A couple of months ago Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist at McGill University, wrote insightfully about the linguistic aspects of the Doge meme. The Doge meme, for anyone who has averted their eyes from the Internet during the last six months or more, is a meme based on a few recurring elements: a photo of a Shiba Inu dog, surrounded by captions — ideally, in bright colors using the typeface Comic Sans — that violate various grammatical rules in a few specific ways. Here's a typical example of it.
The meme, which still enjoys some popularity, typically mismatches modifiers, especially determiners, with nouns. Much, for example, does not typically collocate with singular, countable nouns (like birthday), very (an adverb) cannot directly modify a noun like candle, and such, though not in strict violation in this example, typically requires an indefinite article to intervene before a count noun. For example, "such a treat" might be rendered such treat in a doge meme.
The Doge meme is not alone in incorporating an element of linguistic fun into its humor. Many popular Internet memes rely on a usually predictable manipulation of language as a part of their humor. Examining a number of popular memes suggests that they all in fact rely on theme and variation in order to proliferate, and the linguistic aspect of the meme is integral to its ability to spawn siblings and offspring.
A few memes have a very straightforward linguistic element that does not involve stretching grammar. There is, for example, the Keanu Reeves meme, a good representative of a simple "substitution slot", in which new representations have merely to frame a new and somewhat absurd "what if" question. What if soy milk is just regular milk introducing itself in Spanish? What if the person in the mirror is real and we're just the reflection?
The challenges placed on the developer of a new entry in the Keanu Reeves genre are small, as are the rewards for the audience, and this perhaps explains the tendency to add a "meta" element to the What if? question, alluding to some other aspect of Mr. Reeves' career: What if the Matrix movies were made so we don't believe we're plugged in? What if Keanu Reeves invented this meme to revive his celebrity? This sort of development of the meme is conceptual rather than linguistic, but remains firmly rooted in the linguistic form of the original in order to maintain its relationship to it.
Other substitution memes have a somewhat more demanding linguistic element, such as the "Yo Dawg" meme. It typically begins with a I heard you like statement and concludes with a complex clause featuring repetition of a formula roughly modeled on "_____ while you _____." I heard you like being on holiday so I put a holiday in your holiday so you can do nothing while you do nothing. "You dawg, you like fire and cops, so we had a fired cop fire at cops, get fired at by cops, and get set on fire by cops" may take it to a logical limit.
Another substitution slot meme, the Dos Equis man, is captioned with a sentence in the form "I don't always _______, but when I do, I _________." This meme partakes of standard imagery and linguistic exploitation, that is usually a form of burlesque in the technical sense; a comically exaggerated parody. I don't always go to the gym, but when I do, I make sure everyone on Facebook knows about it. I don't always devoice my obstruents, but when I do, I make sure they are word final. (If you like this last one you may want to "like" the LOLPhonology page on Facebook, which has a lot of linguistic fun with memes).
As an example of the productivity of the linguistic element in the Dos Equis meme, here's an example that eschews the stock image but keeps the linguistic formula, adding an additional element of a visual and lexical pun:
Other memes, such as the doge meme already mentioned, require a predictable and ideally consistent deviation from standard grammar or orthography that may exploit some aspect of the accompanying image. Of course we all know that Shiba Inus can't talk but we might like to think that if they could, they would devise a charmingly simplified version of English grammar, such as the one used in their memes. Then there is, as another example, the "high expectation Asian father" meme, which features the same Korean man with an anxious look, expressing expectations containing grammatical errors that people think of as stereotypical of Asian speakers who have learned English imperfectly: omission of articles, unconjugated or misinflected verbs.
This meme has now had its day in the sun; perhaps its next generation is the Asian student meme, which, in the example pictured, has a clever example of zeugma.
It was remarkably prescient of British thinker Richard Dawkins to coin the word meme in 1976, well before the Internet was even a glimmer in the eye of its inventors. Writing in his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins says:
The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme... It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.
Today the universal availability of the Internet, along with tools that make it very easy for anyone to manipulate and then publish a variation on a formula of words and images, makes it seem inevitable that the Internet meme should have been born and begun to flourish. The Internet meme proliferation that we enjoy today is grounded in imitation that is the foundation of the notion of a meme. But it relies further on the same sorts of symbolic manipulation that we find in language generally: the devices of metaphor, analogy, and metonymy that enable semantic shifts and bring about novel and extended meanings of words. Internet memes present a theme, based on recognizable mappings between word or image and concept in which there is an inherent element of humor. From here it is only a small step to introduce some variation in the image, the language, or the conceptual mapping to bring about another laugh.