language change and slang online English

Webster and LOLcats

Discussion of online English here on Macmillan Dictionary Blog comes to a close with a guest post by Natalie Hunter. Natalie grew up wanting to be a teacher, and is addicted to learning and research. As a result she is grateful for the invention of the Internet because it allows her to spend some time outside, rather than just poring through books in a library. She is fascinated by the different methodologies for education at large today, and particularly by the advent of online education. Here she explores the connection between LOLspeak and Noah Webster.


If you’ve spent any amount of time on the Internet, you’ve run into LOLspeak. From photos of cats saying things such as “Im in ur thesis, invalidatin ur argumentz” to the initialisms popularized by chat, forums, and texting, LOLspeak is ubiquitous. The more time you spend on the Internet, the more likely it is that you pepper your speech, even IRL (=in real life, a term used to describe life outside of the Internet) with LOLspeak. Many grammarians wail that its popularity signifies the end of proper English as we know it, and that a degenerate age of linguistic ability is coming as a result. However, although this may seem like a new development, Noah Webster of Webster’s Dictionary made the argument two hundred years ago that this was the direction English ought to head in.

Webster’s project was to rescue American English from the problems left therein by centuries of literate British aristocracy, saying in 1783 that “the whispers of common sense in favour of our native tongue have been silenced amid the clamour of pedantry in favour of Greek and Latin”. His proposal was to standardize English in America by removing the corruptions of foreign languages in favour of spelling the words as they sounded in American English, such as “bred” for bread, “obleek” for oblique, “dawter” for daughter, and so on. This was to promote literacy, as well as make it easier for foreigners to learn English.

His project had long-standing effects: no longer does anyone in the States (without British training, that is) spell defense as defence, theater as theatre, wagon as waggon, or color as colour. However, his dream to fully standardize the orthography of American English was never realized as he had hoped in his lifetime, but today we may find his work much more familiar. Take for example this passage from his work Miscellaneous Remarks on Divizions of Property, Guvernment, Education, Religion, Agriculture, Slavery, Commerce, Climate and Diseezes in the United States:

In some countries the commons were called in to support the royal prerogativs, and thus obtained a share in legislation, which haz since been augmented by vast accessions of power and influence, from a distribution and encreese of welth. This haz been the case in England. In other countries, the prince haz combined with the barons to depress the peeple. Where the prince holds the privilege of disposing of civil, military and ecclesiastical offices, it haz been eezy to attach the nobility to hiz interest, and by this coalition, peece haz often been secured in a kingdom; but the peeple hav been kept in vassalage.

While the message is clearly not that of an average LOLcat, the spelling should be quite familiar to a modern eye. Webster might be pleased to note that in the last few decades national literacy has risen dramatically, and this is no doubt partially in thanks to the widespread use of the Internet. Linguistic prescriptivists often oppose this sort of change, trying to hold to and promote the standard of “classic” English in order to stamp out illiteracy. However, thanks to massive educational disparities around the US, it is more likely that the average Joe will become familiar with the unofficial LOLcat style guide than that of The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White, or any other of the myriad standards used today. Webster may have been before his time in predicting what a settled standard of English might look like.

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Natalie Hunter

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