Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Best meme in show: Unmediated thoughts on the internet and language

Angus Lang

My family owned a cat when I was growing up, but I think the internet has taught me that I’m a doge person.

LOLcats was an early iteration of an internet meme with some potential: amusing images of cats accompanied by intentionally ungrammatical text was a promising combination, but ultimately it didn’t hit the spot. This, for instance, is cute enough, but not actually funny:
Image by Misterjack, provided by CC licence via Wikimedia Commons

However, if you replace the cat with an image of a happily inane and easily impressed dog (a shiba inu), and instead of the half-baked misspellings use a mixture of eccentric noun phrases sprinkled with the occasional “wow”, the whole proposition becomes much more compelling.  This, for example, is doge’s take on the topic of 3D printing:

Image from The Daily Dot
It works best when there is an obvious gulf between the depth of the topic and the doge’s treatment of it. Here, for example, doge deals with the grey zone between terrorism and civil disobedience:
Image from FunnyJunk
The doge is undoubtedly inane, but like many fools, he has a certain wisdom about him. And, to my mind, it’s especially in the field of internet linguistics that he has a thing or two to teach us.  

Doge is a good example of the internet’s tendency to provide conditions for the development of new language varieties, at greyhound pace, and accompanied by multiple variations. David Crystal, writer on many linguistic things, thinks that the internet’s influence is unprecedented in this respect. 

The sort of riffing that produced doge out of LOLcats can be witnessed all over the place. For example, the orthodox spoken or written phrase “I can’t even begin to describe this to you” has produced the microblogging/texting/tweeting iterations “I can’t even”, “I have lost the ability to even”, and “I have lost all ability to can”.  

Now, I confess I don’t know enough about the field to explain the mechanisms at play, but I imagine it has something to do with the playful (“ludic”) way in which language is used in many popular forms of digital communication, the need for linguistic creativity to be expressed within tight confines in such contexts (eg Twitter/SMS character limits, or keeping it “micro” in the case of microblogging), and the impressive capacity of internet communication to spread: with immediacy; to a wide number of people; and over a geographically disparate population.

All of that is very cool, but if a variety of internet-language could venture out of its natural digital habitat and enter the spoken language, now that would really be something. 

So far, apart from a few bits and pieces here and there, it hasn’t really happened yet. Linguistic prescriptivists and other concerned citizens have, over the years, expressed their fears about the threat to standard spoken and written language forms posed by net- and sms-speak, but by and large they have not materialised. U dont eg omit pnctu8tn or abbrv8 or use pctgrms in 4ml wrtn work lk when u r txtng. 

My personal ambition for doge is that it will make this leap. The ingredients are all there: it’s catchy, has its own grammar, and it doesn’t even need the doge to work. 

This poem from the daysofstorm Tumblr, for example, is a fantastic rendition of Romeo and Juliet in doge-speak:
What light. So breaks. Such east. Very sun. Wow, Juliet.
What Romeo. Such why. Very rose. Still rose.
Very balcony. Such climb.
Much love. So Propose. Wow, marriage.
Very Tybalt. Much stab. What do?
Such exile. Very Mantua. Much sad.
So, priest? Much sleeping. Wow, tomb.
Such poison. What dagger. Very dead. Wow, end.
In my own conversations, I have been trying to deploy doge whenever possible, preferably when least appropriate. It’s quite addictive. But getting it right takes a bit of practice – it’s all too easy to lapse into grammatical correctness. Even “Romeo and Juliet” is not quite perfect: “much love” probably should have been “many love” and “such poison” maybe “so poison”.

I do, of course, realise that much of this is vanity. My doge advocacy doubtless has to do with wearing it as a badge of contemporariness and digital savoir faire. Never mind that the doge has, no doubt, already trotted off to the meme compost heap, tail between its legs. But that, too is the power of the internet. We can spend a disproportionate amount of our text-consuming lives on various forms of bloggery, either out of fun, wannabe funkiness or just because of the sheer volume of it. 

But I feel we should stay sensitised to the way in which the internet bestows prestige on certain forms of text. Naomi S Baron has observed that a great mass of netspeak is unmediated, ie produced spontaneously, and in the absence of reflection, drafting, redrafting, editing or peer-review.  There is, of course, a place for this, but the patterns of our consumption involve a risk that the mediated text may lose something of its cultural priority. It’s certainly an interesting point. And the doge meme is aimed squarely at this phenomenon: we like it because, like so many of us netizens, doge has no inhibitions about broadcasting its thoughts, moment to moment, with hilarious superficiality on topics undeserving of such treatment. 

My cat, now that I think of it, was a more reflective and introverted type. Perhaps I should be reconnecting with my feline side.

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