Meme Grammar

So the goal of linguistics is to find and describe the systematic ways in which humans use language. And boy howdy do we humans love using language systematically. A great example of this is internet memes.

What are internet memes? Well, let’s start with the idea of a “meme”. “Memes” were posited by Richard Dawkin in his book The Selfish Gene. He used the term to describe cultural ideas that are transmitted from individual to individual much like a virus or bacteria. The science mystique I’ve written about is a great example of a meme of this type. If you have fifteen minutes, I suggest Dan Dennett’s TED talk on the subject of memes as a much more thorough introduction.

So what about the internet part? Well, internet memes tend to be a bit narrower in their scope. Viral videos, for example, seem to be a separate category from intent memes even though they clearly fit into Dawkin’s idea of what a meme is. Generally, “internet meme” refers to a specific image and text that is associated with that image. These are generally called image macros. (For a through analysis of emerging and successful internet memes, as well as an excellent object lesson in why you shouldn’t scroll down to read the comments, I suggest Know Your Meme.) It’s the text that I’m particularly interested in here.

Memes which involve language require that it be used in a very specific way, and failure to obey these rules results in social consequences. In order to keep this post a manageable size, I’m just going to look at the use of language in the two most popular image memes, as ranked by, though there is a lot more to study here. (I think a study of the differing uses of the initialisms MRW [my reaction when]  and MFW [my face when] on imgur and 4chan would show some very interesting patterns in the construction of identity in the two communities. Particularly since the 4chan community is made up of anonymous individuals and the imgur community is made up of named individuals who are attempting to gain status through points. But that’s a discussion for another day…)

The God tier (i.e. most popular) characters at on the website Meme Generator as of February 23rd, 2013. Click for link to site.

The God tier (i.e. most popular) characters at on the website Meme Generator as of February 23rd, 2013. Click for link to site. If you don’t recognize all of these characters, congratulations on not spending all your free time on the internet.

Without further ado, let’s get to the grammar. (I know y’all are excited.)

Y U No

This meme is particularly interesting because its page on Meme Generator already has a grammatical description.

The Y U No meme actually began as Y U No Guy but eventually evolved into simply Y U No, the phrase being generally followed by some often ridiculous suggestion. Originally, the face of Y U No guy was taken from Japanese cartoon Gantz’ Chapter 55: Naked King, edited, and placed on a pink wallpaper. The text for the item reads “I TXT U … Y U NO TXTBAK?!” It appeared as a Tumblr file, garnering over 10,000 likes and reblogs.

It went totally viral, and has morphed into hundreds of different forms with a similar theme. When it was uploaded to MemeGenerator in a format that was editable, it really took off. The formula used was : “(X, subject noun), [WH]Y [YO]U NO (Y, verb)?”[Bold mine.]

A pretty good try, but it can definitely be improved upon. There are always two distinct groupings of text in this meme, always in impact font, white with a black border and in all caps. This is pretty consistent across all image macros. In order to indicate the break between the two text chunks, I will use — throughout this post. The chunk of text that appears above the image is a noun phrase that directly addresses someone or something, often a famous individual or corporation. The bottom text starts with “Y U NO” and finishes with a verb phrase. The verb phrase is an activity or action that the addressee from the first block of text could or should have done, and that the meme creator considers positive. It is also inflected as if “Y U NO” were structurally equivalent to “Why didn’t you”. So, since you would ask Steve Jobs “Why didn’t you donate more money to charity?”, a grammatical meme to that effect would be “STEVE JOBS — Y U NO DONATE MORE MONEY TO CHARITY”. In effect, this meme questions someone or thing who had the agency to do something positive why they chose not to do that thing. While this certainly has the potential to be a vehicle for social commentary, like most memes it’s mostly used for comedic effect. Finally, there is some variation in the punctuation of this meme. While no punctuation is the most common, an exclamation points, a question mark or both are all used. I would hypothesize that the the use of punctuation varies between internet communities… but I don’t really have the time or space to get into that here.

A meme (created by me using Meme Generator) following the guidelines outlined above.

Futurama Fry

This meme also has a brief grammatical analysis

The text surrounding the meme picture, as with other memes, follows a set formula. This phrasal template goes as follows: “Not sure if (insert thing)”, with the bottom line then reading “or just (other thing)”. It was first utilized in another meme entitled “I see what you did there”, where Fry is shown in two panels, with the first one with him in a wide-eyed expression of surprise, and the second one with the familiar half-lidded expression.

As an example of the phrasal template, Futurama Fry can be seen saying: “Not sure if just smart …. Or British”. Another example would be “Not sure if highbeams … or just bright headlights”. The main form of the meme seems to be with the text “Not sure if trolling or just stupid”.

This meme is particularly interesting because there seems to an extremely rigid syntactic structure. The phrase follow the form “NOT SURE IF _____ — OR _____”. The first blank can either be filled by a complete sentence or a subject complement while the second blank must be filled by a subject complement. Subject complements, also called predicates (But only by linguists; if you learned about predicates in school it’s probably something different. A subject complement is more like a predicate adjective or predicate noun.), are everything that can come after a form of the verb “to be” in a sentence. So, in a sentence like “It is raining”, “raining” is the subject complement. So, for the Futurama Fry meme, if you wanted to indicate that you were uncertain whther it was raining or sleeting, both of these forms would be correct:


Note that, if a complete sentence is used and abbreviation is possible, it must be abbreviated. Thus the following sentence is not a good Futurama Fry sentence:


This is particularly interesting  because the “phrasal template” description does not include this distinction, but it is quite robust. This is a great example of how humans notice and perpetuate linguistic patterns that they aren’t necessarily aware of.

A meme (created by me using Meme Generator) following the guidelines outlined above. If you’re not sure whether it’s phonetics or phonology, may I recommend this post as a quick refresher?

So this is obviously very interesting to a linguist, since we’re really interested in extracting and distilling those patterns. But why is this useful/interesting to those of you who aren’t linguists? A couple of reasons.

  1. I hope you find it at least a little interesting and that it helps to enrich your knowledge of your experience as a human. Our capacity for patterning is so robust that it affects almost every aspect of our existence and yet it’s easy to forget that, to let our awareness of that slip our of our conscious minds. Some patterns deserve to be examined and criticized, though, and  linguistics provides an excellent low-risk training ground for that kind of analysis.
  2. If you are involved in internet communities I hope you can use this new knowledge to avoid the social consequences of violating meme grammars. These consequences can range from a gentle reprimand to mockery and scorn The gatekeepers of internet culture are many, vigilant and vicious.
  3. As with much linguistic inquiry, accurately noting and describing these patterns is the first step towards being able to use them in a useful way. I can think of many uses, for example, of a program that did large-scale sentiment analyses of image macros but was able to determine which were grammatical (and therefore more likely to be accepted and propagated by internet communities) and which were not.

What’s the best way to teach grammar?

The night before last I had the good fortune to see Goeff Pullum, noted linguist and linguistics blogger, give a talk entitled: The scandal of English grammar teaching: Ignorance of grammar, damage to writing skills, and what we can do about it. It was an engaging talk and clearly showed that the basis for many of the “grammar rules” that are taught in English language and composition courses have little to no bearing on how the English language is actually used. Some of the bogeyman rules (his term) that he lambasted included the interdiction against ending a sentence in a preposition, the notion that “since” can only to refer to the passage of time and not causality and the claim that only “which” can begin a restrictive clause. Counterexamples for all of these “grammar rules” are easy to find, both in written and spoken language. (If you’re interested in learning more, check out Geoff Pullum on Language Log.)

Evaluarán las distintas estrategias para enseñar a leer en los establecimientos subvencionados chilenos

“And then they python ate little Johnny because he had the gall to cheekily split his infinitives.”

So there’s a clear problem here. Rules that have no bearing on linguistic reality are being used as the backbone of grammar instruction, just as they have for over two hundred years. Meanwhile, the investigation of human language has advanced considerably. We know much more about the structure of language now than we did when E. B. White was writing his grammar guide. It’s linguistic inquiry that has lead to better speech therapy, speech recognition and synthesis programs and better foreign language teaching. Grammar, on the other hand, has led to little more than frustration and an unsettling elitism. (We all know at least one person who uses their “knowledge” of “correct” usage as a weapon.) So what can be done about it? Well, I propose that instead of traditional “grammar”, we teach “grammar” as linguists understand it. What’s the difference?

Traditional grammar: A variety of usage and style rules that are based on social norms and a series of historic accidents.

Linguistic grammar: The set of rules which can accurately discribe a native speaker’s knowaldge of their language.

I’m not the first person to suggest a linguistics education as a valuable addition to the pre-higher educational experience. You can read proposals and arguments from others herehere, and here, and an argument for more linguistics in higher education here.

So, why would you want to teach linguistic grammar? After all, by the time you’re five or six, you already have a pretty good grasp of your language. (Not a perfect one, as it turns out; things like the role of stress in determining the relationship between words in a phrase tend to come in pretty late in life.) Well, there are lots of reasons.

  • Linguistic grammar is the result of scientific inquiry and is empirically verifiable. This means that lessons on linguistic grammar can take the form of experiments and labs rather than memorizing random rules.
  • Linguistic grammar is systematic. This can appeal to students who are gifted at math and science but find studying language more difficult.
  • Linguistic grammar is a good way to gently introduce higher level mathematics. Semantics, for example, is a good way to introduce set theory or lambda calculus.
  • Linguistic grammar is immediately applicable for students. While it’s difficult to find applications for oceanology for students who live in Kansas, everyone uses language every day, giving students a multitude of opportunities to apply and observe what they’re learned.
  • Linguistic grammar shows that variation between different languages and dialects is systematic, logical and natural. This can help reduce the linguistic prejudice that speakers of certain languages or dialects face.
  • Linguistic grammar helps students in learning foreign languages.  For example, by increasing students’ phonetic awareness (that’s their awareness of language sounds) and teaching them how to accurately describe and produce sounds, we can avoid the frustration of not knowing what sound they’re attempting to produce and its relation to sounds they already know.
  • Knowledge of linguistic grammar, unlike traditional grammar, is relatively simple to evaluate. Since much of introductory linguistics consists of looking at data sets and constructing rules that would generate that data set, and these rules are either correct or not, it is easier to determine whether or not the student has mastered the concepts.

I could go on, but I think I’ll leave it here for now. The main point is this: teaching linguistics is a viable and valuable way to replace traditional grammar education. What needs to happen for linguistic grammar to supplant traditional grammar? That’s a little thornier. At the very least, teachers need to receive linguistic training and course materials appropriate  for various ages need to be developed. A bigger problem, though, is a general lack of public knowledge about linguistics. That’s part of why I write this blog; to let you know about what’s going on in a small but very productive field. Linguistics has a lot to offer, and I hope that in the future more and more people will take us up on it.


Ask vs. Aks: Let me axe you a question

Do you know which one of these forms is the correct one? You sure about that?

Four things are inevitable: death, taxes, the eventual heat-death of the universe, and language change. All (living) languages are constantly in a state of flux, at all levels of the linguistic system. Meanings change, new structures come into being and old ones die out, words are born and die and pronunciations change. And no one, it seems, is happy about it. New linguistic forms tend to be the source of endless vitriol and argument, and language users love constructing rules that have more to do with social norms than linguistic reality. Rules that linguists create, which attempt to model the way language is used, are called “descriptive”, while rules that non-linguists create, which attempt to suggest how they believe language should be used, are called “prescriptive”. I’m not going to talk that much more about it here; if you’re interested, Language Log and Language Hippie both discuss the issue at length. The reason that I bring this up is that prescriptive rules tend to favor older forms. (An occasionally forms from other languages. That whole “don’t split an infinitive” thing? Based on Latin. English speakers have been happily splitting infinitives since the 13th century, and I imagine we’ll continue to boldly split them for centuries to come.) There is, however, one glaring exception: the whole [ask] vs. [aks] debate.

Axt zum spalten

In a way, it’s kinda like Theseus’ paradox or Abe Lincoln’s axe. If you replace all the sounds in a word one by one, it is the same word at the end of the process as it was in the beginning?

Historically, it’s [aks], the homophone of the chopping tool pictured above, that has precedence. Let’s take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary’s take on the history of the word, shall we?

The original long á gave regularly the Middle English (Kentish) ōxi ; but elsewhere was shortened before the two consonants, giving Middle English a , and, in some dialects, e . The result of these vowel changes, and of the Old English metathesis asc- , acs- , was that Middle English had the types ōx , ax , ex , ask , esk , ash , esh , ass , ess . The true representative of the orig. áscian was the s.w. and w.midl. ash , esh , also written esse (compare æsce ash n.1, wæsc(e)an wash n.), now quite lost. Acsian, axian, survived inax, down to nearly 1600 the regular literary form, and still used everywhere in midl. and southern dialects, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form. Already in 15th cent. the latter was reduced dialectally to asse, past tense ast, still current dialectally.*

So, [aks] was the regular literary form (i.e. the one you would have been taught to say in school if you were lucky enough to have gone to school) until the 1600 or so? Ok, so, if older forms are better, than that should be the “right” one. Right? Well, let’s see what Urban Dictionary has to say on the matter, since that tends to be a  pretty good litmus test of language attitudes.

“What retards say when they don’t know how to pronounce the word ask.” — User marcotte on Urban Dictionary, top definition

Oh. Sorry, Chaucer, but I’m going to have to inform you that you were a retard who didn’t know how to pronounce the word ask. Let’s unpack what’s going on here a little bit, shall we? There’s clearly a disconnect between the linguistic facts and language attitudes.

  • Facts: these two forms have both existed for centuries, and [aks] was considered the “correct” form for much of that time.
  • Language attitude: [aks] is not only “wrong”, it reflects negatively on those people who use it, making them sound less intelligent and less educated.

This is probably (at least in America) tangled in with the fact that [aks] is a marker of African American English. Even within the African American community, the form is stigmatized. Oprah, for example, who often uses markers of African American English (especially when speaking with other African Americans) almost never uses [aks] for [ask]. So the idea that [aks] is the wrong form and that [ask] is correct is based on a social construction of how an intelligent, educated individual should speak. It has nothing to do with the linguistic qualities of the word itself. (For a really interesting discussion of how knowledge of linguistic forms is acquired by children and the relationship between that and animated films, see Lippi-Green’s chapter “Teaching children to discriminate” from English with an Accent: Language  ideology and discrimination in the United States here.)

Now, the interesting thing about these forms is that they both have phonological pressures pushing English speakers towards using them. That’s because [s] has a special place in English phonotactics. In general, you want the sounds that are the most sonorant nearer the center of a syllable. And [s] is more sonorant than [k], so it seems like [ask] should be the favored form. But, like I said, [s] is special. In “special”, for example, it comes at the very beginning of the word, before the less-sonorant [p]. And all the really long syllables in English, like “strengths”, have [s] on the end. So the special status of [s] seems to favor [aks]. The fact that each form can be modeled perfectly well based on our knowledge of the way English words are formed helps to explain why both forms continue to be actively used, even centuries after they emerged. And, who knows? We might decide that [aks] is the “correct” form again in another hundred years or so. Try and keep that in mind the next time you talk about the right and wrong ways to say something.

* “ask, v.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 12 February 2013 <;.

Of cups, mugs, glasses and semantic drift

One of the more interesting little sub-fields in linguistics is diachronic semantics. That’s the study of how word meanings change over time. Some of these changes are relatively easy to track. A “mouse” to a farmer in 1900 was a small rodent with unfortunate grain-pilfering proclivities. To a farmer today, it’s also one of the tools she uses to interact with her computer. The word has gained a new semantic sense without losing it’s original meaning. Sometimes, however,  you have a weird little dance where a couple of words are negotiating over the same semantic space–that’s another way of saying a related group of concepts that a language groups together–and that’s where things get interesting. “Cup”, “mug” and “glass” are engaged in that little dance-off right now (at least in American English). Let’s see how they’re doing, shall we?

Glasses 800 edit

Cup? Glass? Jug? Mug? Why don’t we just call them all “drinking vessels” and be done with it?

Cup: Ok, quick question for you: does a cup have to have a handle? The Oxford dictionaries say “yes“, but I really think that’s out of date at this point. Dr. Reed pointed out that this was part of her criteria for whether something could be called a “cup” or not, but that a lot of younger speakers no longer make that distinction. In fact, recently I noticed that someone of my acquaintance uses “cup” to refer only to disposable cups. Cup also has the distinct advantage of being part of a lot of phrases: World cup, Stanley cup, cup of coffee, teacup, cuppa, cup of sugar, in your cups, and others that I can’t think of right now.

So “cup” is doing really well, and gaining semantic ground.

Glass: Glass, on the other hand, isn’t doing as well. I haven’t yet talked to someone who can use “glass” to refer to drinking vessels that aren’t actually made of glass including, perhaps a little oddly, clear disposable cups. On the other hand, there are some types of drinking vessels that I can only refer to as glasses. Mainly those for specific types of alcohol: wine glass, shot glass, martini glass, highball glass (though I’ve heard people referring to the glass itself just as a highball, so this might be on the way out). There are alcohol-specific pieces of glassware that don’t count as glasses though–e.g. champagne flute, brandy snifter–so it’s not a categorical distinction by any means.

“Glass” seems to be pretty stable, but if “cup” continues to become broader and broader it might find itself on the outs.

Mug: I don’t have as much observational data on this one, but there seems to be another shift going on here. “Mug” originally referred only to drinking vessels that were larger than cups (see below), and still had handles.


Note that the smaller ones on top are “cups” and the larger ones on the bottom are labelled as “mugs”.

Most people call those insulated drinking vessels with the attached lids “travel mugs” rather than “travel cups” (640,000 Google hits vs. 22,400) but I find myself calling them “cups” instead. I think it’s because 1) I pattern it with disposable coffee cups and 2) I find handledness is a necessary quality for mugs. I can call all of the drinking vessels in the picture above “mugs” and prefer “mug” to “cup”.

So, at least for me, “mug” is beginning to take over the semantic space allotted to “cup” by older speakers.

Of course, this is a very cursory, impressionistic snapshot of the current state of the semantic space. Without more robust data I’m hesitant to make concrete predictions about the ways in which these terms are negotiating their semantic space, but there’s definitely some sort of drift going on.