Is it can be lolspeak tiem nao, plees?

Oh, hai!

Iz soopr excitd 2 be bak, srsly. Todai, iz rite bout kittehs an teh wai dey speekz on teh internet an stuff, kthx!

Wait…that doesn’t seem right.

Oh, that’s right. I’m not a Lolcat. They sure do talk funny, don’t they?

There have been a lot of other blog posts and research written about Lolspeak, and in typical form, I’m finally getting around to it five years after the historical founding of icanhascheezburger.com.

Obviously, my interest was in the peculiar linguistic construction of Lolspeak, but the more I read, the more I became interested in the sociolinguistics of the phenomenon. Who are these lolcat captioners? What do I have to do to make a good lolcat picture without looking like a poseur?

According to a thesis written by Jordan Lefler in 2011, the Lolspeak phenomenon most likely started about 6-7 years ago by this one picture:

“The internet’s piece de resistance.”

Lefler goes on to describe the probable origin: One of the origin myths of Lolcat is a cat food ad (Figure 1.1), Russian in origin but with English text. This cat food ad was one of the first macros posted for “Caturday” on 4chan, and this supposedly began the Lolcats trend. 4chan, a set of image boards with many inside jokes, anonymous members, and vulgar threads, started Caturday, which was known as the day of the week between Friday and Sunday when (lol)cats would do whatever it was that (lol)cats did (Elle “Caturday | Know Your Meme” 2011). The intended consequence was posting a lot of pictures with napping cats. Many contributors to 4chan would post pictures of cats with captions on Caturday, and these cats made people “lol,” or “laugh out loud.” Caturday became popular enough on 4chan that many associated sites were created for Lolcat macros. Many pages of these websites have dwindled into nonexistence, with the prominent exception of www.icanhascheezburger.com, which showcases the now famous Russian cat food ad (Menning “Happy Cat” 2009) that offers one variant origin myth that reportedly ignited the Lolcat phenomenon.

Since that point, the meme has become so successful and popular that it has spawned what is starting to be considered an invented dialect of English.

Some cats are prescriptivists.

As with other non-standard varieties of English, many people may think that they can just throw in a few misspelled words, use -z instead of -s for plurals and a ‘ur’ instead of ‘your.’ But apparently, there is more to Lolspeak than that, and there are research papers, dictionaries, and even a Bible to prove it!

According to the Lolcat Bible Translation Project, misspellings are certainly part of the meme, but they always seem to follow the same sort of patterns:

  • reverse the silent -e: time -> tiem; make -> maek
  • borrow spellings from homophones: the /o/ in ghost sounds like coast, thus…goast.
  • replace the voiced /th/ sounds with /d/ (they -> dey), voiceless -/th/ sounds with /f/ (nothin’ -> nuffin); and -y ending with -eh (kitty -> kitteh)
  • exaggerate or reduce diphthong vowels: human -> hyoomin or hoomin

There are also regular grammatical features. For example, irregular past tense forms become regular, and sometimes duplicated: ate -> eated; made -> maded. The syntax is also altered at times; certain function words like articles and auxiliary verbs are left out, and normal subject-verb agreement is ignored. Consider the following quote from the Lolcat translation of Genesis 1-5:

1 Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.

2 Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz.

3 At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz.4 An Ceiling Cat sawed teh lite, to seez stuffs, An splitted teh lite from dark but taht wuz ok cuz kittehs can see in teh dark An not tripz over nethin.5 An Ceiling Cat sayed light Day An dark no Day. It were FURST!!!1

Fotoz. I haz dem!

There is no article before dark face or invisible bike. The word order of the question is reversed in I can haz lite? And the subject kittehs doesn’t agree with not tripz, which is also missing the auxiliary don’t.

Beyond the grammar of the Lolcats’ language, the most striking feature of Lolspeak is the regular inclusion of what amounts to cultural (or sub-cultural) references. Ceiling Cat, the invisible bike, that kittehs like to ‘eated’ things…these are all things that refer to certain pictures or captions that made it big early and inspired hundreds of variations on a theme. The assumption is that the reader will understand these references because the reader has also presumably spent so much time on the Internet that s/he certainly had to have come across the original reference at some point.

Lauren Gawne and Jill Vaughan investigated this idea and presented it in 2011’s Canberra Langfest (“I can haz speech play: the construction of language and identity in LOLspeak” – the presentation is really quite good. The more technical linguistic information comes between about minute 8 to 15. If you’re more interested in the sociolinguistics, watch before and after that point.) Their claim is that “the choice to use LOLspeak has a lot to do with establishing identity—the playful identity of ‘cat’, and the serious identity of ‘knowledgeable Internet user'”.

Basically, the features of Lolspeak serve to enhance cats’ charming quirkiness and playfulness as expressed through linguistic clumsiness and overenthusiasm. At the same time, the writers of the captions are proving their creativity, technical savvy, and even linguistic prowess (the way they break the rules implies intimate knowledge of the rules) but doing so in an engaging and humorous way, perhaps even as a way to show how writers may relate to the features they ascribe to the cats. The reliance on in-jokes and references is a way to build and strengthen community. For those who grew up with more face-to-face communication, the use of both the internet and cats for expression may seem too distant, but for others who are much more used to social rules of the internet, it may seem perfectly natural to define group boundaries via Lolcats.

So, if anyone wants to prove themselves a skilled, playful, and creative member of the elite (or leet), then go ahead and study your Lolspeak. Then come back and caption my Lolcat girls…if you dare!

We can has capshun?

17 thoughts on “Is it can be lolspeak tiem nao, plees?

  1. Gosh! How come I use the internet on a daily basis and have never come across this? Is it an American phenomenon? It can’t be a way of uniting ‘cat ladies’, those women of a certain age who gather every stray in the neighbourhood and welcome them to their tom-cat-spray impregnated homes. But actually, I think I’ll use my diminishing brain power to concentrate on improving my knowledge of longer-established languages: more useful when planning foreign holidays…maybe

    • It’s true – I imagine other languages would be more useful than Lolspeak :) I’m not sure if it’s just an American thing or not. The women who did the presentation on Vimeo that I linked to are Autralian, and I’ve read comments from people I know overseas, so it’s at least reached the non-American English-speaking countries. I think it’s the kind of thing that could go unnoticed for a long time, and now that you know about it, you’ll see it all over the place!

      Ah, us cat ladies unite at sites like http://www.love-and-hisses.com/ :)

    • That’s my favorite one, too. I had to use it. If you’re on Facebook, you might also want to check out Lolphonology (their page isn’t public, so if you don’t have a FB account, you won’t see much of anything). They’ve got linguistic Lol cats!

    • That’s actually a really great tip! It’s now bookmarked so I can be reminded of it when I’m in need of cheering. It’s impossible not to smile and giggle when reading it :)

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  4. Sorry, I blacked out there a little – reading Lolspeak gives me a headache. Clearly I am just not cool enough. I had no idea there was so much to interest a linguist behind that simple phrase “I can has cheezburger,” but once again you’ve come up with the goods!

    • The fact that I had to do research and didn’t just pick up Lolspeak on my own may prove that I too am not cool enough for it! I just find it fascinating that even non-standard language used to caption cat pictures on the Internet still develops its own linguistic rules. Plus, the cats are really cute ;)

  5. As a linguist myself & self-confessed word nerd I loved your post (which I found via Grammar Girl on FB). I stumbled across the word “lollage” (use of Lolspeak) just the other day but had no idea the rules were so structured – & complex! Think I’ll stick to the Queen’s English though as am a bit long in the tooth to learn a whole new set of spelling rules. Have subscribed to your blog as interested to read what else you come up with…

    • Hi Geraldine! Sorry your comment didn’t show up until today. It somehow was classified as spam and I noticed it just now when I was checking the spam comments for anything interesting. (So far the best one is this: “Your advice is quite exciting. I would have liked to see signs of bipolar in men, much like bipolar symptoms in men writes about it, but your writing style is good!”)

      I haven’t come across the term “lollage” but I kind of love it! And as it took me about 15 minutes to write that Lolspeak sentence at the start of the post, I think I’ll stick to regular English, too (though being from NY, mine isn’t exactly the Queen’s ;)

      Thanks for commenting and for subscribing! Hope to hear from you again.

  6. Here’s a paper I wrote several years back – probably rather outdated by now – that pertains to the same topic: http://www.goucher.edu/x42917.xml

    Thanks for all the awesome links to other scholarly works done on LOLcats. At the time I wrote my paper, there was very little written on the subject.

    • Thanks for the link. Nice job, given the scarcity of resources you had for research! I think I would have also been all over that topic had it existed when I took my Intro to Ling. class :) (I had to settle for a discussion of language and thought in Newspeak from Orwell’s 1984, which was also pretty cool, actually.) Are you still studying linguistics?

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