Luke’s Languages: Not sure if meme… or new language


Hello, hello! So, American Thanksgiving happened, and the world is now officially ready to immerse itself in Christmas for the next month. It used to annoy me, but nowadays I find I appreciate being reminded how close it is to the end of the semester.

Today’s topic is Internet memes as linguistic innovations. (Caught your attention?)

One way to look at them is as “signs”. We’ll use Ferdinand de Saussure’s definition of the sign. He was a Swiss born in the 19th century, and is sometimes regarded as “the father of modern linguistics” (according to Wikipedia, anyway). Many modern linguists consider Saussure outdated, like how modern psychologists consider Freud outdated—except Saussure still makes a lot of sense to me.

Here’s a quick and simplified definition of Saussure’s “signs”, about as detailed as you’d get in an intro to linguistics. A sign consists of a signifier—say, the word “cat”—and the thing signified—say, an actual cat (Saussure would say this goes first to the mental concept of a cat). Three things are essential to a sign: that the link between the signifier and signified is arbitrary (so a picture of a cat is not a sign), that a person can’t spontaneously change what it refers to, and that the person using it is conscious that they’re using it. If you don’t have this last one, it’s just an “indice”—a clue that gives away something about the speaker. For example, a foreign accent.

Let’s look at Internet memes in this framework. First, for those of us who don’t know, what is a meme? It’s kind of hard to define, because it can be so many things: words, images, videos, anything. But it has to be recognizable; the whole value of a meme is that you can deploy it and people will know what you’re trying to get across. They spread like wildfire, entering the “vocabulary” of Internet users after they’ve seen just one or two uses of them.

Twitter hashtags are one of the most recent ones. On Twitter, you can add a # symbol with a brief string to categorize your tweet (“Psych prof still hasn’t posted the midterm marks #whatdoipayyoufor”). The # is always required; the rest is variable. The rigidity of this formula has allowed the # to reliably signify the categorization itself, and because of that, the hashtag is now a meme. People put it on their Facebook statuses, even though Facebook doesn’t have a hashtag feature.

But it doesn’t need to. The message gets through. The # has become a sign.

One of the most popular types of meme is called “advice animals”. Each of these memes is an invariable picture—usually an animal or a face from pop culture—accompanied by variable text, usually a set-up and a punchline.

The first instances of these memes don’t typically start off with text, or they begin with text that literally describes the content of the picture. This is not a true sign. But over time, the picture comes to represent something, and the captions come to match what it represents.

Take Philosoraptor. Some clever person noticed that “philosopher” and “velociraptor” are phonetically similar, so they made an image of a velociraptor with its claw thoughtfully scratching its chin and captioned it “Philosoraptor”. It kind of looks stupefied by the depth of whatever it’s pondering. All well and good.

Then someone finds it funny, and recaptions it, “If actions are stronger than words… why is the pen mightier than the sword?” Then the next person chooses to recaption it ironically: “How can being up for something… be the same as being down for something?” And someone else takes up the joke that Philosoraptor’s question is not very deep, and recaptions it, “What happens… if you spill stain remover?”

Now imagine someone totally new sees only this last image without context. If they’ve never seen Philosoraptor before, it’s puzzling. Why is this question being asked? Why is a dinosaur asking it? Can a velociraptor’s claw even reach to its chin?

Philosoraptor is a very well established meme; it too has become a sign. The image itself means something—it communicates something about the situation—and it imposes certain constraints, or at least expectations, on the captions.

How do we describe this second element, the caption, in terms of the Saussurean sign? It might be better to classify it by form and content. Each advice animal eventually becomes a form, like a musical genre, imposing a certain “shape” on the content.

The content itself also takes on some linguistic properties inherited from the larger form “advice animal”. The rules are bent, but systematically. The perplexed, squinting Futurama Fry must say “Not sure if ____ … or ____”, as in “Not sure if high beams … or just bright headlights.” That’s not good English, but I can tell the maker speaks fluent Futurama Fry.

I wonder if any meme has already become so unconscious that it’s no longer a sign but an indice. In “ragecomic” memes, which consist of arrangements of stock faces with text to describe what’s happening, people often pick faces extremely predictably. They also use linguistic habits peculiar to the text, like adding “le” to the beginning of sentences (“le walking down the street” to say the character is walking down a street). But now that it’s the norm, do people really know why they do that? Or is it an almost unconscious indice that tells the reader they’re reading a ragecomic?

As my friend said when she learned about memes, “So it’s like a language all unto itself, with symbols for different thought associations.” That’s probably the most succinct and elegant way of putting it. Like real languages, memes have their own grammar and vocabulary; they have blending, borrowing, etymology, and lots of other good things; you form utterances by combining elements; and they are very much actively growing and changing with their “speakers”, capable of generating new signs to refer to things they need to describe.

There are even dialects. After all, there’s a Facebook page for “UTM Memes”.

Not plausible? Maybe you’re right. But let’s conclude by reading a famous and fantastic quote by Saussure:

“Language is no longer regarded as peripheral to our grasp of the world we live in, but as central to it. Words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjuncts superimposed upon an already given order of things. They are collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world.”

A pretty bold statement. And if it was suspicious a century ago, this century has so far borne it out.