My Instagram explore page is populated by fluffy animals. The majority of my time on the app is spent watching Reel after Reel of cats snuggling up to each other and dogs being goofy little guys. In my browsing, I have observed a linguistic trend that has both fascinated and irritated me. A video of a dog barking at a passerby, captioned: “doin a heckin bork.” A ragdoll cat, labelled in the caption as “floof”. “Bamboozle”, “momther”, “hooman”, “hungery”. I have never understood this odd dialectal pattern: I don’t find it funny, and I don’t think it adds all that much to content which I think is already pretty excellent. Why, then, is it so wide-spread?
This internet dialect has a name: DoggoLingo. Its features are distinct. Many of its words clearly derive from English, but are slightly altered in how they are spelt or pronounced — “fren” for “friend”, “floof” for “fluff”, “hooman” for “human” and “smol” for “small”. It adds suffixes like -o (“doggo”, “catto”) and often turns the phoneme [ŋ] — the “ng” at the ends of words like “doing” — into [n]: “heckin”, “doin”. Many of its unique lexical items are onomatopoeic, like “mlem” for a lick, or are specific to things dogs do: to “sploot” is to lie with hind legs splayed, and to “blep” is to stick your tongue out slightly. There is also a decided wholesomeness to it; “heckin” is the expletive of choice.
The origin of both the dialect and its name are unknown, but are heavily steeped in internet culture. According to Know Your Meme, the first use of the eponymous word “doggo” was in the name of a Facebook group in 2014. However, the trend of altering language in relation to dogs predates this. The word “doge” was first used as an intentional mispronunciation of “dog” as early as 2005. In 2010, a photo of a Shiba Inu giving a sidelong glance to the camera went viral, and, when posted to Reddit, was referred to as a “doge”. The ensuing meme, characterised by rainbow Comic Sans text overlaying the now-iconic picture, consisted of punchlines communicated with very distinct stylisation. “Very wow”, “plz”, and other phrases appropriated English in an uncanny way, similar to the word “doge” itself – the altered syntax and spelling was distinct, goofy, and very early-2010s-internet. While the doge meme featured a specific dog, DoggoLingo repurposed this affectation as a way of describing dogs and referring to their actions. The dialect gained traction, receiving an upswing of attention in 2017 when NPR published an article about it. DoggoLingo thrived in memes and Facebook groups dedicated to sharing photos of dogs.
More recently, though, DoggoLingo has been adopted by social media pages who don’t just refer to dogs, but purport to be speaking on their behalf. I spoke to the owner of one such account: Karen*, who, alongside her husband Kevin*, runs the Instagram account @miss_poppet_the_samoyed, a page with 240k followers dedicated to their six (beautiful) Samoyeds. Many of the videos posted to this account feature DoggoLingo in their captions; “Omgosh, I’m hungery” overlays a video of Samoyed puppies crawling around on a carpet. I am a long-time fan of the account, despite my confusion about DoggoLingo.
Karen first created an account after getting the eponymous Poppet back in 2017. “[DoggoLingo] came about back in 2018,” she explained. She attributes her use of DoggoLingo to the owner of account @doggosbeingdoggos, who she worked with in the early days of her page. While the dialect predates this page, Karen suggests that the owner started the trend of Instagram accounts using it to communicate the first-person perspective of pets. Unfortunately, @doggosbeingdoggos did not respond to my request for comment. Since 2018, the dialect has gained traction among pet accounts of Instagram: the hashtag #doggo has 32.6 million posts on Instagram alone.
Why is this way of speaking so popular among pet content creators? Karen says that DoggoLingo is “more fun and playful” than other forms of captioning, and that it “opened up a whole new world of possibilities with storytelling.” She makes different linguistic choices based on the dog whose perspective she is emulating in a given post: “we put a lot of time into creating characters that reflect their existing personalities. Where one might come across as sassy, another could be more dopey or grumpy.”
DoggoLingo is not just evocative in the personality it creates, but it is also distinctly dog-like. Misspelling English words creates a charming childishness. The wholesome undertones feel innocent. Words like “smol” and “floof” convey a speaker who is a little bit silly, a little bit unsure of English, and very concerned with dog-like things like “pats” and “treatos”. This dialect allows account owners to linguistically embody their dogs’ perspectives, a pretence which followers of these accounts find endearing. “Videos largely do better and have more engagement with dog speak than without,” Karen explains. “There is a very small percentage of people who dislike it but the majority of people love it.”
It is hard to describe the utility of pet Instagram accounts. It’s not just about the joy of seeing cute animals – Google Image searching a term like “golden retriever puppy”, which produces thousands of cute animal photos, simply isn’t the same as following an account and becoming invested in a dog, its personality, its antics, and its life updates. For many people, DoggoLingo helps construct the illusion that they know the dogs whose lives they gleefully follow along with. Karen describes how she started her account because of the joy she saw Poppet bringing to those around her: “we started with the phrase “smile maker and selfie taker”, and since then that’s been our motto.” The playfulness and joy that comes from sharing these dogs’ personalities is only more poignant in the aftermath of the initial COVID lockdowns, a time when, as Karen puts it, “millions of people needed a lift.” Creating this content is also a source of joy: Karen describes her account as a “creative outlet” and “therapeutic”.
Accounts like Karen’s are meaningful to hundreds of thousands of people. She told me that people will recognise her husband, who also features in the page’s content, at the shops and the dog park. My initial critique of DoggoLingo is, I think, unfounded. I still don’t find it funny, but that’s not the point – or at least, not the whole point. To use DoggoLingo is to engage your audience in the playful fantasy that they are seeing the world through the eyes of a dog, and that fantasy offers respite, joy, and comfort. “In a world full of negativity,” Karen says, “we just wanted to make people laugh.” I, for one, think that she’s doing a heckin good job.
*Both names are pseudonyms for social media use