Vivek Haldar

The 18th Century Origins of Lolcat-speak

Let me propose some rules for converting regular English to Lolcat-speak:

1. The omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as a in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend.

2. A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate. Thus by putting ee instead of ea or ie, the words mean, near, speak grieve, zeal, would become meen, neer, speek, greev, zeel

3. ch in French derivatives should be changed into sh; machine, chaise, chevalier, should be written masheen, shaze, shevaleer; and pique, tour, oblique, should be written peek, toor, obleek.

Here are some examples of phrases after transforming them using these rules:

“I built this machine” becomes “I bilt this masheen.”
“I meant to grieve with my friend” becomes “I ment to greev with my frend.”

The truth is I didn’t come up with these rules. Noah Webster, the creator of the Webster’s Dictionary, proposed these rules in an essay written in 1789. He was inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s proposal for a new phonetic alphabet for the English Language, but could not get himself to let go of the latin alphabet altogether. He did agree with the spirit of making spelling more regular and logical. 

Another greater motivation for him was to unite the new states with a new language. They had just broken free of the British, and they wanted to break free of their language as well. “…a national language is a band of national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national; to call their attachments home to their own country; and to inspire them with the pride of national character”, he wrote. As you can tell by the course of English in America, Webster and Franklin’s ideas did not catch on, except in small differences in spelling (color vs colour).

More than 200 years later, such spellings are finding common use again, on lolcats, text messages, forums, webpages, and even school essays. Will it stick this time?