A Cognitive Linguistic Approach to Memes. Stereotypes and Irony

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2015
18 Seiten, Note: 1,7
I. Magel (Autor)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Etymology of the term meme

3. Cognitive Linguistics Approach to Memes
3.1 Stereotypes
3.2 Irony
3.3 Stereotypes and Irony in Successful Black Man
3.3.1 Succesful Black Man Example
3.3.2 Successful Black Man Example
3.3.3 Successful Black Man Example
3.3.4 Successful Black Man Example
3.3.5 Successful Black Man Results

4. Conclusion

5. References


Nowadays, computers and the Internet are an essential part of adolescents' lives. Using technology continuously makes younger and older people more computer savvy. As a consequence, a part of today's culture is represented through the Internet. An Internet meme, for example, is a cultural phenomenon which spreads rapidly through the internet and which carries cultural information. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary [1] defines the term meme as an idea that is copied by people (2015: meme). By doing this, cultural ideas, symbols or practices can be transmitted from one member of society to another. Furthermore, OALD mentions an Internet meme which is “an image, a video, a piece of text, etc. that is passed very quickly from one Internet user to another, often with slight changes that make it humorous.” (2015: meme).

In this paper I will focus on Internet memes, especially image memes, which I will analyze from a cognitive linguistics view. The first, rather theoretical section of this paper will be about the etymology of the term meme. Afterwards, I will present a few cognitive aspects of memes with particular emphasis on stereotypes and irony. These aspects will be examined by analyzing some examples. All examples I have used are taken from the Know Your Meme: Internet Meme Database [2] . It was chosen as the sole source of memes because the number of memes hosted on this site is far greater than other meme sites. I basically follow Dawkins in my use of terminology.

2.Etymology of the term meme

According to Richard Dawkins, the word meme was derived from the Greek word μίμημα (mīmēma) and it means 'something that can be imitated'. It might be also related to the French word même, which means 'same' or 'alike', and to the English word 'memory'. However, the word meme is a shortening modeled on gene (2006: 192) .

Although the concept of memes was discussed by earlier scientists, it was defined for the very first time by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. In this book he states the following:

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain. (Dawkins 2006:192)

It is clear from the above that Dawkins tried to show the similarities of the two concepts - genes and memes - concerning evolution in his book. As a biologist he put the emphasis on genes and cultural transmission, but at the same time he coined the term meme, which is also referred to as the second replicator. According to Dawkins, evolution occurred not only on the physical level, but also on the mental level. This means that not only genes spread from organism to organism, but also ideas from one brain to another. He gave the example of a scientist who reads about an idea and talks about it with his colleagues (2006: 192). This is propagation of an idea by itself. Other examples of memes given in the book include “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” (Dawkins 2006: 192). Thus, memes seem to be the cultural counterpart to the biological study of genes.

Susan Blackmore has expanded this theory by doing more research in this area. In 1999 she wrote a book called The Meme Machine where she tried to constitute the controversial theory of memetics [3] as a science. She asserts:

Just as the design of our bodies can be understood only in terms of natural selection, so the design of our minds can be understood only in terms of memetic selection. (Blackmore 1999: 171)

What she meant by this is, when the ability to imitate occurred the first time, a second kind of natural selection began. For example, learning and using a language happens through selection and imitation. Which accent is preferred, either a British or an American, depends on one's own choice. Which language people will pass on to their children - German or English - depends on their own choice, too. This is why Blackmore said at the TED conference: “We are the meme machines.” (Blackmore 2008a: 8:41). Memes “are using you and me as their propagating, copying machinery ...” (Blackmore 2008a: 8:41).

Furthermore, Blackmore talked about the 'third replicator' teme at the TED conference. According to her, further differentiation was necessary between memes, which we copy, and technological phenomena, which started with the Internet. When the Internet became popular, information started spreading from one computer to another. This process needed a new expression, which is why she called it “techno-memes or temes.” (Blackmore 2008a: 12:23). Meanwhile it turned out as a challenge for some people to spell temes understandably. As a consequence, Blackmore (2008b) decided to use the term tremes from 2014 onwards.

3.Cognitive Linguistics Approach to Memes

The previous overview was necessary as foundation for the following section, which is about the Cognitive Linguistics Approach to memes. Due to indecision with regard to the term and the obvious on-going research in the field of memetics, the ensuing paper will use the term meme to mean 'image memes'. Cognitive Linguistics is a new field of research. It is “not a single theory of language, but rather a cluster of broadly compatible approaches.” ( Geeraets 2007: 3). Thus, Cognitive Linguistics has many overlapping maxims which might be considered from different perspectives. Geeraets (2007) states that the structural characteristics of natural language categorization, such as prototypicality, is one of the topics Cognitive Linguistics is interested in.

A prototype is “a relatively abstract mental representation ...” (Evans and Green 2006: 249) of a category [4] or as Yule defines it, “the most characteristic instance of a category.” (2010: 293). Like other theories, prototype theory has not gone without some criticism. One problem is that many categories have fuzzy boundaries, which is why Lakoff (1987) subdivided this term into alternative taxonomies, namely Idealized Cognitive Models ( ICM's). According to Evans (2006), Lakoff changed the prototype theory by Eleanore Rosch, while he claimed that some categories are different for each of us. A well-known example Barsalou gave in 1983 shows the crucial role of context in prototype formation, which is a good evidence for Lakoff's claim. Barsalou has studied ad hoc categories. Lakoff defines it as “categories that are not conventional or fixed, but rather are made up on the fly for some immediate purpose.“ (Lakoff 1987: 45). An example is “things to take from one's home during a fire?” (Lakoff 1987: 45). The answer is different dependent on the person. A child, for example, would take different things from home than an adult. Therefore, it is obvious that a more specific classification is sensible.

All things considered, categorization is different for everyone, which is why Lakoff has divided prototypes into additional classifications. One of these is the metonymic ICM. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have shown that there are many types of metonymic models, especially for individuals. As stated in A Glossary of Cognitive Linguistics, “an individual member of a category can come to stand for the category as a whole …” (Evans 2007 : 141). This is an example of part for whole. It describes how metonymic models work. ICM's of this kind include stereotypes, which I will focus on in the next section.

3.1 Stereotypes

Stereotypes are part of our everyday life. Social scientists have explored stereotypes for many years and from different perspectives. Peffley, for example, defines stereotype as “cognitive structures that contain the perceiver's knowledge, beliefs, and expectations about human groups.” (1997: 31). The definition Geeraets and Cuyckens have given says, stereotypes are “certain salient members of a category.” (2007: 180).

In sum, stereotypes are generalized assumptions about a person or a group of people based on personal experience and anticipation. Stereotyping works exactly like the concept of prototyping, namely with the help of a complex categorization system. This system comprises frames [5] and scripts [6] as well as personal associations which help people to behave appropriately in certain situations, because they may have had similar experiences before.

On the other hand, frames and scripts as well as personal associations, can cause a distorted picture. The problem with stereotypes is that differences between individuals are ignored. As a result of experiences with one person, people generalize and think similar things about people belonging to the same group. But these things might not be true. Because of this, individual characteristics of people should not be left out of one's consideration.

Stereotypes can be neutral, positive or negative. Most of them have negative connotations; racial stereotypes for example. The most famous study of racial stereotyping was published by Katz and Braly in 1933. This study reported about a questionnaire completed by students at Princeton University in the USA. The aim of the questionnaire was to investigate stereotypical attitudes to Americans towards different races. They found that negative stereotypes abound. Studies from 1951 and 1967 found changes in stereotypes, namely more positive ones (see McLeod 2008). However, even today some negative characteristics are linked to particular ethnic groups. In section 3.3 I will analyze these negative characteristics with the help of some examples.

3.2 Irony

Irony is another topic Cognitive Linguistics is interested in. According to the definition of irony given by Fowler, irony occurs when “the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.” (1906: 15). This definition is not clear enough and treats the term irony more like an umbrella term, which is why several types of irony has been classified. Verbal irony, dramatic irony and situational irony are the main types.


[1] In the following paper I will use the abbreviation OALD to refer to the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.

[2] Know Your Meme: Internet Meme Database is a website dedicated to documenting Internet phenomena.

[3] Memetics is found on the principle of the Universal Darwinism, which can be thought of as a three-step algorithm. As Blackmore puts it, “if you have variation, selection and heredity, then you must get evolution.” (2002).

[4] According to Yule the term 'category“ is defined as „a group with certain features in common.“ (2010: 284).

[5] Cognitive Linguistics uses the term frame instead of schema. According to Yule, schema is „a conventional knowledge structure in memory for specific things ...“ (2010: 293).

[6] A script, defined by Yule, is „a conventional knowledge structure in memory for the series of actions involved in events ...“ (2010: 294).

Ende der Leseprobe aus 18 Seiten


A Cognitive Linguistic Approach to Memes. Stereotypes and Irony
Universität des Saarlandes
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ISBN (Buch)
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Memes Stereotypes Irony Cognitive Linguistics
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I. Magel (Autor), 2015, A Cognitive Linguistic Approach to Memes. Stereotypes and Irony, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/385016


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