Slaying Shakespeare’s Holofernes with a series of tubes (and cat pictures)

“Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.”
– Stephen Fry

 

During our morning commute, my wife and I discussed – what else? – internet memes, because we are those kinds of people, I guess. I mentioned how a friend on Facebook wrote a status asking anybody else if they have also felt the feeling of reinvigorating enthusiasm in an art they had long become complacent in. I left a reply with a picture of Pikachu patting a Caterpie on the back with the caption, “I know that feel bro,” because I am that kind of person, I guess.

I proceeded to tell my wife how “I know that feel bro” is one of my new all-time favorite Internet memes, how it seemed to perfectly encompass that feeling of deep resonance with someone else’s obstacles, plights, or victories. I struggled to capture the words in describing this to my wife, when she patted me on the knee and told me straight-faced, “I know that feel, bro.”

This is why I love my wife.

But on to more meme-ish matters, what about “I know that feel bro” captures my heart so? A lot of people have complained that the Internet has broken English, and no better place to see this than the battlefield known as Internet memes, wherein lies a hundred thousand million broken letters, words, phrases, and sentences, where weapons of mass grammatical destruction are deployed on a regular basis. Or, that is how the pedants wish to portray the state of the English language on the vast plane we call the Interwebs. But I would beg to differ.

What is it about terribly written English and the Internet? One cannot blame simple ignorance – while the leakage of Internet memes into places like Facebook have certainly diluted the demographics, for a while now, the vast majority of people who created memes were 20-30 years old and educated, if not a bit cynical as a whole and underachieving. The use of broken English may have originated in the first of the memes – cat photos with captions – because the idea of a cat (and, subsequently, dogs, frogs, penguins, and honey badgers) mastering the English language is only slightly more absurd than their daily adventures and mishaps. But there is something joyful, even pleasurable, in manipulating the English language, in breaking it and bending it and reshaping it to fit your own whims. This activity is what poets have enjoyed for centuries.

In a way, the Internet has become a collective Shakespeare, not that epics of masterful insight into the human condition are regularly produced from the keyboards of a million bloggers (though the Internet has certainly produced some epic things, see also: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, The Guild, the Woot.com product descriptions, et al). Rather, the Internet collectively imitates arguably Shakespeare’s most lasting legacy on the English language – the popularization of completely made-up words. Some words he just mashed together, some he stole and bastardized from other languages, and others he just made up completely. That’s the kind of English maverick he was. He didn’t care about the current rules; he broke the rules constantly and made you like it.[1]

But back to the Internet – over the course of a decade, it’s spawned a cavalcade of new words. Email, for example, or log on, blog, and (shudder) webinar. But the meme community has also spawned some very sticky catchphrases that have, (perhaps) against all odds, conquered the general American English landscape. Perhaps most noticeable is the word “fail,” once a verb, now nouned into existence (often found with the superlative “epic” attached to it). This new usage of the word “fail” has become the new “-gate” for many journalists (think goodness). Even people who have only a perfunctory access to the Internet are familiar with the term. And now, as memes continue its expanding pervasiveness, an entire generation of high school students now say things out loud like “I can has x?” or “y all the z!” or “like a sir” or “why you no x!” Even popular phrases such as “true story”, “I lied!” or “oh God why” have taken on new meaning thanks to the Internet memes of the world.

Yes, some people will look at this as some wholesale genocide against the English language, but I would counter that the pure joy and appeal of using such phrases is its subversive nature against the English language. People began employing terrible English because they well understood the rules of language. It’s why turns of phrase like “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” or “The play’s the thing, to catch the conscience of the king” or “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try” tickle the fancies of English lovers everywhere. These sentences bend and break the general syntax structure; they play with grammar and vocabulary and connotations of words. They defy general expectations of what English is supposed to look and sound like. And that’s why poorly written English memes have become so popular as well.

Sure, over time, the memes will lose their punch and soon people will use them as everyday language, even when they don’t understand where the phrase derived its meaning, or why it was so popular in the first place. Many of Shakespeare’s manipulations and innovations within the English language are also duly employed by many everyday English speakers everywhere without a second thought to their originator. Many strange phrases in English are like that, such as “turn of phrase” or “bee’s knees” or “between a rock and a hard place,” employed by many, its history and implications understood only by a few. That’s the way English evolves.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Internet memes is the accidental nature of it all. I doubt that the very first person to utilize the nounified version of the word “fail” did it deliberately, savoring in the delicious, poetic deviance of it all. In fact, this very popular usage most likely was born out of ignorance or, ha, an English fail. But the English speaking community in turn appropriated it for their own as a flagship of Internet speak, if you will, a dialect that created a sense of identity and belonging that mutated into a widely popular new usage of a very old word. The War on English that the Internet is waging (which many assert is happening) is not necessarily a wave of barbarians beating on the Hadrian’s Wall of the English-speaking Rome (this metaphor just got weird). Rather, it is the age-old war between dialects, a verbal rebellion against the authorities-that-be who seek to control and preserve language for their own purposes while rarely understanding why.

But sweeping, romantic linguistic ideology aside, if anything, the vast popularity of the Internet meme (and its ability to invade the English langauge offline) has proved the old adage that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the works of William Shakespeare. While, perhaps, we have not seen the exact wording of Shakespeare produced by the incessant pounding of a billion bloggers at their keyboards, we have seen the spirit of Shakespeare and his adventurous, subversive use of the English language emerge from the ruthless environment of billions of memes competing against each other until the very best (or, at the very least, the most infectious) rise to the top and proliferate into our language. It is, you could say, an almost beautiful accidental poetry.

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[1] In fact, that’s how you could term all of Shakespeare’s career – a giant love affair with the English language. In his first play, Love’s Labours Lost, he fires the warning shots with the character Holofernes, a side act for the main story, involving a bunch of over-educated pedants dicussing the English language and how horrible everyone is and how awesome they are. Holofernes, the most pretentious of them all, talking about someone else’s English speaking:

He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer
than the staple of his argument. I abhor such
fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and
point-devise companions; such rackers of
orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should
say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt,–d,
e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf, cauf;
half, hauf; neighbour vocatur nebor; neigh
abbreviated ne. This is abhominable,–which he
would call abbominable: it insinuateth me of
insanie: anne intelligis, domine? to make frantic, lunatic.

The true irony (which Shakespeare may or may not have intended) is that Holofernes’ practice of pronouncing the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ and so forth have fallen mostly out of favor, even though he would swear up and down until he was blue in the face that we are mangling the English language. Such is the way language goes.

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4 Comments

Filed under wordsmithing

4 responses to “Slaying Shakespeare’s Holofernes with a series of tubes (and cat pictures)

  1. dteeps

    Shakespeare was also writing at a time when English was undergoing the Great Vowel Shift, when pronunciation of many vowel sounds were changing and becoming, of all things, less Germanic. There is a camp within the Shakespeare scholars who seek to learn and perform the plays in Original Pronunciation (http://originalpronunciation.com/), it would be interesting to see just how much of an effect the Great Vowel Shift had on Shakespeare’s pronunciation.
    Drawing the parallel, English is once again undergoing a shift, though, since this one is still happening it has yet to classified and categorized, but we do have different types of English, from Queen’s English to American English, Australian English, Singaporean English, or others that are just lumped together as World English. As you point out, though, this shift may be more grammatical than phonological. I do believe that partly it has risen because of the internet, but also partly because of the many people who are learning English as a foreign language who bring their first language with them. English has always been great at appropriating languages!

  2. Beth

    Hey, it’s been a while. I found some Calls for Submissions and I found one you may be interested in:
    http://taoparenthood.blogspot.com.au/p/call-for-submissions-for-tao-of.html

    • Ted

      Oh man, I haven’t been keeping up my with my blog at all, and I didn’t see this until it was too late. 😦

      Thanks for the heads up, though! Hope you’re doing well!

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