Monday, 13 May 2013

What’s new, pussycat?

 such a byootimis littlol kitteh!

 These few words are in Lolspeak, the language created by users of the website (formerly www.icanhas The language dates from 2005, when users of the website 4chan began to post lolcats every Saturday, renaming the day as Caturday. Lolcats are pictures of cats with captions written in playful, idiosyncratic English, now known as Lolspeak or Kitty pidgin. The cheezland website is now part of the Cheezburger Network, thought to have a fan base of at least 24 million people. There is now even a Lolcat Bible.

Why do so many people find this way of communicating attractive? The users, who call themselves cheezpeeps, claim that it is simply ‘silly fun’. Ilaria Fiorentini, though, suggests that it is more than this: through Lolspeak, she says, people playfully manipulate their language to construct an online fantasy group community and an identity that is simultaneously both of a cat and themselves.

Fiorentini analysed 1067 comments (17, 195 words) on the icanhazcheezburger website. She argues that although there are Lolspeak glossaries to help people use and understand Lolspeak, many of the features depend on the creativity of its users.  Interestingly, the elaborate language that cheezpeeps are constructing is evolving through processes that are typical of ‘normal’ language change.

One such process involves regularizing English verb forms. Whereas standard English has a present tense –s suffix with third person subjects only, Lolspeak – like many English dialects – has the –s suffix with all subjects of the verb (e.g. we awl needs sumfing tu gib us teh comfort, ‘we all need something to give us comfort’). In Lolspeak the regularization process is generalised still further, so that the suffix also occurs with past tenses (ai jus hadz a baff, ‘I just had a bath’) modal verbs (yu cants be a nan teak, ‘you can’t be an antique’) and infinitives (awl ob dose, and mebbe sum ivys oar fernz tu puts aroun it, ‘all of those and maybe some ivies or ferns to put around it’.

Cheezpeeps also make irregular past tense verb forms more regular: examples are kommed in wi kommed home, ‘we came home’, and seed in I nebber seed a kitteh do wat dey otter, ‘I never saw a kitten do what they ought to’. Double marked past tenses also occur in the posts that Fiorentini analysed, like wented in hubcat and ai wented tu the grossree store today, ‘my husband and I went to the grocery store today’. As she points out, regularisation of this kind is a very frequent phenomenon, typically occurring when children acquire a first language and when we learn a second language.

‘Lexicalisation’ is another typical process of language change, where a phrase becomes used as a fixed word: a well-known example is the word goodbye, from the phrase God be with you. In Lolspeak, the phrase I think so has been lexicalised in this way into an adverb  meaning ‘I think’ or ‘in my opinion’ (aifinkso mebbe it fell behynde the shelfs, ‘I think maybe it fell behind the shelves’).

Examples such as dey lublublubs u foarebber, ‘they love you forever’ or too oar free daze ov sleepsleepsleep, ‘two or three days of sleep’ illustrate intensifying repetition; again, this is a well known process of language evolution, in this case a feature that is characteristic of pidgin languages.

Typical suffixes in Lolspeak are –mus for –ful or –ous (as in byootimus, above, or dangermus). Many suffixes extend the basic form: some examples are –ity, -full and –ify in obviousity, windowfull and insultify (e.g. she dint wanna insultify himz, ‘she didn’t want to insult him’. These forms, together with the deliberate misspelling seen in all the examples here, are typical of internet varieties more generally.  There are new words, too, like nawt sekkund, ‘first’ (kitteh needz tu reed the bukk nawt sekkund so hur can splain it to U layter, ‘kitten needs to read the book first so she can explain it to you later’).

What kind of people belong to the cheezpeeps community? We cannot be sure, since what users say about their identity is not necessarily truthful; nevertheless, it seems likely from their comments and the user profiles that most are women in their forties or older. They are also native or very fluent speakers of English (70% claimed to be from the USA, 10% from Australia, 7% from the UK and about 5% from Canada (with the rest from Europe, Saudi Arabia and Mexico). This is important: cheezpeeps may be enjoying themselves by playing with their language, but at the same time they are trying to impress their audience by demonstrating their high levels of linguistic skill. As Fiorentini points out, being able to play with language in this way, pushing it as far as possible whilst still being comprehensible, needs a high level of understanding of language.

Fiorentini, Ilaria (2013) ‘Zomg? Dis iz a new language’: The case of Lolspeak. Newcastle Working Papers in Linguistics 19 (1): 90-108.

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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