Linguistics doctoral candidate Jan Claas Freienstein, who led a research seminar on the subject at the University of Münster, said that the intimacy expressed in e-mail closely resembles that in speech, unlike handwritten letters. He and his colleagues found e-mail an ideal way to study the "language of love," since people would not speak openly and intimately in the presence of a microphone, he said.
"People sit at the keyboard and hack (e-mail) out quickly," he said, using slang phrases more common in spoken speech, and spending little time on niceties like spelling and grammar. "And because the means of transmission is so much immediate, you get an answer back more quickly," meaning e-mail sweet nothings are more like real-life conversations.
Freienstein shared a few examples with a reporter. They included a message in German beginning:
"hello, hello... didn't you say i should get undressed?! i've been standing here stark naked for two hours in front of my computer and nothing is happening!!!"
What comes next is perhaps better left to the reader's imagination.
Students were asked to bring examples of e-mail love letters -- with all names and identifying characteristics removed -- as a requirement for participation in the seminar. Many of these were hard to decipher, said Freienstein, because the lovers used a form of "code language" between each other. "Often there's a second level of communication that an outsider can't understand. It may be because (e-mail) users are afraid they don't have total privacy," he said.
Intimate e-mail is not likely to kill off verbal murmurings of love, though. According to Freienstein, lovers still reach for the telephone in times of crisis, such as an impending breakup.
Though not always. One example he cites reads:
"1) Leave me alone.
2) I have nothing to do with you. In particular, I do not want to help you.
3) This mail is the last message you will get from me. I will not contact you in future. Any possible, un-wished for messages from you will not be acknowledged: e-mails immediately deleted, letters thrown away unread, telephone receiver hung up. And I absolutely do not want to see you. Find someone else to play with."