iz in ur language messin with ur wurdz

August 9, 2008

The other day I was emailing with a friend, Patrick, firming up plans to get a drink together that night after work. In the course of the email exchange I mentioned that I had forgotten my cell phone at home that day, and Patrick responded “OK…If anything changes between now and when you leave work just send me an email. I has an iPhone now so I can always get emails.”

I has an iPhone.

By writing “has” instead of “have”, I knew that Patrick was evoking lolcats, an internet phenomenon (which I’m sure you’ve all seen) that originated on icanhascheezburger.com in which people post pictures, most frequently of cats, accompanied by humorous captions written in a particular dialect:

128297915513282500dontcraiwell.jpgcat

The idiosyncratic language of the lolcats captions — which has been christened “lolspeak” or “kitteh” — has organically evolved over time in a manner not unlike how “real” languages develop and evolve. Lolspeak can be seen as a pidgin — a language which forms as a means of communication between groups or individuals that do not share the same language (in this case cats and humans) — and it functions like any other fledgling language in the way that it is a dynamic system that is continually evolving, regularizing and formalizing itself. Lolspeak has developed over time a consistent set of rules and grammar — “You” is always “u”, “Hi” is “Hai”, “I am” is either “iz” or “i r” — to the point that there is now an lolcats glossary. (For more on lolspeak as a pidgin see Anil Dash’s excellent blog post “Cats Can Has Grammar“.)

But what makes lolspeak so different from other pidgins (besides the fact that it’s a language projected by humans into the mouths of cats…) is that it’s highly influenced by text and instant messaging speak — “to” is written as “2”, “Please” is “plz”, and “You’re” or “Your” are “ur”. Lolcats is born on the internet, and so it follows that it has integrated this kind of “netspeak” into its dialect. In fact, lolspeak is very much about exposing the technology with which it was created. Captions often play with typographical errors such as “!!!1!” — the joke being that the cat’s paw, for which the keyboard is not obviously not designed, slipped off the shift key momentarily, resulting in the “1” instead of the intended exclamation mark. And “teh” is often written in place of “the” — again exposing the technology with which it was written.

But lolspeak becomes more than simply an intellectual examination of how languages develop and the influence of technology at the moment it begins to infiltrate our own language — which is precisely what has begun to happen, as Patrick so eloquently demonstrated in telling me about his new iPhone.

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