Published: April 19, 2019

Little scholarly research exists on the way language is used in memes, so we took matters into our own hands.

 By Carolyn Olmsted and Cameron Sojak
Course: Morphology and Syntax (Ling 4420)
Advisor: Jared Desjardins
LURA 2019

For this paper that we researched for our Morphology and Syntax class, we hoped to look into a form of English language variation that is particularly relevant to college students today: memes. The internet is a vast place where language is constantly changing. Language patterns that you can’t go a day without seeing may be completely obsolete within weeks. Knowing this, we decided to study some constantly repeating patterns of language that have endured for relatively long periods of time—better known simply as memes—in order to get a better look at language use on the internet today.

We first looked at three different interesting patterns of morphology (the study of how meaning changes when you change a word): the construction of do as a dative form, verb agreement reduction, and the -o suffix. The dative “do” construction is most seen in pictures of animals, usually dogs, expressing an emotion. A common example is “you are doing me a frighten” overlaid on a picture of a frightened dog, as seen below:

dog meme 1

This construction represents a valence-changing nominalization of the phrase “you are frightening me”. In the normal sentence, 'me' is a direct object, the receiver of a frightening. In "doing me a frighten", 'me' is upgraded to an indirect object, the receiver of 'a frighten' which the 'you' in the sentence is doing. Commonly, we see this construction used in languages like German or Russian, and while this new English version is not traditionally “grammatically correct”, it certainly has precedence in languages around the world.

The second pattern we considered is verb agreement reduction, whereby instead of saying a phrase like “he licks”, the -s suffix usually required in English is deleted to form he lick, often orthographically stylized as he licc. Other examples include he attacc, derived from “he attacks”, and he protecc, derived from “he protects”. In addition, a secondary property of this pattern is copula deletion, where a form of the verb be is deleted. This is used when the word after “he” (or she) in the pattern is an adjective or a noun, not a verb, but the same pattern is desired. In this case, the pattern is a reduced form of “he is thick” (specifically, he thick), and then again stylized as he thicc.

The final morphological pattern we looked at was the “-o” suffix, most commonly seen on the internet in the word doggo. The suffix has been used for quite some time as a common colloquializing/diminutive suffix (think pet names or nicknames) in Australian and British English, but until recently was not common in the United States. The pattern can be generally described as follows:

Xo[person with X characteristic] → X[adjective] -o

This pattern describes this change, "weirdo = weird+o" where you add the -o to the end of an adjective to create a new noun that means 'person who is adjective'. Most commonly online, we have also observed this pattern being extended to other animals (froggo and fisho have both often been used in my everyday life as an aquarium owner), but the pattern can also be seen in already existing English words such as weirdo, preggo, or sicko.

Considering syntax (how the placement of words in a sentence changes meaning), we looked at two different forms: what we call “doge” syntax and copula deletion (as already noted). “Doge” syntax comes from a popular picture of a Shiba Inu dog looking confused, surrounded by mismatching modifiers. Some examples would be “such awake”, “much morning”, or “many sunshine”, as seen below:

sun dog

For this construction, the user takes a complement that is selectively restricted for the modifier and supplement that instead of the canonical complement. In other words, mismatching modifiers. In the example of 'many sunshine', the word 'many' usually precedes words in the category of 'plural countable nouns', many things. So, using a singular word like 'sunshine' is mismatched.

Returning again to copula deletion, this phenomenon is very common cross-linguistically; it happens in languages such as Russian and Arabic (in the present tense). Again, copula reduction is often simply a case of removing the word “is” or other form of the verb “to be”. An example we actually created ourselves was a picture of our lovely nominator’s dog, Nero, in a little sweater overlaid with the text “he cold”, which is a reduction of “he is cold”. This form is often used in conjunction with the verb agreement reduction form, as mentioned above, but can also be used on its own.

This pilot study only scratched the surface of novel morphological and syntactic forms being used on the internet, and further research would be needed to examine why these forms emerge or the contexts in which it is appropriate to use them. We might also consider other subjects of linguistic research. Many valid examples of common internet memes were not valuable for this particular research project because they have more pragmatic or semantic content than morphological content. Although even within our limited scope, we feel that this paper provides a valuable look into the grammar that has been coined online, and we certainly had a lot of fun writing it!