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Vowels and syllables

Now that a bunch of people have voted in my How do you pronounce the word 'meme'? poll, I shall now comment on the results of the poll and outline my own views on the matter. I'd already indicated my own views in my comments on a previous post, so they were in the public forum, but not explicitly stated in a post, and, besides, they have developed somewhat since I brought the issue up.

In its original sense of a unit of cultural information which propagates itself from one person to another via imitation, the word 'meme' should definitely be pronounced with only one syllable, to rhyme with e.g. 'scheme'. This makes sense given that it was created on analogy with 'gene' (by, I now know, Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene), and several web sites back me up on this.

Dawkins' book was published in 1976, so obviously well before Live Journal had even been dreamt of. Thus, he has the prior claim on the meaning and pronunciation of the word.

Now, his word has been adopted by LJ-users to describe instructions or quizzes copied from one journal to another. It makes sense to me that this was originally done in the light of Dawkins' concept, because an LJ meme does indeed spread via imitation (and sometimes evolve in the process). 68.4% of my readers (at the time of writing) seem to agree at least that this is how the word should now be pronounced in an LJ context, even if this doesn't necessarily mean that they believe the word itself actually came from Dawkins.

However, an LJ meme is not quite the same thing as one of Dawkins' memes. It describes something which only exists in a very specific context (LJ), and one result of the nature of that context is that it tends to function as a way to talk about oneself. Thus, an alternative theory as to the origins of the word in an LJ context is that it derives from a phrase such as 'me on me', condensed down to 'meme'. 31.6% of my readers believe that the word should be pronounced 'me-me', with two syllables, although, as for the one-syllable camp, I recognise that this does not necessarily mean that they believe the word derives from 'me on me' or similar.

Personally, I feel inclined to stick with my original belief that the word should be pronounced 'meem' with one syllable, à la Dawkins. However, since this is a text-only forum, I am also in the end rather pleased to find that this means we can all have it both ways. I like the idea that when I write the word, it can be interpreted by my readers as having both one syllable and two, and coming from either Dawkins or 'me on me' or both (or neither). After all, both sets of ideas about the origins of the word make sense on LJ. I prefer the Dawkins theory, because it obviously came first. Also, I think the 'me writing about me' idea is somewhat flawed in that that description could apply to almost any LJ entry, and it doesn't go far enough to clarify what is distinctive about a meme. I will therefore continue to let Dawkins be dominant in guiding my own pronunciation. But all the same, I like to feel the second theory, and its associated prounciation, is also conveyed whenever I type the word 'meme' within Live Journal.

Meanwhile, two new pronunciations which I hadn't previously come across were also brought to my attention in the course of my research. hyzenflay's 'mem' (pronounced like the French word, 'même') I like more and more the more I think about it, because the French word of course means 'same', which also relates to the meaning of 'meme', both within and outside Live Journal. It wouldn't surprise me, in fact, if it was part of what Dawkins had in mind when he coined the term. So I now want to feel that whenever I write the word 'meme', this, too, is a small part of what is conveyed by my text.

stompyboots's 'memmy' leaves me a bit more puzzled I must confess. But I am very willing to hear her explanation of why she pronounces it thus, and to incorporate the connotations of that pronunciation, too, into my meaning whenever I type it in future!


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 28th, 2004 07:39 am (UTC)
Mi Mi!!!!1
Oct. 28th, 2004 07:51 am (UTC)
My pronunciation comes from my initial reading of the word, and my perception of how language works. Note that this is my perception, and is probably completely wrong.

I never even considered pronouncing the word 'meem', as IMHO, it doesn't sound nice. Until today, I hadn't even thought of it as a possibility, and I had wondered how to pronounce it, and come up with several variations.

The symmetry of the word IMHO lends itself to two syllables, for no other reason than it was what my brain did when I first read it. 'Me-me' sounded too ego-centric (and teenage-y) of a pronunciation, so I abandoned that immediately. The only other way of creating two syllables that I saw at the time was to change the emphasis from 'me-me' to 'mem-e'. Hence, memmy.
Oct. 28th, 2004 07:57 am (UTC)
Ah, right - fair enough!

I heard the word on the radio (in an interview with Richard Dawkins, in fact) before I saw it written down, so didn't have a chance to form my own ideas about how it should be pronounced.

I think if I had, though, I would still have assumed one syllable, on analogy with 'theme', 'scheme', etc. My second thought might have been something like hyzenflay's 'mem', on analogy with other French words with the same ending like 'crème'.

PS - I know you said you were writing an essay today. You would never guess that I was trying to write a review, too, would you? ;)
Oct. 28th, 2004 08:09 am (UTC)
Glad to know I'm not the only person who procrastinates with LJ! I do like the French pronunciation, and, as a French speaker, I'm suprised it never occurred to me. It will be my back-up in future, but for now I'm sticking with memmy. I also think it sounds cuddlier, but that's no excuse!
Oct. 28th, 2004 08:32 am (UTC)
Actually, I've given up on the review, and am now writing a lecture on the Equestrian Order instead. That's harder to procrastinate on, since I have to give it at 9am tomorrow morning (but look! Here I am still doing it anyway!). The review is better written tomorrow and Saturday, when the fact that it needs to be submitted by the end of the month will become more of an incentive.

You have every right to stick with memmy! Though I might reserve the right myself to smirk a little or yell 'I want my memmy!' if I actually hear you saying it in conversation. ;)
Oct. 28th, 2004 08:40 am (UTC)
Absolutely. In fact, while I was typing my explanation, I did keep thinking 'I want my memmy!' Great minds think alike.
Oct. 28th, 2004 10:31 am (UTC)
I think of it very similar to you, stompyboots!

But I never bothered to work out why I thought of it like that :-)
Oct. 29th, 2004 01:11 am (UTC)
Yay, I have an ally!

I never bothered either, until Penny asked me to. Thought-provoking woman, that one.
Oct. 28th, 2004 10:00 am (UTC)
My pronunciation was from reading it at the top of an lj post, my instinct was to just think it was the french word meme (although obviously it is missing the accent) so have always pronounced it that way, plus the meaning always kind of made sense to me (obviously same being what it kind of was the same thing everywhere)
But a little while bac found out was wrong, however I just don't like the sound of meem so have stuck with my own!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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