A new meme that has some cool linguistic implications is yesn’t. This meme has been blowing up, and it may have some similarities to the 2017 whomst’d’ve meme. The core meaning of the meme is the idea that the word no should be changed to the word yesn’t, somehow making the word sound more educated (?). With uncertain origins, the meme has become a staple of online pseudo-intellectualism. When I started writing this blog post, I thought it would be a quick one, but I was wrong. Bear with me. As a start, here is an example of the yesn’t meme.
The yesn’t meme is already interesting in a couple of ways. First of all, it is very self-conscious in the sense that it assumes that negation can be encliticized to an adverb like yes. It’s interesting that even though –n’t isn’t actually grammatical in this environment, the reader will automatically understand what is meant. Typically, as you know, a negator like not will take the entire proposition p and make it into the opposite, so you end up with ¬p. This is how The door is open and The door is not open will have clearly constrastive meanings.
Despite this categorial mismatch, seeing yesn’t will force you to try to interpret it, ending up with the reading that’s the opposite of yes. This is where the meme begins, where not combines with elements that typically won’t combine with negators.
In natural languages, the negator can only attach to verbs, which is what makes the meme so bizarre. At its core, the yesn’t meme says something about the nature of the negator as some functional entity that makes whatever exists or does not exist in the world the opposite.
Regardless of whether we kind of understand what yesn’t means, it is not the case for English that not can attach to anything but verbs. The idea that anyone would want to raise above the self-regulated rules of language and use a –n’t term instead of the negatively loaded word is reminiscent of the 2017 whomst’d’ve meme, which is in essence a parody of pseudo-intellectual internet communities. The meme parodies the type of people who correct who to whom.
Let’s break down whomst’d’ve. I won’t delve on -‘d and -‘ve, as they are easy to interpret as enclitics abbreviating would and have. Whomst consists of three parts: who, -m and -st. The –m part is what refers back to the type of people who would actively use whom and correct others for using who in places where whom would be accepted in formal writing. I will talk more about the issues with this in a bit. The –st part may refer to Middle English verbs inflections when the subject is in the second person singular, as in thou seest meaning you see. This was before English agreement became simplified and the –st ending disappeared (you can still find it in German ich sehe – du siehst, ‘I see – you see’). Adding a verb ending to a wh-pronoun adds a level of absurditiy as well. The –st ending comments on the archaic nature of whom, especially in informal internet communities.
The inclusion of the additional –‘d’ve is what makes the meme so brilliant. By adding these enclitics, the word abbreviates whomst would have, which in itself implies that whom is a subject pronoun, i.e. that it is in the nominative case and not accusative. This is a parody of the kind of person who would correct Who was invited? to Whom was invited? The fact that whom has pretty much disappeared from the English language is a different topic, but it adds another layer to the quality of the meme.
The core message of the meme lies in making fun of communities whose members pride themselves on intellectualism and the use of a formal register. These are often the same people who correct others’ use of language on social media platforms which are not initially made for coherent, essay-like language, like Twitter or YouTube. This behavior is dysfunctional in a couple of ways: 1) it disregards dyslexia completely, 2) it disregards second language and foreign language speakers and 3) it shows a lack of social awareness of the platform at which the speech act has taken place.
The screenshot above shows an interaction in which one person corrects the grammar in a tweet by Trump, ending the interaction with “I equate proper use of grammar with intelligence.” Also note how the person says “You used the possessive “your,” which rendered your sentence senseless,” yet still the person very clearly understood what Trump meant by the tweet. When I was searching Twitter, these three examples showed up:
The general idea people have seems to be that the language used on Twitter is somehow not appropriate or harmful to one’s grammar. Social media is a unique phenomenon in the sense that for the first time ever, written language is put out and interpreted as closely to spoken, natural language as possible. Until this point, written and spoken language have been clearly separated. Although English didn’t have a standard written language until the gradual standardization of the 16th and 17th centuries, written language was still a slow process meant to be written and read as an entire work. Letters would address several topics on the same page, due to the slowness of the medium. It was also important to write clearly to avoid having to elaborate and then spending even more time on the same section of a single conversation. These days, written chats and Twitter conversations are made to mimic spoken language as closely as possible, even down to the inclusion of emojis as a replacement for facial expressions or hand gestures. Correcting people’s language on Twitter is like correcting someone in a real life conversation: it’s misinformed and very, very awkward.