Cats, grammar, and the internet as language playground
I love my cat. Every day, I tell him how happy his paws and his fur and his ears make me. As I type this, he is sitting on my lap and occasionally nudging the edge of the computer with his head.
I’m not alone in my love of all things cat. The internet has exploded with cats, and luckily for me that means that I can start my day off checking out countless pictures and videos of cats doing all sorts of adorable things.
One rather strange offshoot of this whole cat internet obsession is “lolcat” —the language that’s used in the captions of cat pictures. Apparently, it’s what cats would sound like if they could speak. I say “strange” not because I find anthropomorphising animals to be odd, but because I find it fascinating that the linguistic manifestation of feline cuteness would be a lack of subject-verb agreement and turning adjectives into nouns (as in, “I has a happy.”). My cat, I am quite sure, would speak with impeccable grammar if he chose to voice his thoughts aloud (something like, “I know my hair gets everywhere, but I would really appreciate it if you never vacuumed again”).
At least that’s what I used to think, before I starting exploring the phenomenon. There are some great lolcat grammar guides and in-depth analyses of the language that prove that like any dialect, the English of internet cats is rule-governed and consistent and can, in fact, be used incorrectly. Which means, essentially, that it’s not at all ungrammatical—it has its own grammar and syntax and idioms.
Wait—did I just write that? An in-depth linguistic analysis of lolcat?
Yes! The memefication of the Internet has provided yet another rich source of language experimentation. It gets me excited, not because I really like lolcat speak, but because cat memes demonstrate intense and sophisticated manipulation of words and grammar. And language play is always a good thing. Language play demonstrates metalinguistic awareness, understanding of language an object and thinking about the language that you’re using. Of course, a lot of this happens on an unconscious level—it’s not super likely that a meme creator is agonizing over whether “cheeseburger” is a open compound and consulting a lolcat grammar guide. But it’s there.
Deconstructing grammar is not the same thing as destroying grammar.
So now it’s time for me to create a lesson plan on basic grammar concepts using lolcat as the model. Somehow, it’s often more enjoyable to learn about these things through a made-up language. How fun would it be to have students design their own memes using lolcat and then providing an English translation? What about having them talk about the structure of a lolsentence and how it differs from the structure of a standard English sentence?
Maybe I can get my cat to teach the class.