The Linguistics of LOL
What Internet vernacular reveals about the evolution of language
When two friends created the site I Can Has Cheezburger?, in 2007, to share cat photos with funny, misspelled captions, it was a way of cheering themselves up. They probably weren’t thinking about long-term sociolinguistic implications. But seven years later, the “cheezpeep” community is still active online, chattering away in lolspeak, its own distinctive variety of English. lolspeak was meant to sound like the twisted language inside a cat’s brain, and has ended up resembling a down-South baby talk with some very strange characteristics, including deliberate misspellings (teh, ennyfing), unique verb forms (gotted, can haz), and word reduplication (fastfastfast). It can be difficult to master. One user writes that it used to take at least 10 minutes “to read adn unnerstand” a paragraph. (“Nao, it’z almost like a sekund lanjuaje.”)
To a linguist, all of this sounds a lot like a sociolect: a language variety that’s spoken within a social group, like Valley Girl–influenced ValTalk or African American Vernacular English. (The word dialect, by contrast, commonly refers to a variety spoken by a geographic group—think Appalachian or Lumbee.) Over the past 20 years, online sociolects have been springing up around the world, from Jejenese in the Philippines to Ali G Language, a British lingo inspired by the Sacha Baron Cohen character. There’s also Padonkaffsky jargon, an aughts-era slang beloved by Russia’s self-described “scum” (they call themselves Padonki—a garbling of podonok, the actual Russian word for “scum”), with phonetic spellings, offensive language, and a popular meme involving outdoor sex and an inopportune bear. Israel has Fakatsa, a sociolect beloved by teen girls—terms from which have popped up on baby clothes and menstrual-pain products.
Like lolspeak, other Internet sociolects tend to start as a game or a kind of insider-y one-upmanship, then snowball in complexity. As semi-illegible versions of an official language, they can act as a private code for anyone trying to write furtively—hackers, activists, spammers, teenagers. But according to Susan Herring, a linguist at Indiana University at Bloomington, they have another important function: they can generate words that spill into the broader lexicon. In 2011, for example, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary added woot, from the hacker sociolect leetspeak (defining it as an exclamation “used to express elation, enthusiasm, or triumph … especially in electronic communication”).
Because online sociolects develop so quickly, and leave such an extensive record, they offer linguists a chance to observe linguistic change with a precision that would be impossible for an oral dialect. Herring eagerly awaits the next wave of sociolects. “These are almost certainly out there,” she said. “We just haven’t discovered them yet.”
Community: Hackers and wannabes (n00bs) trying to disguise their bulletin-board messages in the 1980s; gamers in the ’90s
Features: Words deliberately disguised via alternate characters (1337 to write “elite”; plurals ending in z); suffixes like xor and ness
Examples: 1337 h4x0r for “elite hacker”; ph33r t3h phr3ak for “fear the phreak” (phreak denoting a specific hacking skill)
Cultural impact: Terms like pwn and n00b have gone mainstream, Google has a “Hacker” setting that translates its interface into leetspeak, and spammers use leet-style typography to get their ads for Vi@gr@ and “pr0n” through spam filters.
Community: Mandarin-speaking players of the online music-and-dance game Audition; Chinese bloggers bypassing government censors
Features: Phonetic spellings and archaic Chinese characters; characters borrowed from Japanese, Korean, and Latin scripts; emoticons like orz, which is meant to resemble a kneeling person (o being the head, z the bent knees) and which conveys respect
Examples: Drě@m‰ for “dream”; 520 for “I love you” (in Mandarin, those digits are pronounced similarly to the characters for “I love you”)
Cultural impact: China’s government banned Martian for causing “ethical collapse.”
Community: Tongue-in-cheek impersonators of the Shiba Inu dog breed
Features: Two-word phrases, typically including wow and amaze and the modifiers much, so, very, and many; colorful Comic Sans font across images of maniacally alert dogs; deliberate grammatical messiness
Example: “Wow. Such comet. Very fire. Much destruction.”
Cultural impact: Dogespeak started spreading on Reddit and Tumblr in 2012. It’s since inspired a cryptocurrency, Dogecoin (“very currency—many coin—wow”), and popped up in jokes by the Republican congressmen Thomas Massie and Steve Stockman.