Sunday, October 12, 2008

I can has nu langwij? Naw fanks

As you all know, I'm a word junkie. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to discover some chunky new verb, deliciously artful phrase or alluring, callypygic adjective. I wept tears of hilarity when Frankie Sandford - the 19 year old ex-S Club Junior guest panelist on this week's Never mind the Buzzcocks admonished host Simon Amstell with the words 'You're totally favouritising by the way.' Glorious. Our language is there for us to bend and mould and squeeze and form into exciting new shapes. I am certain that the English spoken 500 years from now will be as different from the English of today as Chaucer's Middle English is. But that's a good thing. It's a healthy thing.

As I discussed in this previous post, English is an 'open-door' language that freely cherry-picks from other languages and adds several hundred brand new words to its lexicon every year. It is constantly evolving - it is evocabulary in action. There are many sub-species of the original tongue; American English and Indian English and Australian English are all equally valid but different from British English. There are pidgins and creoles, regional dialects, patois and registers. And there are role-specific or cultural sub-languages within English. From personal experience, I can tell you that police officers have an entire vocabulary of words and phrases that are not commonly used outside of the workplace and it differs from force to force. In London, arrested people are called 'bodies' and lunch breaks are 'refs'. In Cardiff or Plymouth or Dundee or Wolverhampton I'm sure they have their own unique terminology. English is the tool with which we communicate and as long as the words we use retain meaning and clarity, all will be well despite whatever wringer the language is put through. Evolution is progress and adaptation. The opposite is stagnation and extinction.

However, I do have a real problem with any form of words that debases the function of language. While I am not a grammar puritan, I believe that syntax and punctuation are important. They exist to aid clarity. A single misplaced apostrophe, comma or full stop can alter the meaning of an entire sentence:

  • The price was £300 more than I expected.
  • The price was £300, more than I expected.

  • Hide the cows outside.
  • Hide! The cow's outside.
  • Hide - The cow's outside.
Does this mean that said bovines need to be concealed al fresco? Or does it mean that an unwanted visitor has arrived? Or are we simply describing what leather is? This is why I have an issue with Textspeak or, horror of horrors, TXTSPK.

Textspeak is, I suppose, a quick and convenient way to communicate short, snappy messages. However, its use for longer, more complex transmission of concepts and ideas is surely fraught with danger. For a start, it requires that the recipient understands the same abbreviated word forms as the sender. I've received many a text message that has had me momentarily stumped by some curious agglomeration of letters and numbers that looks more like a number plate than a word. HPPY NW YR I can cope with. T8MDRN took me a while longer. The rendezvous location was, of course, Tate Modern and not Todmorden, which is how my addled brain read it at first. Thankfully I figured it out before setting off up the M65. Therefore, it was with some small degree of horror and concern that I recently discovered Lolcatz.

Lolcatz - a name derived from Txtspk laughing out loud and, well, cat - is an ugly, grammar-crunching form of English popularised by websites featuring photographs of cats in humorous situations. The general form is that a caption (which usually comes across as something being said by the cat) is added to the photo in a bold sans serif font and is deliberately misspelled and mangled into a kind of naive baby-talk.

At first, the pictures themselves were called lolcats, or lolcatz (naturally). But their popularity soon caused them to spread across the Internet like some ghastly, fluffy, illiterate plague and soon it had jumped species to infect photos of cutesy puppies and iguanas and finches and rabbits and gerbils. There is now an entire menagerie of doe-eyed creatures swarming about the ether pleading 'I can has cheezburger?' As the result, the name once used to describe the photos has been elevated to become the name of the language itself.

Now you may be wondering why I sound like some end-of-the world doomsayer. Or, at least, why it sounds like my face has taken on a ghastly pallor. Isn't Lolcatz just a bit of geeky fun? Well, yes of course it is ... but people are now starting to use Lolcatz instead of standard Txtspk. And that's a scary prospect for me. I've seen a few already and it surely won't be long before this insidious viral meme of a language spreads its nescient tentacles across the UK. Soon my text messages will be saying things like 'I is at Tat Modun'. The day that happens I may just have to stop acknowledging my bleeping and vibrating breast pocket. Why answer? I won't understand it.

I am of an age and sensibility that forces me to properly punctuate any text message before I send it. It may take me a little longer but I can be pretty sure that the person I'm sending it to will be able to understand it instantly and after a single reading. Or, more frequently, I simply give up and call them. Having a chat has always been the better option and always will be.

Want to know more about Lolcatz? Well, more fool you. You can learn to speak Lolcatz here or look at lots of insanely cute lolcats here and here. The Wikipedia entry is here and, believe it or not, there is even an on-line translation project to re-write The Bible in Lolcatz. Here are the first five paragraphs from Genesis I:

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!!!

Good cocking grief.


Persephone said...

I am of an age and sensibility that forces me to add all of the proper punctuation to my texts before I send them.

My age and sensibility dictates that I am mortally embarrassed when I discover a spelling or punctuation error in my postings, comments or emails. (No matter how many times I check, something always seems to slip through, including this one, I'll bet!) Therefore, please don't hate me: The price was £300; more than I expected. Uh, are both these clauses independent? Shouldn't they be separated by a comma rather than a semi-colon?

Not owning a cell-phone, the mysteries of texting continue to evade me. I don't think I could stand the pressure, cute kittens and all.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Persephone - I am exactly the same. And, as it happens, I was correcting and re-writing a few bits and pieces as your comment came in. You are absolutely right about the semi-colon usage. What was I thinking? It has been corrected. While I love the language I am no expert and would never profess to be. For me, clarity is the ... er ... I mean what I'm trying to ... is ... er ... what's the point of language if it fails to communicate?

Debby said...

LOLCATZ explained by Cara:

I can take them only in small doses, because I am apparently anal in my need for proper spelling and grammar, etc. Cara explains that the whole premise of LOLCATZ is that they are captioned the way an animal would caption them never having gone to school, and having paws not so agile on computer keyboards. So it's like animal speak.

In my mind, really, this presupposes a lot. My dog has lived in a loving home where people speak good grammar most of the time. If he suddenly begins to take pictures of himself and post them on the internet, I am fairly certain they would be captioned in good grammar, because that is how he's been raised.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - Fair point! I take no umbrage with the concept of lolcatz, as twee and pointless as it may be. It's the thought of the language creeping out onto our telephones and TVs and PDAs that concerns me. It's happening. It's bad enough that I'm already seeing many errors a week in subtitles, tickertape-type news feeds etc. on TV. Change never worries me but I do worry that our language is devolving rather than evolving.

punk in writing said...

Oh dear! I speak lolcatz with some of internet savvy friends, we use it as an internal joke.

But there is a big difference in the language I use in online conversations and the language I use in publications. Nothing bugs me more than a spelling error in a published article. But as a journalist, especially doing a lot of online work where speed is more important than spelling, I do produce a lot of typos.

Texting is useful, but also confusing. Sometimes it's better to just pick up the phone and make an actual call.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Punky - There's nothing wrong with Lolcatz between consenting adults as long as they both understand it. It's when it creeps out to attack us poor, unsuspecting old English speaking duffers that the kitty litter hits the fan. We simply have no idea what on Earth you're saying!

Blog Princess G said...

I love semi colons!

Lucy said...

Being a script reader, I am treated to some abhorrent grammar and spelling on a daily basis, but I also love Lolcatz. Does this make me a bad person? Or just confused? Perhaps it's because I was a Thatcher Baby and thus never taught grammar at school, I had to learn it myself. Which you can by the way, all under-30s in the world.

chris hale said...

Give it a few years and Lolcatz-speak will probably be acceptable to for university students to use when writing their essays.

I can haz 2:1? Or a furst?

Katie said...

OHMYGOODNESS where have you been??

I love LOLCATS and LOLDOGS. makes me smile. :)

willow said...

I'm terribly old fashioned and punctuate my text messages.

An lite wuz? Thanks for the chuckles.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Princess G - Oh no! Semi-colons are cold and unemotional. If you want a serious relationship, get squidgy with a curvy ampersand.

Lucy - Great to have you aboard. I'm so pleased that you bettered yourself despite the sinister machinations of the Milk Snatcher. Script reader eh? I bet you do see some sights. Just today I saw a couple of fantastic typos on BBC TV. I was watching a programme that had live subtitling. I do have huge respect for these people as it must be terribly difficult to keep up and there's no time for correction or backspacing. But that didn't stop me laughing at historian Simon Schaama apparently describing Mrs Beeton as 'his heroin'. Well, whatever floats your boat, man. Or Sir Michael Parkinson stating that, in his day, they didn't have focus groups as 'they only had to decide which pup to go into at lunchtime.' Ouch.

Chris - I've gone all shivery at the prospect. It hasn't happened yet, right?

Katie - Where have I been? Let me explain Middle Age to you, you young whippersnapper ...

Willow - As long as you keep chuckling I will keep writing this bumf. And don't confuse 'old-fashioned' with 'correct' as so many people do.

Janet said...

Count me as another member of the group who sends punctuated text messages with correct grammar - except when I text John, as he and I have some secret code words just for each other. Generally, the source of our special language is weird texting typos one or both of us have made over the years.

I love how English evolves, but I'm a real stickler for proper spelling and punctuation. That's probably why I am the nominated proofreader for course material in our office.

Interesting post, as usual. I had never heard of Lolcatz, though. The photos are cute and fun, of course, but I have to admit that looking at the words makes my eyes cross!


Stevyn Colgan said...

Janet - It's all lost on me ...

doctawho42 said...

I'm 15 and I can't text. But then again, I weep with laughter and have small spasms when I read lolcats. So there is both the dark and light side within me.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Doctawho42 - Fifteen? Good grief. I have a cat older than that. And kids. But you are very welcome. Lolcatz is quite definitely a younger person's game I think. I can certainly make no sense of it nor work out why illiteracy is fun. I suddenly fee very old ...

doctawho42 said...

Ah, don't feel old. When your young is when you're meant to feel old. Now you're nice and actually old, you can pretend to be young and cool. :)
Lolcatz does grow on you, I didn't really get it at first, but then I realised the crap grammar just helps the whole lolcat character get across better. I think to begin with they started off just making fun of the txtspk world. Because it is strange and often has the IQ of a hyper kitten. Mayhap I am looking too far into this. Mayhap not.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Doctawho42 - Mayhap my only concern is that what started as a bit of a laugh will become the common mode of speech for a generation of texters. Let's hope not, eh? I are confoozed.