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doge-meme-and-tech

Technology and Language Change: How Memes and Emojis Are The Language of The 21st Century and That’s OK

Prescriptivism is dead. That should be read as a warning of bias. This article is written from the perspective that overly regimenting language is a harmful practice. (Counterarguments and thoughts about this topic are more than welcome in the comments section below!) In a linguistic sense, prescriptivism stunts natural language change and prevents linguistic growth. Without language change, Latin would never have become the Romance languages. That’s right – no Italian, French, or Spanish, to give examples from just one language family.

Technology is a huge (and still growing!) part of the modern world and as such it impacts nearly all aspects of our lives – language included. Therefore, letting technology run its course on language brings our communication more fully into the 21st century.

Brief intermission:

My name is Julianna Pakstis. Hello and welcome to my first WIC blog post! As you can tell from the topic of this post, I have a fascination with language and how it has changed over time. I studied Classics and Linguistics at Penn as an undergrad but have recently switched gears a bit to become a Library Science Master’s student at Rutgers University. And that, ironically, led me back to Penn. I am now an intern at WIC and am excited to explore how WIC connects technology to various academic areas… like the internet and Linguistics.

Now, back to the post.

The study of language change has a long history. Therefore, criticism for language change has a long history as well. The impact of technology on

phaedrus
Plato’s Phaedrus is an ancient document which contains a criticism of the technology of writing.

language is no exception to this criticism. From writing itself, to chatspeak, and emojis, there is and seemingly always has been an outcry against the supposed degradation of language these forms of communication cause. There are voices in favor, too, however. There are authors, linguists and journalists alike, who do not condemn the new forms but embrace them, analyze them, and use them, whether professionally or simply personally.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch is one of those authors. Back in 2014, she did a fairly neutral post on meta-analysis of the language of doge meme for the internet on website, The Toast. In this article she considered whether visual elements, like the Shiba Inu with a piercing expression or the bright comic-sans font made the meme. What she ultimately discovered, however, was that the peculiar grammar of doge meme was its defining feature.

For those readers who might not be familiar with doge meme, the viral image consists of a picture of a Shiba Inu dog with short, punchy phrases written in bright comic-sans layered over top. Typically the words read like this: “such dog,” much cute,” and perhaps most frequently “wow.”

doge-meme-and-tech
It’s very easy to create your own exemplary meme.

McCulloch concluded that “doge phrases,” short one or two word adjectival phrases, are most characteristic of the meme. You can now hear someone IRL (“in real life”) say “such wow” and envision the meme as the two of you recall a common mental image. While doge speak may not be the most popular internet borrowing for vocalized speech (OMG or LOL may be a better example there), it is a unique way of speaking that can definitively be traced back to this particular meme. When a way of speaking integral to a meme integrates into real life speech, language has changed by technological cause.

The end result is that people have nuanced ways to connect ideas and words. They still know the standard form of the language but can now manipulate it in line with new information.

The doge meme example leads to interesting questions about how fast, mass, and written communication, like the internet, affect language and orthography itself. The orthography issue is a hot topic lately as emojis “threaten” to destroy language as we have always known it.

First, we must tackle the debate of whether or not emojis are or can become a language inemojis and of themselves. There are compelling arguments on both sides, but the consensus right now seems to be that emojis enhance communication but do not have a clear grammar of their own. This lack of clarity (or presence of ambiguity) prevents them from really
overthrowing verbal and written communication. To be fair, one could say that even our established vocabulary and grammar has large amounts of ambiguity and therefore does not count as a language, though that would go against the common definition that what we speak and write is our language. This is a complicated issue so, again, your thoughts are welcome in the comments sections.

In the end, emojis, chatspeak, and memes are rapidly changing forms of expressions. The rapidity and universality are products of their technological context. Because they enhance communication, these symbols are part of our writing system and can be considered language. Rather than destroying language, however, these computer mediated forms of communication participate in a linguistic feature as old as language itself – change.