Alexander Tang/Harper Collins
If an alien landed on Earth, how would it speak?
According to Jonathan Sun, a self-described “writer, illustrator and person from Twitter,” an alien would probably sound something like a curious toddler prone to typos.
Sun, who is a PhD student at MIT, is the author of the new book, “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too,” a sort of children’s book for adults, filled with simple line drawings and existential one-liners.
He’s also a Twitter phenomenon, tweeting from the handle @jonnysun since 2009 (he goes by Jonny but his pen name and character's name is Jomny), with half a million followers, including celebrity fans like "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Central to Sun’s humor is his unique writing style, riddled with misspellings and abbreviations.
For example, his Twitter profile reads: “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge.” The “aliebn” is Sun’s main alter ego, on Twitter and in his book — a lumpy-headed figure with a thick outline.
But these aren’t just accidental typos.
“I call this kind of misspelling or weird grammar ‘stylized verbal incoherence,’” said Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist and co-creator of the podcast Lingthusiasm. “By adjusting the spelling, or the grammar, or how you put the words together, you’re indicating that you’re feeling so excited, or overwhelmed, or tired, or sad, or emotional in general that you can’t even string words together.”
Alexander Tang/Harper Collins
The child of Chinese immigrants, Sun was a self-professed “huge grammar nerd” growing up in Calgary.
“I don’t think it was ever intentional or super conscious of me, but part of my obsession with English was knowing that I was the person who was the ambassador for English in my family,” Sun said.
Sun follows intentional patterns in the way that he writes to come off as approachable, inserting and swapping some letters while removing others.
“It represents a finer fluency in a language to be able to play with it,” McCulloch said.
“Aliebn” speak has a very specific grammar, one that Sun had to write down in a style guide for his editor when he was writing his book.
All those misspellings and funny grammar choices are just a way to extend a virtual hand.
“Anything that you can get to get people on your side, if you can make them laugh or you can make them think this is adorable or cute in a certain way, if you can win that small connection with that person it opens the door and lets you talk about more emotional things,” Sun said.
Check out the full interview with Sun on the World in Words podcast. Give it a listen by clicking the play button above or, better yet, subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
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