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  • Is English going to the dog(e)s?

    Posted by on April 16, 2014

    © Macmillan AustraliaA few weeks back, our Friday column on Language and Words in the News included a link to an article by Gretchen McCulloch on the grammar of “doge”. Historically, a doge was an elected ruler of Venice, but that’s not the one we’re talking about here. And although the two words are homonyms (both pronounced /dəʊdʒ/), the doge that has its own grammar is yet another of those Internet memes with its own idiosyncratic variety of English. (Earlier examples include “LOLcats” and the even older “Leetspeak”.) And as a change from cats, doge appears in pictures of dogs, whose thoughts are conveyed in captions. (In this meaning, doge derives from the word “dog”.)

    It’s common to hear people complain that all these made-up versions of English are a symptom of a language in decline. In his book on texting, David Crystal rebutted the argument that texters are “doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it”. Similar charges are made about doge. The Wikipedia article on it says that “the text is deliberately written in broken English” — which is defined in the Macmillan Dictionary as English which includes “a lot of mistakes”. Well, is doge full of mistakes?

    At first sight, you might think so. Its most distinctive feature is its preference for two-word combinations, the first part of which is a modifier like “very”, “so”, or “much”, followed by an adjective, noun, or (less often) a verb. So you get expressions like these:

    very art
    such happy
    so respect
    much wines

    Combinations of this type are interspersed with a small set of single-word items such as amaze and (the most popular) wow.

    You can see right away that these combinations are “wrong”. But as McCulloch explains (and as the examples above show), the mismatch between modifiers and other words is deliberate and - more importantly - systematic. So, for example, while the norm in English is for much to be followed by an uncountable noun and many to go with a plural noun (much happiness, many places), doge reverses this rule. In similar fashion, so and very tend to combine not with adjectives but with nouns and verbs. Traditionally (if that isn’t a ridiculous word to use about something so recent – but that’s the Web for you), doge has certain key features: the dog in the pictures is not just any old dog, but specifically a Shiba Inu from Japan, and the captions are written in bright colours using a specific font (Comic Sans). But as McCulloch points out, doge-speak is still “recognizable when it violates these constraints”, and that’s what makes it interesting. Doge is not so much “full of mistakes”, as an alternative variety of English with its own rules. And just as a fluent speaker of English can immediately spot a combination which “doesn’t sound right”, a skilled practitioner of doge can correct someone who gets its grammar wrong.

    We’ve been here before. As long ago as the 1960s, the linguist William Labov countered the common view that the language of young black people in New York was a “substandard” dialect. Through meticulous research, he demonstrated that what he named African American Vernacular English was no less rule-governed than the standard variety: its rules were different, but they were consistently applied. Like LOLcats before it, the doge phenomenon may show that some people have a bit too much time on their hands. But it is certainly not evidence of “English going to the dogs”.

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  • Posted by Doré Bak to Depending on metaphor on April 16, 2014 Thank you for the reference to Sarah Kane’s play 4:48 Psychosis. It brings to mind the debate between Catholics and Protestants regarding the sacrament of the Eucharist. Is the bread literally the body of Christ? For Catholics, the metaphor of the bread is or becomes real. For Protestants, this metaphor is merely symbolic. This debate within the Christian community about transubstantiation is at the heart a debate about metaphors.

  • Posted by Marilena Adamo to Surveilling a new back formation on April 16, 2014 Thanks Michael and Stan for replying me. I assume your viewpoints are right. As for Michael's suggestion, I admit that I am tempted and, I must add, I would be extremely pleased to submit my article to your attention. Let's stay tuned!Happy Easter and Best Regards to you, Marilena

  • Posted by gill francis to Some changing uses of ‘grammar’ words: are you across ‘across’? on April 16, 2014 Jon S: Thank you – this made me laugh. We fancy that so long as we are somehow language-aware, we can use ‘across’ or ‘a heads down’ or ‘as a team, going forward’ as productive in-jokes. Someone told me recently that she can say ‘let’s diarise that’ with impunity, because she does it with the appropriate degree of post-modernist irony. And why not? 'Corporate speak' is fun to subvert, precisely because some people use it with...

  • Posted by Wiktor to Is English going to the dog(e)s? on April 16, 2014 Very linguistics. Wow. It's also fun to look at contexts in which this is consciously applied as a witty way of commenting on what people are up to online. I'm waiting for article summaries and book reviews to be written in doge vernacular...

  • Posted by Stan to Surveilling a new back formation on April 16, 2014 Marc: "Ave" is an interesting usage. I'd be tempted to associate it with the fashion for abbreviation (legend→ledge, etc.) common among young people, which I discussed on my own blog. Adjectival amaze is another example of this. Marilena: Your article sounds very interesting; you could add a link here if it's published online, or follow up on Michael's suggestion. Regarding your query: in an earlier post about the word blog...

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