May 11th, 2007
Lolcats, in case you don’t waste as much time on the Internet as I do, are a fairly recent Web phenomenon involving photos of cats, accompanied by captions that are often in a sort of pidgin dialect. The “lol” part of the term comes from the chat acronym for “laughing out loud,” though in “lolcats” it’s actually pronounced “lawlcats,” rather than being spelled out verbally as “ell-oh-ell.”
Here’s a classic example of a lolcat (in fact, its caption is also the name of a site featuring a monumental collection of lolcats):
Now, lolcats are a fairly common sight on CuteOverload or any of those sites shamefacedly frequented by me and other people who like to look at pictures of fluffy animals. The most interesting development, though, is that non-cat, non-fluffy, non-cooing people have begun to blog about lolcat-speak, because they find it an interesting linguistic phenomenon.
Anil Dash writes that he understood that “kitty pidgin” had a fairly consistent grammar when he saw a lolcat whose caption made him realize that “it’s possible to get cat-speak wrong.” Good point.
To continue our study of lolcat-speak, let’s take a look at a recent post on Zero Sum Mind. David traces the evolution of lolcats and classifies them by type: “I has . . .,” “I eated . . .,” “I’m in ur . . .,” etc. The last example is particularly interesting because it’s derived from a phrase originally used in an online multiplayer game (variously attributed to Starcraft and World of Warcraft): “I’m in ur base, killin ur d00ds.”
So somewhere we had cross-pollination between people who play online games and people who look at pictures of fluffy animals, resulting in . . . lolcats who use the phrase “I’m in ur.” Why did lolcats adapt the language of online gamers? I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with the aura of devious subterfuge that surrounds cats. Look at examples of “I’m in ur” lolcats, and you’ll see sneakiness as a common theme. Here’s a good one:
That still doesn’t answer the question of why lolcats in general have a specific kitty pidgin, but I think it’s actually part of the explanation. Think about it: whenever we see a picture of an anthropomorphized animal accompanied by text, the animal is usually trying to accomplish something in its own interest. Remember the Chik-fil-A ads with a cow holding a “hand-written” sign reading “Eat Mor Chikin”?
It’s like we want to credit animals with being smart and devious enough to figure out how to use our language against us, but we don’t want to go the final step of pretending they can master our language. I mean, if cats really could speak English, they would completely dominate us. So there has to be some sort of distinction, and pidgin grammar works well to appease our fears while tickling our imaginations.
There’s my theory of lolcat-speak. Dissect at will.
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