Sociolinguistic Notes on Memes

“An idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture” – (Merriam-Webster Dictionary ) They now spread across cultures through the internet, becoming markers for a new sub-culture: 9gag, imgur, 4chan fandoms. They are associated with people who enjoy popular TV shows and/or video games.

meme (ancient gr) <- mimema, “imitated thing”. Used for the first time in evolutionary biology by Richard Dawkins in 1976’s “The Selfish Gene”. Dawkins used the term of any piece of culture (e.g. catchphrase) that could replicate. In the current internet context, we use it to name specific pictures with quasi-specific text attached to them, that are created and shared over the Internet to easily describe a situation, fact, joke etc as well as how you feel about that particular thing. Image macros have to be recognized by the mass internet culture before they can become memes.

The structure of an image internet meme is very precise: it consists of one of the already known and popular preset images and top and bottom text in all-capitals Impact font. There are 3 points of interest here for sociolinguistics:

1. the meme follows the model of the linguistic sign in its creation. A particular, very easily recognizable and widely known meaning is attached to a form. The picture conveys the more general attitude or sentiment, while the text is made particular to the author’s situation. These two instances of form combine to create unique meaning, exactly as sentences do in their contexts.

2. meme creating with the purpose of sharing them over widely-known websites follows a grammar-like pattern of standardization. Besides the fact that each image may only be used to convey a particular kind of feeling or situation, each image imposes unique syntax and phrasing options upon the text that goes with it, that the authors needs to respect in order for the community to recognize their correct use of the meme. If the language rules are not respected, the community will draw attention to this fact in the comments section.

3. the last important features that meme have, which may be a point of interest to sociolinguistics is that they enter the language level of communication; names of memes may be added at the end of or within sentences to evoke to attitude that that meme represents and apply it to that particular context; meme-specific phrases may be used to reply to someone’s question or comment on their statement. It can be argued that memes are becoming an independent layer of communication integrated within (any) language. However, all of this is possible among people who share the feature of knowing exactly what each meme means as well as the syntax and phrasing it imposes. Thus, meme use delimitates a completely new social community; a social group that is not marked by traditional elements such as family, religion, nationality, language etc. The features of the members include: youth, heavy internet use, video game and TV shows enthusiasts.


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