Danks for the Meme-ories: Are Memes a Language?

After a protracted absence prompted by a truly horrific year, I’m back, bitches! Let me make a confession: I am a Redditor.

Don’t give me that look! Although the default subs can be a wretched hive of scum and misogyny, you just need to go off the beaten path to find hidden gems.

One of my favorites is r/fellowkids. The title comes from that clip of Steve Buscemi’s guest spot on an episode of 30 Rock and features instances of memes, slang, and other internet culture ephemera being misused by corporate entities, marketing firms, or just plain olds. If you have an afternoon and want to laugh your ass off while simultaneously dying of embarrassment, you can’t go wrong.

Occasionally I’ll see it happen in the wild too: a teacher, parent or any person who obviously has never seen the meme used in its original context uses it, often in an attempt to gain credibility or seem ‘cool’. Sometimes it’s the wholesale misappropriation of a meme, or a phrase used with the wrong inflection. It seems so obvious to us, but not to them, and causes strong second-hand embarrassment on the part of the audience that understands. At the very least, it sounds wrong. Like a wrong note in a song that you know by heart, or a misspoken word, it unsettles and bewilders you. 

This puzzled me this begged the questions: are memes a language? Do they have a grammatical structure and syntax? Can memes be used to tell a statement or story, the way that– ugh– emojis can? I’m going to wring all the worth that I can from my English Lit degree and investigate!

If we’re going to arbitrate what language is or isn’t, we’ll need to define it. According to Google, the highest, most academically sound source on earth, language is “the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured or conventional way.

There’s a lot to unpack in that single sentence. On one hand, the acceptance of written communication as well as spoken bodes well. You can speak a phrase like “All your base are belong to us,” and understand the meaning and context of the phrase but you can’t really translate the exact meaning and context of, say, this image beyond giving a facile description of the picture itself. So written plus spoken, check.

However, this definition is predicated on “the use of words” specifically. You could be super severe and say that ‘word’ can only mean ‘a collection of letters arranged to create meaning,’ but that could arguably exclude languages that employ pictographs like Chinese and Japanese. A looser definition that would fit the bill could be ‘a unit of communication that carries meaning or significance.’ All memes carry meaning or significance, by their very nature, so Meme-ese could qualify very casually.

Does Meme-ese have grammatical structure or syntax? Not really, no. You could put several memes in any order and their meaning will not necessarily be affected. Memes have no present or future tense- they are stuck in a sort of permanent infinitive. When a meme gets played out or fades away, could its afterlife count as a past tense? Hearkening back to it will produce a memory of a zeitgeist long since past, in the same way that reading Shakespearean-era English will hearken to an archaic form of speech that is understandable today, but not used regularly except in special contexts. I’d say that there are even dialects within Meme-ese itself, such as birbspeak, dogespeak, and gersberms, not to mention memes that are confined within certain language groups.

My third question: can Meme-ese be used to create a statement or tell a story? Well, yes and no. You can’t use memes to conjure up dates or specific words, perhaps, but you can use them to evoke a a feeling of mutual intimacy with your audience. That’s why so many companies use memes with disastrous results: when you name-check or reference a meme, it acts as a kind of visual buzzword. People in the know understand that you probably have a few shared experiences in common, and thus are someone you could confide in. Perhaps the corporate use of memes annoy us because they are abusing that sincerity, ultimately ringing hollow and alienating the very demographic that the campaign was meant to appeal.

There is a dark side to memes being used as a tool of language, and it may have to do with the results of the last election. Memes were co-opted and weaponized to bring the message of the Alt-Right to the forefront, in a catchy and appealing package. They even managed to co-opt one meme entirely.

I know, Pepe. I know.

Because memes have rather unfocused meanings beyond the moments of pop culture ephemera that they refer to, they can be exploited and repackaged each time to appeal to people who may not necessarily recognize the influence that they hold. Will we have to actively screen our future memes to analyze their sources and possible agendas, the way we have to with news nowadays? Will our uses and preferences for memes inform our political choices, or show them off to others? We simply don’t know.

In conclusion, is Meme-ese a thing? Sort of- while it lacks a few of the more formal tenets of language, memes do have the ability to communicate, inform and perhaps even persuade their audiences. Who knows what’s in store for the meme, given any future advancements for language and communication? Hell, maybe we could develop our own ‘Darmok-and-Jalad-at-Tenagra‘-type referenced-based language. Languages grow and borrow and are consumed by each other, and their mutability allows for nuance and innovation. Perhaps this is just the start of a new frontier of linguistic evolution.