Volume 25 Fifty Years of CRIL
Undergraduate Research Papers

How to Do Things with Memes: Creating Community through the Sociopragmatics of Star Wars Prequel Memes

Carolyn Olmsted
University of Colorado Boulder
Published August 22, 2021
  • sociolinguistics,
  • memes,
  • internet linguistics,
  • pragmatics


In the 1950s and 1960s, J. L. Austin changed the face of pragmatic linguistic analysis with his work How to Do Things with Words. Famously claiming that language does not simply describe the world but also changes it, Austin (1962) established the theory of speech acts. This paper builds on Austin’s research by investigating internet memes as a kind of speech act; hence the title “How to do things with memes.” Focusing in particular on a specific genre of memes that incorporates images and discourse from the American space epic media franchise Star Wars, the paper explores the following question: What are the sociopragmatic functions of memes used on the internet today by younger generations of internet users? The conversation analytic concept of adjacency pairs is used to understand the redistribution, recontextualization, and remediation of original media sources into memes, together with linguistic anthropological research that interrogates recontextualization as a kind of performance (Baumann and Briggs 1990). An investigation of the illocutionary forces behind select Star Wars memes exposes what exactly these memes are “doing” in their respective internet spheres. Specifically, the paper outlines how these memes function to build community, as illustrated by sociocultural linguistic work on identity (Bucholtz and Hall 2004, 2005) and social semiotic concepts such as dual indexicality (Hill 1995). Through processes of memetic participation, digital users build community and draw closer together by expanding upon their existing communicative repertoires (Rymes 2012, 2014).