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Cat's meow of online laughter, so to speak

For all of the internet's potential to transform the way we communicate and learn, it's also crammed with junk.

So if you use the web often enough, you'll eventually encounter a ''lolcat''.

A lolcat (or, technically, a ''laugh-out-loud cat'') is a cute image of a kitten combined with a misspelt and ungrammatical caption.

GALLERY: Lolcats

Yet rather than being an example of the Net degrading English, two linguists argue that so-called lolspeak is a complex and intelligent form of wordplay.

University of Melbourne doctoral students Lauren Gawne and Jill Vaughan presented their findings at an Australian National University conference last week, showing that lolspeak, as with any language, had a clear structure, grammar and lexicon.

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Ms Gawne said the idea of mapping lolcat grammar began as a joke.

''But, the more we looked, the more we realised that it's highly complex, and that's what drew us in.''

Lolspeak had existed formally for only about four years, but that made it comparatively long-lasting among the web's rapidly evolving online cultures, she said.

Online bookstore Amazon even sells the Lolcat Bible. (In case you were wondering, the Book of Genesis begins, ''Oh hai. In teh beginning Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.'')

Ms Gawne said that, because lolspeak was satirical, its users tended to have excellent English skills.

''The first thing you have to do is be a really, really good speaker of English to know how to manipulate it.''

Lolspeak was more sophisticated than other forms of English wordplay, such as Pig Latin, because it was written rather than oral, Ms Gawne said.

And it was wrong to assume lolspeak was a hobby of young people only, she warned.

''There's this tendency to assume about the internet that the typical user is a 16-year-old boy. But some of the really active members of the 'I can haz cheezburger' community [a lolcat website] are actually women in their 50s.''