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Will Styler

Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program

im in ur programmz, codin in ur dialect: LOLCode and Feline Dialectology

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2007. See all posts

Periodically, one goes through periods of deep metaphysical malaise. You look around at the world, wondering how such evil could flourish and such suffering could endure. You descend deeper into darkness, your faith in humanity waning, wondering why we were ever born into this cruel world. Then, suddenly, you realize that somebody has written a programming language based off of the dialect of Lolcats/Cat Macros, and your faith in humanity’s inherent good is completely restored.

LOLCode is a computer programming language concept which draws its vocabulary from the recent internet sensation of captioned cat pictures. Although not fully functional yet, it’s still linguistically fascinating on many different levels, and deserves mention.

i has dialect

One of the most interesting parts of this programming language is that it can exist at all, and the fact that it can goes a long way towards establishing the legitimacy of a feline dialect.

Imagine that I wanted to create a programming language based solely off of star wars vocabulary. I would likely start by finding a donor language, whose basic syntax and ideas I would borrow. Then, I would begin to slowly find equivalents and their translations.

Some equivalent/translation pairs might be obvious. ‘Death Star’ for a verb which meant “remove file”, maybe ‘carbonite’ for “pause process”. One could even get a bit more ornate and incorporate some movie quotes. Perhaps “there is an error” could be coded with ‘It’s a Trap!’, and “load this program” could be ‘Commence Primary Ignition’.

However, no matter how nerdy I felt at the time, my plan would be fatally flawed from the outset. Sooner or later, I would find an expression that was too niché (fulfilling just a small purpose) to have a Star Wars equivalent. I’d have to rely on a set canon of phrases to fill in the blanks, and there’s no way to work around it and still maintain the Star Wars theme.

The reason that LOLCode is so awesome is that, based on what I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t seem to have that limit. Based on my highly scientific research at icanhascheezburger.com, it would appear that LOLCat has become a full fledged dialect. There are many captioned images there, each slightly different, and each seems to fit a coherent grammatical pattern. Some linguists are starting to pick up on distinct patterns and grammatical rules, and based on the fact that any sentence can now be LOLCatted, I’m quite tempted to say that LOLCat has become a productive and functional dialect of English.

Because of this productivity of the LOLCat dialect, it would be quite possible for somebody to take any given sentence or idea and put into LOLCat, thus ensuring that LOLCode could, in theory, become fully functional without ever breaking character. This is very exciting, and very awesome.

mai translationz r not straitforwerd

LOLCode is a very special sort of translation. Conventionally, when one sits down to label a cat, the source is an English sentence (I’m yet to find any cats “en mi refrigeradora, comiendo mis comidaz”). However, here, what people are doing is finding equivalents in human/feline language for concepts, verbs, and ideas within a computer language.

Rather than being able to simply translate, they’re forced to create the inflexible, ambiguity free grammar required to tell a computer what to do. This is tough enough to do even using all sorts of abstract symbols, but to do it within LOLCat dialect and syntax is wonderfully difficult. They’re adapting a human language into a dialect, then bending it into a computer language. This is by no means an easy ask, and it’s a far more complex sort of translation than many.

For this alone, I salute the creator and contributors to LOLCode. Although it may seem silly to some, this is really some top-of-the-line linguistic work.

d00d. ur dialect is teh suxx0rs

Perhaps the even interesting than the mere fact that LOLCat has become a translatable dialect is the fact that, well, there are already people who are arguing about the “correct” way to say something in LOLCat. Take, for instance, this post on the LOLCode wiki:

I know VISIBLE is the current output command, but it’s so not LOLCAT. What if we used LOL as the output instead? So, the Count-1 example becomes:
I think this works very well, is funny to read and matches actual LOLCAT protocol, sorta. I guess the LOL would be at the end normally.

As a linguist, this is really, really exciting. People are already trying to step in and enforce the “rules” of the LOLCat dialect. It seems like, as a “native speaker” of LOLCat, the author of this page had a distinct intuition about the “proper” means of expressing a concept in this dialect. Truly incredible.

Although this community of people has only arisen recently, I’m very excited at the potential for the later discussions of “proper” LOLCat, and the sociolinguistic goodness sure to arise from it.

o hai. i discussed ur werk.

So, author of (and contributors to) LOLCode: I salute you. This is a unique, wonderful, and groundbreaking project, and I really hope that it continues to yield such fascinating linguistic insight into the future.

Keep up the good work, and don’t let anybody convince you that what you’re building is silly or unnecessary. If there are two things that the world of technology needs, it’s probably humor and cute, fuzzy animals, and really, I can’t think of a better way to combine the two.

Alright, I’m done. kthxbye