Nick Ushiyama, Stella Oganesyan, Ava Boehm, Rachel Lee, Alesha Vaughn
Love them or hate them, almost everyone active on social media has come into contact with memes at some point. Chances are, one or more of those memes used a variety of English called AAVE, or African American Vernacular English. This variety originated from working-class African Americans and displays words (lexicon), word order (syntax), word pronunciation/spelling (phonology), and word combination (morphology) different from the Standard American English (SAE) taught in schools (Rickford et al., 2015). In our study, we tried to better understand how and why meme-makers switch between AAVE and SAE in their posts. We expected meme-posting Twitter users to use switching as a way to signal to readers that their posts should be read within the unique guidelines of meme-culture humor. For our research, we collected hundreds of memes and distributed a survey to see how people interpreted the switches. The results confirmed our expectations.
Introduction and background
A meme is a piece of cultural information that holds certain ideologies or behavioral concepts and is transmitted from person to person. The word ‘meme’ stems from the Greek word ‘mimeme.’ The root mim- means to mimic and the English suffix –eme is used to imply a unit of linguistic information, as seen in words such as phoneme and lexeme. The term ‘meme’ was coined from ‘gene’ and similar to a biological gene, the nature of a meme is to mutate or replicate when being transferred from person to person. The world of social media is full of memes as they are seen as a major part of today’s popular culture.
We noticed that a good handful of popular memes contain AAVE regardless of whether or not the original poster was a member of the Black Community. These memes were quite popular, too, which makes the use of AAVE within memes apparently index ‘coolness’ or ‘hipness’. There also wasn’t just one part of AAVE that memes utilized, but instead integrated syntactic, lexical, phonological, and morphological aspects of the dialect.
AAVE has been studied pretty extensively by linguists in the past. Of the studies that are relevant to our project, most of them show different ways that AAVE contributes to identity. That is, they show that people use it to communicate things about themselves to others. Those things could be anything from membership in social groups (Rickford et al., 2015; Anderson, 1999; Labov 1973; Sweetland, 2002), to particular attitudes (Ilbury, 2020). However, almost none of this research looks at AAVE on social media, let alone in Twitter memes.
For youths, social media is quickly becoming one of the richest sites for creating cultural connections. As such, the linguistic norms that are founded there can quickly become widespread. Our work addresses this understudied, but extremely significant, domain of AAVE usage. We set out anticipating that meme-creators would incorporate AAVE in their posts to tell readers that those posts should be read and interpreted as memes.
Occurrences in Memes
Before we tested our hypothesis, we first had to figure out what kinds of switches were occurring between SAE and AAVE. As such, we collected instances of AAVE usage in memes by visiting meme-posting pages on Instagram. We recorded whether these AAVE features were syntactic, lexical, phonological, or morphological in nature, and we also considered what topics the memes addressed. Figure 2 below explains which topics we observed.
Upon gaining a lay of the land, a survey was designed. We sent it out in order to receive data that would allow us to address our hypothesis. In the survey, participants first provided consent to publish their (anonymously-attributed) data. They then stated their age and level of experience with memes.
Following this demographic collection portion, the participants were exposed to examples of memes in which one AAVE feature (and therefore one switch) was used. They were then asked…
- Whether they believed the usage of AAVE was ironic (disingenuous) or not given a poster’s race (African American and non-African American).
- What they believed the posters were trying to do by switching from SAE to AAVE
- Whether they believed their answer to (2) would change if the poster’s race was the opposite of that presented in (1).
At the end of the survey, we asked them to respond to the following question if they had identified any switch as ironic: “If you said that some usages were ironic, do you think that irony is meant to indicate something about how the humor in the posts should be interpreted?” This allowed us to directly address our hypothesis.
Occurrences in Memes
The meme data consisted of the type of linguistic feature involved in the switch from SAE to AAVE and the topic that the meme addressed. We calculated the number of occurrences for syntactic, lexical, phonological, and morphological features per topic, and the results are presented below in Figure 3.
We then calculated the percentages of each occurrence per topic, and these results can be seen below in Figure 4.
In terms of the overall number of AAVE features observed, the data showed a clear preference for AAVE syntactic features, followed by lexical, phonological, and morphological features. This order of preference occurred in 4 out of the 11 identified topics. The most popular topic of memes was daily routines, while the least popular was the occupation topic.
From our survey, we received a total of twenty seven completed responses. Twenty six participants were in the age range of 19 – 29 (approximately the same age as meme-posters), and one older participant (age 38) was also included in the data given their experience level with memes. Out of the four possible meme experience levels, only 3 were observed (options 2, 3, and 4). Figures 5a and 5b summarize their meme experience:
We then averaged irony scores for each example among meme-experience groups, age groups, and overall. The irony score represented how strongly participants believed the poster’s switch would occur as a natural tendency as opposed to a conscious choice. Except for the fourth example (which participants did not view as having a switch at all), irony scores were greater when the poster was assumed to be non-African American. The meme-experience group who chose option three had higher irony scores than those who actually made memes. That said, this difference was not statistically significant according to an F-test and a t–test between the two groups. This data can be seen below in Figures 6a and 6b.
We then analyzed short answer responses, which consisted of what participants believed switches indicated about the humor of the examples. We boiled down their statements into ‘themes’ of explanation and counted how many responses fell into these themes. We specifically focused on themes relating to humor and noted how strongly these were represented among the three present meme experience levels. A summary of the response data can be seen below in Figures 7a-e.
As seen in Figure 7e, we calculated the degree of disagreement on what switching meant for each example. Generally, there was less disagreement when participants were told that the poster was not African American, and overall disagreement increased in later examples considerably.
Finally, we sorted responses to the final question, regarding what ironic switching was meant to indicate about how humor should be interpreted. Not every participant was instructed to answer this question, only those who indicated that ironic code-switching to AAVE was present in the previous examples. Out of the 21 responses that were eligible, 85.71% of participants believed ironic switching indexed something about how the humor of the meme should be evaluated.
The most popular response was a positive confirmation of the question. The most popular elaborated response stated that switching to AAVE signaled to read the post as a meme. To be read as a “meme” is best explained by one participant’s response:
“Yes, I believe that switching to AAVE shows to users that it is not a formal post but instead casual, humorous, and meant to be related to.”
Discussion and conclusions
Our most significant finding was the general consensus that meme-posters use AAVE to indicate how the humor in their posts should be interpreted. And indeed, our hypothesis was confirmed: participants directly stated the switch to AAVE was done so the humor of memes would be evaluated along comedic standards specific to memes (as opposed to stand-up or sketch comedy). This would suggest that AAVE has become associated with humor. And to be sure, there are negative consequences to this association. The variety could be portrayed as something humorous, lighthearted, and not to be taken seriously. One of our participants in fact commented that AAVE’s appearance in memes is justified because “certain vernacular have a playful connotation that doesn’t imply seriousness.” Obviously, this would pose a problem for those who use the variety in their daily lives, in that their speech would be trivialized and even seen as unfit for participation in larger economic and civil institutions.
Our raw data also suggested that neither age nor meme experience significantly affected the likelihood to see irony in AAVE usage. At least one of our examples however was flawed and may have skewed the data. And in fact, given final question responses, it’s likely that being in the higher meme experience group did make participants slightly less likely to view switching as ironic. It is tempting to draw the conclusion that greater experience with memes in turn translates to lower likelihood to view AAVE usage as cultural appropriation. One participant in the option four group actually recognized that SAE to AAVE switching could constitute appropriation. However, they also noted that it is unlikely that there are ill intentions around the usage itself. They believed that though meme culture may inadvertently stigmatize the variety, the community itself is not systematically “anti-black.” All of this said, we cautiously state here that the negative consequences of AAVE usage in memes do not escape some members of the meme community but also that they don’t view their actions as malicious. As such, it’s unlikely that AAVE usage will cease any time soon.
The greatest number of AAVE features found in memes were syntactic features, the first three survey examples (containing the two syntactic switches) displayed greater numbers of humorous entries, and these first three also included lower levels of disagreement towards the meanings of switches. This suggests that AAVE syntax is not only more heavily associated with memes but is also the most used type of feature in communicating information about humor. And indeed this aligns with what Sweetland (2002) claimed regarding AAVE usage: AAVE syntax was the primary means of linguistically indicating a belonging to the AAVE speech community. Meme posters are arguably not, however, trying to indicate belonging to the AAVE speech community, so there are two likely implications this finding could have. Perhaps the users are trying to imitate and evoke stereotypes regarding African Americans. Conversely, the users could be attempting to signal in-group status of their own. That is, they could be trying to say “I’m a member of the meme community, too!” by switching. We make no conclusions here since we lack evidence to prove either, but leave readers with the understanding that, regardless of humor, there are real world consequences to this type of usage.
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