Language, Meaning, and the Meme

I’m sure someone out there has done some sort of study of the sorts of changes that the English language is undergoing as a result of the internet; but I’ve collected some of my own observations here, and things I find interesting, at least partly as a result of my training as a classicist and general (still very limited) knowledge of how language works.

“Language is deteriorating [because of the internet]!” “People only have the attention span for memes!” “Nobody knows how to write anymore! Everyone writes in meme-speak.”

These are all things I have actually heard stated, either by people I know or anonymous complainers on the internet. Meme Study - Matrix

Scrolling through Facebook has become a little bit more than an excuse to shut my brain down, or waste time. I tend to look for quirks and oddities in languages, and I find myself analyzing memes and looking for some deeper subconscious meaning based on how the author intentionally and humorously screwed up the grammar or misspelled a word. Usually it has to be a pretty outrageous mistake or misspelling, or a very economically constructed phrase to fit within the frame and still be funny. What is going on there? Is it as mindless as everyone says it is? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting things going on, culturally or linguistically.

Meme Study - lolcat

I’ve narrowed the world of memes down into two categories that are the most prevalent: the animal-picture/ungrammarly memes (usually associated with pictures of animals doing odd things) and the pithy “sententiae” kind of meme (I’ll explain what I mean by “sententiae” in a moment). The latter kind often tends to require knowledge of a particular TV show or a book character, and utilizes a particularly memorable phrase across a wide array of subjects.

Memes are interesting because they have to contain a visual and a pithy, humorous phrase. Creating effective memes actually can be quite an art, especially if they are of the ungrammarly kind, because you need to have a functional grasp of the conventions of a new sort of dialect, and a new sort of vocabulary that is constantly evolving and developing. Certain types of humor are associated with certain types of pictures, which has become a sort of language unto itself. There are rules associated with it, just as there are rules to speaking perfectly “correct” English, so being fluent in meme-speak means you need a functional grasp of multiple dialects. If you are going to write in the lolcat dialect, you must know what that means. Same for the doge dialect, or the newer “doggo” dialect.Meme Study - lolcat1

What I find interesting is that while there is a vast profusion of un-grammarly memes out there, the very humor of it seems to serve almost as a corrective. We aren’t going to understand why “lolcat” is funny unless we know what is conventionally “correct” first.Meme Study - lolcat2

Hence the people who complain that language is degenerating because of the internet, I’m more inclined to think that meme language has the odd effect of reinforcing good grammar, or at least, a vague consciousness that it is bad grammar. We wouldn’t laugh at it if we didn’t understand that is grammatically “wrong.” Otherwise, language might slowly evolve into other forms without really being noticed, simply because we aren’t being daily faced with humorous examples of “bad” English to remind us of what “good” English is. You now associate a meme with humor, so if you happen to come across a meme with some kind of odd grammatical or spelling quirk and you don’t immediately know why it’s funny, you’ll look up the “correct” word or grammar, if for no other reason than to mine the humor out of it, and be extremely disappointed if it turns out not to be funny.

Language has a natural evolution; it morphs and changes constantly, even when we try to preserve the conventions. You can see how Latin evolved over the course of centuries, and how styles evolved, as you can with English. A modern style is very different from a Victorian or a 17th century style, and even methods of every-day communication are fluid and evolve. There are also different settings for certain styles of communication. Meme-speak is meant for more casual settings; the Facebook group, the dinnertime conversation of college students, etc. There are more formal uses of English that require more knowledge of the conventions; writing truly masterly English prose requires knowledge of conventional syntax and how it differs from meme-speak.

When it comes to forms and the raw grammar of the language, I was thinking about some of the new forms that have emerged and why there is contention of over them. Why do we really object to ur instead of your? In a few generations, ur may be the accepted form and your is the antiquated form. We object to it simply because ur is not what we’re used to and it looks very odd, even when we all know what it means. Someday, people may be more used to seeing ur and will forget the “proper” form. This is how language develops over time; this is how Old English morphed into Middle English, and so on. Except this time, the factors that cause the change are very different. In languages not influenced by the internet, we understand that there are natural sound progressions. In this case, we aren’t necessarily following phonological changes, because your and ur sound exactly the same, but developed for convenience while texting. It then caught on and has become more widely used for other purposes. So I find the new influences on language very Meme Study- Grammarinteresting, but also the fact that perhaps the presence of the internet also serves to reinforce the older conventions when it is so easy to look up the “correct” grammar, and there is a vast horde of fanatical and unsolicited grammarians on the internet ready to correct mistakes.

Another side of meme-speak is not necessarily the ungrammatical or misspelled kind, but the pithy phrase or sarcastic comment. These are probably the hardest to pull off, though thanks to the internet and the “sharing” phenomenon, the memes that are not actually funny don’t get re-shared and disappear, while the truly funny ones proliferate and become common: a natural filter that tends to work best when it comes to humor, but little else.

We seem to have come around to a literary taste somewhat akin to what ancient Romans called “sententiae” which were short, pithy phrases. Martial, Seneca, and Lucan preferred this type of sentence as opposed to the long, rambling rhetoric of a Cicero or a Cicero-disciple. Even then, there was something of an art to composing a “sententia” because it had to be economical and also get its point across. Anyone who tries to come up with one-liners knows just how hard that can be. Moreover, the Romans didn’t always have the visual to get the meaning across. We can get away with even fewer words because we now have the picture to do at least half of the work in conveying meaning. And many times, that meaning comes from a movie, or a TV show.

And now, with our vast array of media and entertainment, we have an absolutely enormous amount of cultural material to keep up with, from Star Trek to The Office to Game of Thrones. Meme Study - The OfficeIt’s not necessarily all that different from how an ancient poet had to be very conversant in other poets in order to keep up with conversations; that was his version of our TV shows and movies. Anyone educated in the ancient world, or presuming to be educated, had to have a vast array of references at his fingertips; quotations from Homer and Hesiod, ideas from philosophers of the day etc. Just like now, when we all feel pressured in college to have Star Wars trivia at our fingertips, or quote entire scenes from Monty Python. A modern equivalent to Homer might be Tolkien; people will look askance at you if you don’t have your Tolkien well under your belt. Meme Study - LOTR

It differs in form and content from the ancient world, but the phenomenon is the same, just on a much grander and more “vulgar” scale.

Maybe memes don’t deserved to be dismissed offhand after all, or at least, they deserve to be appreciated for the cultural information that they provide, and also for the humor.


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