“I think I am done with many of the words of the past hundred centuries.—I am mad that their poems, bibles, words still rule and represent the earth and are not yet superseded.”
– Walt Whitman, An American Primer
There’s an idea floating around that language is changing rapidly right now thanks in large part to the omnipresence of the internet, that a new brand of English is being forged on the web and is rife with misspellings, abbreviations and slang. The accusation, of course, is that the way our language is changing is bad, that this change shows how dumb we’re getting. The suggestion is that the English language is a static thing and that any changes to it are negative, but this ignores the fact that English has been and still is a constantly-changing form, ever-fluctuating to suit the times. Over 150 years ago, people were having very similar conversations about English as it was spoken in America and Walt Whitman participated in this conversation by writing “An American Primer.” The Primer is an unfinished essay written by Whitman sometime in the middle of the 19th century which was posthumously published by an acquaintance in 1904. For reference, I’m looking at the City Lights 1970 first edition, which includes a forward by the original publisher. It’s short, 35 pages of easy to read ranting and you can read the whole thing online.1
It’s hard to find information on this weird essay, and actually I don’t know what led me to it in the first place. Briefly, the Primer is a treatise on and defense of American English. It is an unfinished essay, full of pieced together half-thoughts and weird, erroneous mis-information. Some of Whitman’s commentary is a little bizarre, but when he gets it right, he gets it really right. I’ve found that though there are definitely more scholarly, researched, and organized essays on American English to study, these essays don’t suit the big, goopy mess that is the English Language or Language In General. “Do you suppose the liberties and brawn of These States have anything to do with delicate lady-words? With gloved gentleman-words?” begs Whitman and answers himself resoundingly, “no.” An American Primer is a coarse, scattered, erratic exaltation of the English language as it was and is spoken in these United States of America, and is perhaps the most appropriate defense of a fluid, changing English language.
Whitman wrote the Primer at a time when “America” was still a new concept, and in the essay, he argues that Americans should be speaking English differently than people who speak English in other places because America is different than those places. He says Americans, for example, might name their child Tom instead of Thomas and that the reason is that Americans are always in a hurry and like to be direct, that they are a candid and straight-speaking people. In the same way that the English language is a mush of all the languages of the many peoples who occupied, resided in or conquered England, American English should represent the many languages of the many people who reside therein. Additionally, says Whitman, the language should reflect the landscape, the plains, the mountains and rivers, the language should reflect the uniquely American lifestyle, the American industries, struggles and victories.
Whitman advises casting away “names” (words) that don’t fit us. Once we do, it quickly becomes clear how much of contemporary culture is still made up of archaic structures. Let’s look at the calendar, what does the word “July” have anything to do with Americans and the way we live? July is a word that celebrates the birth of Julius Caesar, wouldn’t it be better if we had a word that celebrated the birth of our nation? Or a name for how hot July is, or how sunny, or how merry? Whitman encourages us to find the words that suit us, but acknowledges that this is not a thing that happens overnight. A good word is like a good nickname; it sticks when it’s right, when it’s familiar and natural. This is how our language is formed; we all decide on a name that is the right one for “the thing.”
It’s useful to think of language as a social contract. As speakers of English, we agree that certain sounds in conjunction with one another indicate certain ideas. “T-R-E-E” signals a big plant with leaves and a very hard sturdy stem. Or “C-O-M-P-U-T-E-R” signals an object that takes a user to the internet where they can spend hours looking at Facebook. The way we use these sounds, or “words,” is constantly changing. We don’t have to say “yea and verily” every time we want to say “rite.” Same goes for outmoded vernacular like “in a jiffy” or “lickety split” or “jive” (that seemingly can now only be said with a self-aware twinge of irony) — we can break that clause and feel totally fine and normal about it. If the best way we have found to communicate a lighthearted tone through text is “LOL,” then that is the way we should be communicating.
“language is so cool,” says Steve Roggenbuck, self proclaimed internet bard,“i can type out these shapes and you can understand me.” Roggenbuck is a member of the Alt-Lit movement, where writers are manipulating our web dialect as a way to communicate more meaningfully with their audience. For Roggenbuck and others, the platform is as important as what’s being said. When the poem should be abbreviated, its Twitter, when it needs to be shown and heard, he creates a video for YouTube. “my message is this: if our job is to move people with our language, these platforms give us endless and powerful new ways to do that. the tools to make our language visual and auditory have been democratized.” This includes the tools to build our language and spread it, to decide what parts of it are important. Roggenbuck embraces typos, spelling errors, etc. because this is part of the way we communicate online.
Within the social contract of “language,” spelling (orthography) is a clause that says “this is the way we will mark down this series of sounds so that the sounds can be recreated in the mind and mouth of the person who reads it.” But spelling changes as often as words do. “For many hundred years there was nothing like settled spelling,” says Whitman, and he’s right. Looking at ancient English manuscripts, you’ll notice that words often aren’t spelled the same way twice, even in the same piece of writing. Whitman lays down this beautiful battle cry for anti-spellers everywhere; “the spelling of words is subordinate.” Even going on to say that “morbidness for nice spelling … [means] … impotence in literature.” In this sense, Roggenbuck’s poetry actually gains strength from its “errors” because it is communicating directly to his audience in the language they speak. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, originally abhorred by critics and censors alike, struck home with America’s populace and is considered an American masterpiece because it embraced the informal, ever-changing language of the American people. Our language grows and adapts to fit the terrain, and to be strict about how our language is spoken or written eliminates the opportunity for this growth and stunts our ability as speakers to understand and be understood.
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A dialect is defined as “a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.” If you grow up in the south and you don’t speak the dialect, you are less likely to be understood by your fellows. Dialect is important as a way of communicating directly to the people who are your peers, a way of excluding outsiders and infiltrators and making a safe space for yourself in language. In the second chapter of her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks outlines the development of the black vernacular as a counter-hegemonic tool, a way to reclaim the space slaves were forced into.2 “To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and oppressed people attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences in language. We seek to make a place for intimacy. Unable to find such a place in standard English we create the ruptured, broken, unruly speech of the vernacular.” When older generations don’t understand new slang, when white folks don’t understand black vernacular, or when tourists have difficulty understanding the locals, it’s because they are intentionally excluded from participating. It’s the utilitarian purpose of that dialect to exclude those that won’t understand, no matter how it’s said.
This concept falls in line with Edward T. Hall’s theory of high-context cultures,3 and is applicable to the vernacular of native persons, working- and lower-class persons, foreign persons and all those who would be forced to adapt their language to suit the class structure. Dialect in these cases is resistance. From Whitman, “The words continually used among the people are, in numberless cases, not the words used in writing, or recorded in the dictionary by authority… Many of the slang words among fighting men, gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, are powerful words. These words ought to be collected—the bad words as well as the good. Many of these bad words are fine.” These words garner shame because they are words of the classless, the uneducated, and the dangerous to society.
“Words are not original and arbitrary in themselves—words are a result—they are the progeny of what has been or is in vogue,” Whitman reminds us. Those who act like words are anything else, the people who say slang is not a normal part of how people speak, actually shame people for speaking and writing that way, as though there haven’t been countless ways of spelling and speaking English over its thousands of years of existence. When we shame others for how they spell and speak, we are really trying to shame them for where they grew up, where they went to school, how much money their family makes, their ethnicity, and so on. Shaming people for how they speak and write is an act of class warfare. Being attacked in this way is a challenge to build a language that defies class and the construct that there is a good way and a bad way to speak.
Here, how we communicate and comment on the internet is very important. The internet is a new frontier for language platforms. When we are limited by the factors of the medium (the very quantitative, SMS defined character count of twitter; the haste of texting; the bizarre syntax of memes; or even just the implied attention span of the average scroller), the way we speak changes. Abbreviations, changes in spelling, syntax, typos, intentional or not, it’s all there. But there’s more to it than that, as predicted by Marshall Mcluhan; the internet has made us a global community with a global dialect.4 We are more able than ever to police language that is no longer relevant, that is insidious, that reflects problematic social structures. Conversely, we have a platform to create words, images, and hashtags that empower us; the ability to cast out sexist, ableist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, hateful words from our global language and to build a language that suits the diverse and powerful people that inhabit this community is a crucial part of this relationship. Roggenbuck reflects “if u complain about they/them pronouns not feeling natural or being “correct”…who cares? refer to ppl how they want, & shut up. it’ll b Ok”
We can stop pretending that language isn’t something we just made up and start reveling in the power we have to shape language as something that is useful for us. Instead of criticizing things as being “politically correct,” it’s time to celebrate that we have found more tolerant ways to speak, to break down the need to label different types of people all together, to destroy the language of caste, categorization, separation, segregation. Let’s build a language of help, health and support. Break all the rules of language, make our own rules to be broken again. Whitman says, “The English language is grandly lawless like the race who use it,” but I would go so far as to say “language is grandly lawless like the race who use it.” It’s time to embrace our lawlessness and build the language we want.
Anna K. Crooks is a poet and artist living and working in Baltimore, MD. She is a member of the artist collective Open Space and co-founded the poetry programs Proliferate and Tender F.M.
Image: Cheyenne Woodward
2. hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.
3. Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1976.
4. McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.