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Is English going to the dog(e)s?

© 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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Michael Rundell


  • 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…

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