Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I can has pardon me?

Has anyone not encountered the “I can has cheeseburger” website? Home to those lovely people who paste captions on their cats? I assumed, wrongly, that the interesting phonetic spelling and garbled grammar of the captions was a joke of some kind--perhaps a suggestion of how a cat might approach the English language. It was only later when I began reading photo comments that I realized this has escalated into a much larger phenomenon. Readers post paragraphs of this free-written drivel, comprehensible only if you sound it out like a first grader. It is no longer a joke or even a code for finding other like-minded web surfers--it is a full written dialect, in the vein of French Creole or Gullah, but without the regional, cultural, or lingual backing to categorize it as much more than a fleeting pidgin. This is not the truncated text message speech so readily popularized by 125-character limits and inattentive keystrokes, but rather a popular rejection of the constraints of standardized spelling and grammatical form. It is likely a natural derivation of English--much as French and Italian wandered off from standardized Latin--but it has emerged and evolved far more rapidly than previous dialects on account of its birthplace--potentially millions of people recognize it as a legitimate means of communicating online.

"Yes," says my reader. "You've not said anything I haven't read or thought before. I'm rapidly losing interest."

The reason it occurred to me that this may be an issue warranting some concern is it dawned on me just how much of my communicating I do online. The majority of my friends live in jarringly different time zones from me--from KST clear on through GMT, the rotation of this planet makes it very inconvenient for me to keep in touch with the people I care about. But the trusty Internet has come to my aid. I am in daily contact with friends across--or even straight through?--the world, without stamp, surcharge, or the hours of waiting endured by lonely World War girlfriends as the lines were slowly connected by hand, region by region, across the globe until their loved ones' voices trickled back to them like the last, dying ripple of an echo.

erm. I lost my place.

My point is, my intense exposure to internet-based linguistic variation has certainly impacted my relationship with my language, from casual exchanges with friends to the very format of my thoughts. And I'm not alone. Millions of people spend at least a few hours a day glued to their computers, interacting with humans and robots alike in an endless quest for information and entertainment. And this truly bizarre interpretation of an established language, made available to them, has ballooned into usage well beyond the niche group of photo caption writers who birthed it--in under two years. African American Vernacular English (AAVE), on the other hand, has been developing for centuries, providing linguists with endless glee as they discover root pronunciations and grammatical characteristics in it from all over the world and all over the timeline. Millions of people communicate effectively using this dialect all over the world, whether or not their parents use it and even if they're not a member of an AAVE-speaking community. As media technology has facilitated the introduction of AAVE to people outside its cultural community, and vice versa, the dialect has adapted and its influence has expanded, particularly since the 1960's. In the 50-some-odd years since the federal repeal of segregation law, to varying extents this dialect has become common in around half of American households.

Now, though, out of the blue and without much cultural influence, a group of--apparently--kids have coined a dialect for the purpose of anthropomorphizing cats, and in less than two years millions of educated humans around the world have taken to writing, speaking, and even thinking "Lolcats-ese."

I'm wondering, then--what does it take to make a dialect legitimate? How long will pre-teens have to practice this forced colloquialism until "i wuz en ur compootur, fixin your memorys" becomes your office's standard tech support memo? How long before grandmothers, smiling warmly as their families kick snow off their boots, hold up a dish and announce "o hi, ah made u a pie but i eated it."? The Oracle says an ongoing project exists to translate the christian scripture into Lolcats--are these the tireless monks of our age, the scholars whose pens scratch into the night over smug little treatises on the value of coherent theology? Is Lolcats-ese the common tongue of the future?

It is easy to learn and use--past tenses of all verbs are the infinitive plus "-ed," plural nouns are all the root noun plus "s." All spellings are the phonetic equivalent of a shot in the dark and need not remain consistent within a sentence. Zs and Ss, Cs and Ks, and most vowel sounds are interchangeable, and punctuation is creative at best. The easiest way to use Lolcats-ese orally is to pretend you're a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe, which could be a helpful stepping stone for actual immigrants. All in all, its a far simpler, far more forgiving variation of my native tongue that could see expanded use in the near future. I don't know if this is a good idea, how long it could be expected to last in its original incarnation, if more books would eventually be translated, or really anything about it (as i'm not a linguist and i'm hesitant to use any lingual form that could hinder my job opportunities) but the questions arise--is it likely we will see more and faster language decay as the internet increases in popularity? will we be able to keep up with the kids' ever evolving jive? how much meaning is lost in translation? how much difficulty will speakers of these new colloquial tongues have in school, college, and their careers? are we witnessing the conception of a universal language? How can that ruin life as we know it?


Kim said...

In response, I must assert that I DETEST LOLCATS. It's everywhere at work, and people seem to think it's funny, and I just can't stand it. I wish it would go away.

Sarah said...

Oddly enough, I was just looking at icanhascheezburger. I think it's fairly innocuous. It gives me something else to look at (I'm really rather bored and the cats make me smile). I don't think we have to worry about everyone talking like this...I know a lot of very intelligent people who find it amusing. I don't have an intellectual explanation for why. I think people just like animals and bizarre speech patterns.

colormecynical said...

interestingly, i just ran into a guy i know from high school at a bar last night, and his hot older brother is looking at schools to get his phD--in internet-related linguistics. there's already a study out there of this brand-new phenomenon. while i don't think the English language is going anywhere fast, its interesting to know that people are taking this seriously on the graduate level.

Another participant in this discussion adamantly denied the validity of AAVE as a legitimate dialect, calling it "inner-city illiterate bullshit" and "thug talk." This young man is, naturally, a white southern military boy, a member of the stereotypically ill-informed demographic, but the viewpoints of his social echelon cannot be justly overlooked. He is among the voting majority that elected Bush, after all. If we ignore these people, it is quite obvious they do not go away but only grow angrier and more frustratingly bizarre in their attempts to thrust their way of life on the educated and compassionate. I count this young man among my friends but am aware of the constraints of his prejudice and the social divides they perpetuate.