A lesson in hai culture

What can linguists learn from cat-loving bloggers? Quite a lot, actually

"Im in ur magazeen, ritin ur wordz." "Geek kitteh nose geek." If these phrases mean anything to you, then you know about lolcats. So please bear with me as I undertake the excruciating task of trying to explain a web meme to those who are unfamiliar with it. Lolcats (the "lol" stands for "laugh out loud") are images of cats with captions superimposed upon them, posted for general amusement to websites and blogs. There, that wasn't so painful, was it?

The epicentre of lolcat activity on the web is which attracts two million visitors a day. Its founder, Ben Huh, employs several staff in Seattle just to maintain the site. There, along with advertising from Vodafone and O2, you can find such gems as a cat stuck between the cushions of a sofa ("Im in ur couch steelin ur change") and what many people consider to be the original lolcat, a tubby, grey cat imploring the camera: "I can has cheezburger?"

What is interesting about lolcats is the gradual standardisation of the language used to caption the pictures, such that anyone already familiar with the lolcat idiom can understand my opening phrases instantly, even though they won't have read them before. Linguists have come to call this form "kitty pidgin" - pidgin being a type of communication that emerges between adults who don't speak each other's language.

In lolcat land, the pidgin is contrived to have developed between the cats in the pictures and the humans on the other side of the camera. Lolspeak is therefore only a real pidgin in the imagination of the people sticking captions on the pictures. Perhaps for this reason, it is not only incredibly rich, but it also develops new features rapidly. A wikified translation of the Bible into kitty pidgin is nearing completion (available at It begins: "Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem . . ."

The read-write environment of the web is the perfect place to mirror the process of language development and language change. But lolspeak owes just as much to the linguistic heritage of the people who invented it.

L33tspeak (where "l33t" means "elite") is a written language developed on the early net, both to subvert text-based filters by replacing select characters with adjacent or similar-looking numbers or punctuation marks (so "porn" becomes "pr0n") and to signify in-group status. As the oracle of internet memes, the Encyclopedia Dramatica (www.encyclopediadramatica. com), observes, it is from the original phrase used to chastise a fellow gamer in StarCraft, "I am in your base, killing your d00ds", that the kitty pidgin construction "I'm in your noun, verbing your noun" derives.

Lolspeak is a rich source of material for linguistic analysis, but that should not detract from the fact that it is also just plain cute. Altogether now: "Oh hai!"

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.
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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.