LOLcat linguistics: I can has language play?

Oh hai. Few internet memes have enjoyed the cultural penetration and staying power of LOLcats (examples; home; Wikipedia). Whether they annoy you, amuse you, or please you to the point of purring, there’s no avoiding them online, and they’ve even infiltrated the physical world.

LOLspeak (the language of LOLcats) is too new to have attracted much scholarly research to date. But there is some, and it features in “I can has language play: Construction of Language and Identity in LOLspeak”, a presentation by Jill Vaughan and Lauren Gawne at the Australian Linguistic Society’s annual conference in 2011.

Vaughan and Gawne identify LOLspeak as a form of language play that serves in-group cohesion: if you’re in on the joke, you’re part of the community. They show how a LOLcat simultaneously builds two identities: the ubiquitous cat and the internet-savvy human that gives it its idiosyncratic voice.

This slide, for example, quoting the LOLcat Bible, demonstrates LOLspeak’s eccentric form:

The presentation is at once funny and informative. After briefly explaining the origins and context of LOLspeak, it briskly addresses its phonetics, orthography, lexicon, syntax, and morphology. We see how the surreal and deliberately mangled “cat-world discourses” reveal a playful sophistication and a “high level of metalinguistic awareness”.

See enough LOLcats and you’ll notice themes and sub-memes recur and become recursive. It’s creative but far from anarchic: linguistic norms have emerged but further subversion is always possible, even relished. Apparently some people have argued that LOLspeak is a creole, but “that’s just cos they want to use the phrase kitty pidgin”…

Here’s the video:

[via Superlinguo]

Update:

Lauren Gawne and Jill Vaughan’s paper ‘I can haz language play: The construction of language and identity in LOLspeak’, published by the Australian Linguistic Society, is now available in PDF form.

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19 Responses to LOLcat linguistics: I can has language play?

  1. johnwcowan says:

    ‘Sfunny, I’m on the Net as much as anybody, more than lots of people, and yet I only run into lolcats on language blogs!

  2. Stan says:

    John: I guess it all depends on where you hang out. I’ve been spending a lot of time with llamas.

  3. Remembering that the idea of getting lolspeak wrong was mentioned once on Language Log, I Iooked it up by searching Old Language Log for “lolcat wrong possible”. I found the relevant post, but was somewhat surprised by it as I’d misremembered the context.

    While watching the video, I paid some attention to the speakers’ phonology. There were a number of vowel realisations that differed from mine (illustrating the variation within Australian English), but in most cases I can’t draw specific conclusions from them and they weren’t particularly consistent anyway. One thing I will remark on, though, because it might be of interest to non-Australians, is the choice of /æ/ vs /a:/ in words where variation exists.

    The first speaker quickly outed herself as an East Coast resident by pronouncing “chance” with /æ/. This is strongly regional: people from my part of the country use /a:/. Near the end, the second speaker likewise pronounces “stances” with /æ/. There are also words where /æ/ vs /a:/ variation is not so strongly regional, for example you may have noticed that the first speaker pronounces “example” with /æ/ while the second uses /a:/.

  4. Cathy says:

    Oh you di-n’t! Oh you did. Brilliant. :-)

    Much though I shiver at lols, even I can’t deny the cuteness of o hai. (Though I thought it was ‘o’, not ‘oh’.)

  5. I’ve never understood Lolcat myself.My four furry fiends all speak REP!

  6. What ISN’T funny is that far too many people are slipping into “thumb” speech, even to carry out business transactions. Young people are forgetting how to speak and spell, and I get tired of re-reading something three or four times JUST to figure out WHAT they were trying to say! And we’re passing this on to people overseas whose first language isn’t English. THEY have no idea how garbled their “speech” is because they think they’re talking/typing properly—which they aren’t.

  7. Stan says:

    Adrian: Assuming this is the post you mean, I’m amused to see it uses the same lolcat image that I chose. I hadn’t read it, and now I have a bunch of old Language-Log-on-lolcat posts to catch up on, which I’m looking foward to. Thanks for your observations on the two speakers’ accents. I didn’t pay much attention to phonological matters while listening to the talk, so I appreciate your insights into Australian English variation.

    Cathy: For some reason I resist typing LOL. I don’t remember ever using it, though I may have done on rare occasions. (It doesn’t bother me when others use it.) I prefer typing out a laugh, despite the inevitable degree of mismatch. “O hai” was my first instinct, but I searched both forms and went for the biblical “Oh hai”. I think I’ll drop the h next time.

    Jams: It’s quite a fun meme, but one you can safely live without if it hasn’t appealed to you by now!

    Cary: It’s true that some people have difficulty switching to appropriately formal types of English when the context demands it. But misspelling has always been a problem, not just among young people, and I don’t think anyone is forgetting how to speak.

  8. Don’t get me wrong I do think it’s fun but I tend to imagine my cats speaking like James Mason !

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    Funny, Stan, I thought this whole Lolcat business had died on the catnip so to speak. I remember doing a post on it three/four years ago.
    So it’s still alive, I think my nieces and nephews do a mashup of it on their FB posts, come to think of it.
    XO
    WWW

  10. Stan says:

    Jams: Ha, that’s a good choice for a cat voice!

    WWW: I think lolcats have even more lives than live cats.

  11. nocanhaz says:

    The one glaring omission in the presentation is that 4chan is not included. It is my understanding that icanhascheezburger evolved from Caturday threads on 4chan.

    Wired magazine did an article related to this in February of 2010
    King of Cheez

    Brian Raftery; – with contributions by Misha Gravenor

    Pg. 52 Vol. 18 No. 2 ISSN: 1059-1028

    Now I am not a 4chan-er, but credit where credit’s due?

  12. Stan says:

    That’s true, nocanhaz. I wondered why there was no reference to 4chan too. Maybe time contraints forced it out in an edit, or the speakers meant to mention it but forgot to on the day.

  13. the ridger says:

    Lauren Gawne has said she simply didn’t have time to go into 4chan.

  14. sam raker says:

    @nocanhaz: Two theories why 4chan doesn’t make an appearance:
    1) it might be a little too ‘l33t,’ as it were, for the presenters. It’s definitely the LOLcat urheimat, but ICHC has definitely become the place where the average internet user interfaces with the world of memes. The fact that ICHC isn’t a messageboard and is thus less overwhelming and hard to navigate/mine for data, and has its own photoshop-free meme generator makes it far more accessible than 4chan.
    2)4chan can be TERRIFYING sometimes, and the researchers might simply not wanted to have introduce a genteel audience of linguists to the seething, teenage id of the internet.

  15. Stan says:

    Karen: Thank you for clarifying that.

    Sam: Linguists, genteel? Hmm. Anyway, see The Ridger’s comment.

  16. [...] position to provide their language as well.  However, over time it has developed almost into a form of language play – with its own self-referencing humor and subversions.  Considering language play’s [...]

  17. [...] (and sometimes lots of love). But it has come to symbolise a whole mode of discourse: LOLspeak is a quasi-dialect unto itself, albeit mainly the preserve of unwitting LOLcats [...]

  18. […] American Scholar on the appeal of ungrammatical trends and memes, including “because X”, lolspeak, doge, etc. She […]

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