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Online lingo: Is there a grammar of affective particles?

Written By: kernrg on February 12, 2011 4 Comments

lolIn instant messaging and texting, my students detect a clear distinction between the use of lol (laugh out loud) and a smiley : ) either standing on a line of its own (i.e., as a whole utterance) or at the end of an utterance, as in:

You’re a real stud muffin! lol
You’re a real stud muffin! : )

The lol version is ironic and makes it unambiguously clear that the writer is teasing. The same message but with a smiley at the end is more ambiguous—the writer could just be teasing, or might be expressing that he/she really does think you are a stud muffin and is expressing admiration. There seems to be a nascent grammar of affective particles like these.

However, when we change the matrix sentence, this distinctiveness seems to be lost. Consider this pair of messages, in which both lol and : ) function (I think) as hedges:

You’re a real jerk lol
You’re a real jerk : )

So, one question I have is whether this difference in value is due to the positive/negative pragmatic polarity of the message (in this case praise versus insult) or if there’s something else going on that would become clearer with more examples.

My second question is whether lol has a narrower functional range in speech than it does in writing. Over the years, written lol has spawned literally hundreds of variations (e.g., lololol, loooooolll, ;llooolll), I did it for the lulz, and so on), as well as whole genres of expression such as ‘lolcats’, in which photos or images of cats in humorous positions and circumstances are captioned in lolcat speak, such as i can has t3h kibbls plz?? Recently, lol has become increasingly used in speech, pronounced L-O-L or “lole” or “lall” or plural “lolz” (with variants such as lolsies or lolzors). When spoken, however, lol tends to be used only sarcastically or ironically rather than to mean that something is genuinely funny. And this seems to be the case in other languages (at Egyptian Arabic and French) as well. In your experience do you find this to be the case? Do you know of other languages in which lol can be used in speech?

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4 Responses to “Online lingo: Is there a grammar of affective particles?”

  1. Magdalene on: 13 February 2011 at 7:45 pm

    “You’re a real jerk lol” and “You’re a real jerk :)” have different connotations to me. In the first, “lol” does function as a hedge: “You’re a real jerk (but I don’t feel comfortable saying so up-front).” The addition of the emoticon in the second sentence could signify flirtiness or attachment: “You’re a real jerk (but/and I like it/I think it’s cute/I’m referring to an inside joke between us).” In both examples the affective particles can be used as a face-saving measure or to cut tension between recently-acquainted folks; or the particles can be used to refer to history between the two speakers if they are better acquainted. In this latter instance, lol demonstrates a slightly negative attitude to past events: “You’re a real jerk (just like always/and I can’t believe I put up with it/*eyeroll*),” but it doesn’t necessarily mean there is love lost between the participants. :), on the other hand, shows a more positive attitude toward that history: “You’re a real jerk (teehee/and that’s what I love about you).”

    In spoken language and in instant messages or texts, I use “lawl” to signify the height of irony, but also–interestingly–genuine pleasure at the same time. For instance, when I discovered the Drama Llama meme a few minutes ago, I lawl’d. My thoughts went something like this: “I can’t believe this exists! Why didn’t I think of this…and why do I find this so funny? It’s not even a good meme…” “lawl,” then, can signify self-deprecating laughter. When I say “lawlz,” though, I mean it only in a fully ironic or sarcastic sense.

    Don’t forget roflcopter or lollerskates!

    kernrg Reply:

    Thanks, Magdalene, for your take on this – if this is the case, the smiley seems to work pretty much the same way in both “stud muffin” and “jerk” examples, but lol is operating a little differently in the two. Thanks for enlightening me about the Drama Llama meme – just out of curiosity, was your “lawl” spoken or written?

  2. Magdalene on: 14 February 2011 at 10:39 am

    My “lawl” was internal. I found the meme by myself (in that I was the only person looking at my computer screen), but there were people around. If I had been completely alone, I would’ve lawl’d out loud.

    Since part of the reason I lawl’d at the Drama Llama was my own incredulity at liking it, I would’ve have been almost compelled to add lawl in any written communication I used describing the meme: “I’m lawl’ing because I don’t want to admit that I genuinely like this, but I do and I’m not offended if you don’t.”

    There are other instances in which lawl indicates being ironic about being ironic. That’s the trouble with lolspeak; sometimes it’s like being in, I don’t know, the Matrix, or standing between two mirrors, and it’s hard to see where the original referent is.

    On a slightly different note, it’d be interesting to examine lol and 🙂 as deictics and see what (if at all) these affective particles refer to. The history between the two speakers? One’s insecurity (and thus desire to hedge)? Or do they merely reflect a desire to remain authentic to the discourse of the Intertubes?

  3. daveski on: 8 April 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Patricia Baquedano-López shared this article from the BBC, lots of interesting views and insights.


    One thing that groups like ROFLCon and the Lolcats phenomenon show (at least it seems to me) is how much something like LOL is part of our language in that it becomes the basis for other linguistic & cultural innovations. Megalolz!!


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