The dress: is it black and blue or white and gold?

In February 2015, this seemed to be the only question that needed answering. The photo of the dress was originally posted by Cecilia Bleasdale on Facebook and quickly became a matter of discussion among her friends, who couldn’t agree on what color it was. She later shared it with her Tumblr followers, sealing the dress’s fate of becoming a viral sensation. In just one day, the dress was all over social media and being put up to a vote in countless group chats, where friendships were ruined and first borns disinherited in the quest to determine the dress’s true colors. Roman Originals, the dress’s retailer, later on confirmed that the dress was, obviously, black and blue.

The dress is just one amidst millions of other internet memes. A great deal of them never make it out of the online channels they’re born in, but the ones that do can be so popular that they become part of, and even help define, our cultural context.

The term meme was, in fact, defined as analogous to gene by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in 1976. He defined memes as the units of cultural transmission the same way genes are the units that transmit the genetic material that defines the color of our eyes or gives us the impression that cilantro taste like soap.

At the time, memes were meant to include “fashions in dress and diet, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, engineering and technology, [that] all evolve in historical time”, but today’s internet memes can be anything from a photo of an animal (preferably a cat), a song, or a sentence to a fictional character or a real life person, that are transferred in a much shorter amount of time from one person to the next. Innocuous as they might sound — usually something funny one shares with someone hoping they’ll find it funny, too — they inadvertently have an impact in our lives, more specifically on the way we speak and write.

Such language, much wow

Two of the internet’s most famous memes are doge and lolcat.

The doge meme, a photo of a suspicious looking Shiba Inu dog giving humans the side eye, is characterized by its one or more short adjectival phrases — wow, such rain, much winter — in bright colored Comic Sans. Similarly, lolcat memes are made up of humorous photos of cats accompanied by text written in a form of broken English, also known as lolspeak.

In both cases, it’s not necessarily the image that gives the meme its humorous trait — although some cats have been photographed in very awkward situations — but rather the use of language in them. So much so that the language has come to live independently of the memes.

A linguistic analysis of lolspeak from 2011 shows how the comments on each of the cat memes in online forums evolved into something of their own. The people engaging with the meme and talking about it with other members of the same online community began doing so in lolspeak and soon enough they would use the language even when they weren’t discussing cat photos. Users began posting song lyrics or parodies of movies and plays adapted to lolspeak, and were pleasantly surprised to see others users adopt the language as well. A community formed in which a member of the forum wouldn’t get a reply to their comment or question until they wrote it in lolspeak, which they eventually did.

The phenomenon is called linguistic accommodation, where a speaker alters their speech characteristic by copying those of whoever they are interacting with, to be better understood and accepted by them. Much like we adopt pop culture references, sometimes even without knowing their exact context or origin, so we do with meme language. And it doesn’t happen exclusively online, with people referring to dogs as “doggos” and to food as “noms” in their everyday speech, or congratulating a friend on their promotion with a “wow, such performance, much raise.”

Apart from doge and lolcat, other memes have made their way out of the internet and into our collective lexicon. Calling someone a “grumpy cat” is now an acceptable way of saying they’re permanently cranky or in a bad mood; “Karen” has become the go-to name when one needs to identify the mean, entitled woman who always demands to speak to the manager; you’re no longer lonely, you are “forever alone”.

Yet memes are just a small fraction of the internet, and internet speak — its language — goes way beyond them.

Online communication

There are a number of elements that make up internet speak or internet slang that have been in use since the dawning of the web. It was the early 1980s in Calgary when Wayne Pearson is said to have used the acronym LOL online for the first time, while talking to a friend in a chatroom. In 1990, someone typed LMAO during an online game of Dungeons & Dragons. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the online usage of OMG back to 1994 in a post on a forum about TV soap operas (its first appearance was on a 1917 letter from John Arbuthnot Fisher to Winston Churchill).

But internet speak isn’t made up of acronyms alone. Other popular trends include the use of excessive punctuation, or lack thereof, writing in all lower-case, emojis, omitting words in sentences because character limitations.

David Crystal, linguist and author of the book Internet Linguistics: A Student Guide, explains this as a “natural reaction to communicating online, instead of verbally.” When speaking to someone face-to-face we can rely on nonverbal cues like facial expressions or hand gestures to add meaning to what we’re saying, whereas in writing these can’t be conveyed in quite the same fashion. Hence, online communities pulled from both written and spoken languages to create a means of communication of their own. Excessive punctuation, for example, is a way of giving emphasis to your statement or question, or of conveying feeling of anger, doubt, or excitement.

Gretchen McCulloch, whose book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language was published earlier this year, further elaborates on how internet speak helps users convey their own tone of voice. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, she said:

We no longer accept that writing must be lifeless, that it can only convey our tone of voice roughly and imprecisely, or that nuanced writing is the exclusive domain of professionals. We’re creating new rules for typographical tone of voice. Not the kind of rules that are imposed from on high, but the kind of rules that emerge from the collective practice of a couple billion social monkeys — rules that enliven our social interactions.

Not only this, but certain channels like Twitter, for instance, forced users to be more creative in their use of language to be able to fit everything they wanted to say into the original 140 characters. Tumblr popularized the all lower-caps and no punctuation style used to convey fluidity to the text that just isn’t possible if you stick to the rules of writing.

Despite having been made mainstream by the internet, such tricks to make the written word more emotionally charged or speech-like isn’t new. As McCulloch explains in her book, writers like James Joyce or E. E. Cummings had already broken the rules of grammar with similar goals in mind.

While some might argue that internet speak and memes are ruining the English language, both linguists disagree. Crystal claims that playing around with online communication and adopting the style best suited to their message makes people much more “aware of the social and stylistic used and meaning of different genres and language types.” McCulloch adds that “all our texting and tweeting is making us better at expressing ourselves in writing.”

And not just in writing. Internet slang, much like memes, has moved on well beyond the chatrooms, social networks or other online communities they were born in. Admittedly, you probably won’t use an internet acronym when speaking to someone face-to-face, but other phrases off the internet, like saying “I can’t even” when you’re speechless or in shock or shortening certain words (totally adorable becomes totes adorbs) aren’t all that uncommon, or strange sounding, at all.

Language purists don’t need to fear internet speak coming for the English language and changing it completely, as it’s not taking anything away from it. If anything, it helps expand it. As David Crystal puts it:

We now have a wider range of clothes in our linguistic wardrobe than we ever had before.

And that can only be a good thing.