
In contrast to the 30+ year old American single dad who thought it was appropriate to call me “hon” and sign with XXXs and OOOs in his initial contact letter, I preferred the 40+ year old Ontario man who talked about going to hockey and ballet with his wife. In our world of “How are you?” “Fine,” I’ve discovered I need words of substance in the smorgasbord of online penpals.