Through "meme culture," young people are inventing all sorts of new linguistic constructions purely because they think they sound funny. The interesting thing is that these jokes don't end at a definite point. What makes a joke a "meme" is that it continues to be repeated. When among their friends, they'll continuously intersperse the language they use with them to make it more engaging, and perhaps even more clear. It seems very likely to me that this "memery" will eventually end up pushing some real linguistic change in our language.

This is not only happening in English. My native Dutch language is perhaps even more affected by it. Kids are deliberately picking out interesting mannerisms and repeating them to comic effect. A very strong example of this is the popular "Kud" YouTube animation channel and their more recent video game streaming channel "Lekker Spelen." Both names are already instances of what they're more generally up to. "Kud" changes a letter of the obscene exclamation "kut" to jokingly give themselves some plausible deniability. "Lekker spelen" appropriates the adjective "lekker" into their brand, which directly translates to "tasty," but is strangely applied to a very broad range of things in Dutch. One thing they'll do in their program is use other words like "sappig" (juicy) and "knapperig" (crunchy) in analogous ways, which isn't done in ordinary language. Kids are copying these mannerisms not only in the Netherlands, but also in Belgium, where they aren't at all usual.

I was wondering whether this is a new mechanism. One argument I could see for this case is that it requires social media in order to take hold. You need a degree of linguistic self-awareness to joke in this way, and that might not have existed before the mass communication enabled by the internet.

But the case that it isn't new can be made as well. After all, there have always been special individuals deeply aware of the way language is generally used. William Shakespeare certainly belonged to this group, cleverly manipulating language to make people laugh. No one has been more influential on the English language than him. Another popular example I'd cite is Cockney rhyming slang. It seems evident to me that this is a very funny self-aware kind of dialect. Maybe I'm wrong on that. The fact that I can't find many sources discussing this aspect kinda shocks me.

I'm curious about a linguist's take on all this. Is humor becoming a driving force in linguistic change? Has this always happened or is it something new? Are there any established linguistic theories describing this kind of thing?

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    Humor has always been a driving force in language change. Along with many others. Consider that humor is not a modern invention. And consider also that communication in writing of any sort is not the same thing at all as face-to-face oral/aural talk, which is what affects language change. Styles in writing change all the time, but language change affects pronunciation.
    – jlawler
    Mar 1, 2019 at 17:19
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    Latin "testa" replacing "caput" (sorry, didn't check the spelling) comes to mind. From which modern words for "head" in Romance languages developed. Mass-media might affect the speed and scale, though.
    – tum_
    Mar 2, 2019 at 7:14
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    @Stephane Rolland 'Caput' it is. perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/… There are many other forms as Latin had numerous declensions...
    – tum_
    Mar 2, 2019 at 12:05
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    @tum_ oh yes! caput, capitis. 3rd declension. I naively tought it was something like capita, capitae 1st declension. thanx for the correction. Mar 2, 2019 at 15:03
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    Funny you should ask.
    – Greg Lee
    Jun 21, 2019 at 0:04

1 Answer 1


It is possible, and cannot be dismissed. In fact, we have ancient examples of this phenomenon in the Romance languages. The term to pay, originating from Old French paiier, derives from Late Latin *pagare, meaning not 'to give money in exchange' but 'to pacify'. The humorous explanation is this: It is assumed that when someone owes money to another, the creditor experiences a certain unease, and when the debtor settles the debt, this unease is 'pacified'. This humorous metaphor has found success in nearly all the Romance languages.

Another example is the humorous metaphor by which 'head' (Latin caput), in some Romance languages like French is expressed as tête, testa (Italian), or tiesto (dialectal Spanish). The source of these latter terms is *testa, meaning 'pot, jug, brick.'

Indeed, humor and semantic change rely significantly on the construction of metaphors. It's not surprising that metaphors created for purely humorous purposes, over time, become sources of semantic changes. This is evidenced by the two examples I mentioned above.

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