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 Icanhascheezburger.com 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 www.lolcatbible.com). 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 openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.