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On the delicate dance between humor and inscrutability

By Jessica Love


 

Yesterday, in response to an email invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, my friend Laurel Brehm replied all: yes such interested! so feasting! such pie. WOW. She was referring to the hugely popular Internet meme “doge,” in which an overwrought dog’s grammatically challenged inner monologues are sputtered in the Comic Sans typeface.

Like almost everything on the Internet, the doge meme must be seen before it can be … appreciated. But its brief, garbled interjections soon become easily recognizable, even without an accompanying image. I gleaned that Laurel was genuinely excited about the prospect of Thanksgiving dinner—that, in a self-deprecating way, she was acknowledging that she might be too excited. So feasting! Such pie.

This isn’t the only grammatically quirky trend to explode in popularity recently. Take a construction some linguists are calling “because+noun.” This construction strips function words from because when it is followed by a prepositional phrase, creating sentences like I believe dinosaurs roamed the earth because science and Of course the bill didn’t pass, because politics. It’s a fun, pithy, hand-wavy way of summing up a situation.  And as language blogger Stan Carey has pointed out, “The construction is more versatile than ‘because+noun’ suggests. Prepositional because can be yoked to verbs (Can’t talk now because cooking), adjectives (making up examples because lazy), [and] interjections (Because yay!).”

But these examples are only recent iterations of a much larger love affair with not-quite-right grammatical constructions. A few years ago, Tina Fey’s NBC comedy 30 Rock brought us the catchphrase I want to go to there. In 2007 the website “I Can Has Cheezburger?” ushered photos of “lolspeaking” animals into the mainstream. In 2004 the Will Farrell movie Anchorman delivered unto the world I love lamp. And All your base are belong to us has had us snickering since 2000. Many of us—especially younger generations—seem to take special pleasure in wordplay that upends standard grammatical conventions. But why?

According to one psychological theory, humor is fundamentally about detecting something that violates our expectations, but in a nonthreatening way. That’s why someone getting mauled by a bear in a shopping mall is funny—unless it just happened to you. A hundred years from now, your descendants will find your mauling hilarious. Sorry, but it’s true.

Given grammar’s relatively low stakes, then, it is fodder for immediate humor. (And it always has been, though unfortunately the laughter has generally come at the expense of those who speak a nonstandard dialect, not with those who purposefully opt to violate the rules of a standard one.) Our grammatical knowledge is so deeply ingrained in us that we can’t help but detect these violations even when we’re in some sense expecting them.

At least to my ear (and Laurel, a fellow psycholinguist, agrees), this brand of humor is at its keenest when the grammatical violation awkwardly disrupts—but doesn’t break—the logic of the sentence. This means that some grammatical elements are riper for improvised manipulation than others. Subject-verb agreement, for instance, can often be violated without a great loss in comprehensibility (I is eating), as can past-tense regularization or double-irregularization (I maded that) and the grammatical distinction between count and mass nouns (I’ll have all the cheeses! Just one chee for me.). In contrast, swapping around the logical operators if and then or and and or, for instance, would likely break the logic of the sentence, making that kind of spontaneous manipulation less likely.

Eventually, should nonstandard constructions become too ubiquitous, they may crystallize into idioms, gradually losing their ability to make familiar sentiments strange yet intelligible. (“Because+noun” may already be headed this way. What are your intuitions?) In the meantime, though, they are fun. That’s the whole point. Say what you will about the doge meme but, “if nothing else,” as Laurel put it, “you’re looking at a puppy.”


Psycho Babble will be on hiatus next week and will resume in December.

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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