Were you today years old when you understood what a meme is?

If you have been online at all over the last decade, you have very probably come across a meme – maybe without knowing what the picture meant or what it was called. Over the years, this internet phenomenon has become ever more popular and the memes themselves ever more imaginative. Although the term “meme” is an English one, it actually has its origins in Greek. You could translate the Greek word “mīmēma” as “something imitated”. Basically, it’s all about adapting an existing content element and reproducing it time and again. Playing with repetition creates a pattern of recognition. The content can be an image (drawing or photo), a word or a sentence, a GIF, a noise or a song, a video or a combination of any of these.


In the early 2010s, for example, “Bad Luck Brian” hit the internet. The popular meme is a photo, not a terribly flattering one, of a young boy in a red sweater vest. The accompanying text describes a sad or embarrassing event and can be changed as the user requires.

Source: http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/3ol5e3




In this article, we take a look at memes that contain text – Apostroph Group is a language service provider, after all. How do memes influence and change language? Is there a new form of expression coming out of the internet? Whether language purists like it or not, new language trends are being created online that are a long way off what traditionally might be considered to be the norm. Memes and the like are supposed to be entertaining more than anything, but they can also be extremely lucrative. Brands use memes to show how cool and trendy they are, as do political parties and other groups trying to win the public over. So what was once original, humorous or satirical entertainment has in fact become a marketing tool.

What are memes and where do they come from?

Memes mainly come from the English-speaking world and refer to well-known events, for example from films and popular series, or to celebrities. And this is where things get interesting at a linguistic level because when memes are taken into another language, they are either left in their original state or of course translated. Translations of memes are usually literal and far from idiomatic. However, because people come across them so often online, these unusual phrases soon become accepted and are incorporated into common usage.


Which languages like memes?

Language combinations are also interesting – for example English and German. A difficult one to explain, but let’s try. In the film “300”, Gerard Butler screams what has now become a catchphrase – “This is Sparta” – as he rejects peace with the Persians and kicks the Persian messenger into a large well. Because of the similar sound, the German version replaces the word “Sparta” with “Spargel” which means asparagus. The picture then no longer shows the sword Butler held in his fight for Sparta, but a bundle of the delicious vegetable.

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/726346246128957099/

It’s no coincidence that English expressions are used in memes in other languages. Authors of memes often want to make use of the humorous slang vibe that so many English phrases have and that is often lacking in other languages. One example that springs to mind is the sentence “I was today years old when I learned that…” that has come out of the internet. This phrase is used to express a person’s surprise at the fact that they have only just learned something important or something that is common knowledge late on in life, along the lines of the phrase “I have just found out that...” In the example below from Austria, the person is surprised to have just found out that the meatloaf they particularly like contains insects! The English expression itself is of course not really correct as it uses the word “today” instead of a person’s age. Technically, you cannot be “today” years old – a number should be used in place of the word “today”. But the choice of the word “today” is of course intentional so that the statement can be used over and over again. So it’s not really surprising that the sentence ends up being incorrect when translated into other languages. The use of commas and other punctuation doesn’t seem to be all that important in memes. Memes are all about quickly transmitting a feeling that is instantly recognisable in an uncomplicated way.

It’s fascinating that German speakers in particular have decided to take on this kind of “untranslatable” and original syntagma unchanged. It shows a willingness to adopt the linguistic and cultural codes of the English-speaking online community. But it also shows that German slang often doesn’t have the equivalents to be able to translate memes fully. Is it a case of laziness? Or does it in fact show a person’s desire to play with language or perhaps demonstrate that they have mastered the codes of another culture? It’s difficult to provide a definitive answer to any of these questions. But what we can say is that language barriers have become more permeable and the internet is contributing to the development of a cultural and linguistic melting pot by bringing people together.


You can find a little bit of Germany everywhere

Most memes are originally English but German speakers have made a name for themselves on Reddit and similar sites in another way. They apparently hit the comment column as soon as they find a meme that has just a tiny bit of German in it – as demonstrated here with the German phrase “My time has come”. And that is certainly food for thought…

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Nadia Gaille
Head of Customer Success

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