Language is a Construct: Let’s Build the One We Want

Anna K. Crooks

“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the past hundred centuries.—I am mad that their poems, bibles, words still rule and represent the earth and are not yet superseded.”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.”

Cheyenne Woodward
Cheyenne Woodward

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.

* * *

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

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1. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1904/04/an-american-primer/376193/

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.

The Search for the Satisfying Snack

Fiona Sergeant

The Realization of the Search 1

There is a system or cycle of thoughts that exists in this world that I have only recently begun to consider actively and find words for. It is something of a snack cycle that is made up of a continuous flow of small desires and potential small satisfactions. In this cycle there is generally a moment of desire followed by one of three temporary resolutions:

  1. I acknowledge a loose desire for some kind of satisfying snack but am overwhelmed by the options when I press the decision further. I ultimately postpone the search.
  2. I determine a specific snack that I hope will be satisfying, but upon eating it, I decide that it is not quite right and am still left unsatisfied. I might feel a little bit bad about consuming meaningless, unsatisfying calories.
  3. The third (and most rare) situation is that I make a lucky selection and am satisfied by the snack. Even in this best case scenario, the satisfaction that I feel is only moderate, and I generally feel a new craving for the next snack within (at most) a day.

The Contemporary American Snack

It is empirically felt that snack consumption has been on the rise in the United States during the last few decades. Various studies show that there has been a significant increase in both the average number of snacks consumed daily by individuals as well as in the percentage of daily calories that are consumed through snacks. According to Richard D. Mattes, Ph. D., professor of foods and nutrition at Perdue University, “between 1977 and 2006, snacking in the American diet had grown to constitute a ‘full eating event’ or a fourth meal, averaging about 580 calories each day.”2 Another report put together by the NPD group, a market research company, shows that the traditional three meals are getting smaller, often becoming “mini-meals” while snacking is on the rise. The report states that “one out of every five eating occasions in the U.S. is a snack and over half of Americans (53%) are snacking two or three times a day.”3

This data is not surprising for anyone active in the American public sphere. The idea of leading busy, hectic lives has become built-in to the contemporary American Identity. There is a desire to participate in the growth and prosperity of the contemporary world; to experience this directly is to feel overwhelmed and hyper productive. The very existence of on-the-go and convenience-oriented foods may function especially to reinforce the idea of the always-busy, on-the-go American who doesn’t have the time to sit down to a full meal. By choosing the product for the busy individual, the individual tells themselves (and others) that they are busy.

An increase in snacking may also be due to the incredible abundance of snacks available in the contemporary environment. Aside from the overwhelming diversity of snacks one can experience at any local convenience store or supermarket, “Mintel Menu Insights data shows that restaurant menu items incorporating the words “snack,” “snackable” or “snacker” have risen 170 percent since 2007, and further growth is expected as restaurants pile on this new trend.”4

In contemporary culture, food and food marketing have become incredibly developed languages. Food objects and situations have gone beyond acting as passive signs where they are read for their often slowly established, passive, historic and cultural connotations and have now become a language that is heavily written by food marketers attempting to keep up with the contemporary conceptions of reality. It is the aim to both give the people what they want and make them want things they had not expected. One of the key strategies of food marketing presently and historically is to sell people on the new. Because of these marketing efforts, products in the snack, candy, and cereal aisles of any given supermarket seem to mutate like bacteria, there is a line-extension to fit any taste.

There is an inherent lack of limits built into the concept of the snack. Snacks can be any food (or really, any thing); snack-time can be any time (as long as it involves a snack), and the creation of new snack foods embraces the unorthodox. In some ways, snacks and treats function as the fiction and fantasy of food in the same way that America (or the idea of America) functions as the fiction and fantasy of countries. They are both in some ways connected to a history, but that history is defined by youth (that is to say, by a state of freedom from the weight of history) and revered more for its power of influence than any other factor. The more important aspects of these fantasies are tied to the ideas of creation, innovation, and the progress of technology. Both attempt to offer innovative formats for easy, accessible, modern living, and both exist heavily in media [they are heavily mediated].

The 100-Calorie-Snack-Pack

A key period in the recent history of American snacking was the rise and fall of the 100-calorie-snack-pack. In theory, the idea makes sense; if people are simply given smaller bags of snacks and told their caloric worth, individuals will have no problem knowing when to stop. They were marketed as a form of pre-fab portion control. The catch is that these smaller packages tend to cost twenty to thirty percent more than their large-bagged counterparts. For a while, people seemed to be willing to pay the price. They were introduced by Kraft in 2004 with the launch of Oreo Tin Crisps, Wheat Tin Minis, and Nabisco Mixed Berry Fruit Snacks, and in July of 2007 the New York Times reported1 the sales of these 100 calorie snack packs to be past “the $200-million-a year mark.” They quickly fell out of style, however (notably during the onset of the financial crisis), and by June of 2009 were dead enough to warrant the article title “The Demise of the 100 Calorie Pack” on the marketing blog MarketingProfs.6

It is both ironic and telling that as a culture we have arrived at and gotten past the point of pre-portioned 100-calorie-snack-packs of processed foods since it was the discovery of basic cooking, initial forms of food processing, that allowed our ancestors to access and consume the calories necessary to support the cranial development that makes us human was we understand it. The 100-calorie-snack-pack marks the concrete moment when it was literally more valuable to the consumer to have less than to have more. Here, now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it is our extreme proficiency at gathering and consolidating calories that has become one of our main cultural epidemics.

Post-Utilitarian Consumption: The Snack

Snack foods, as they exist in America, are made to be fun (60% of Americans report snacking for fun rather than hunger).7 Snacks let you treat yourself and take a break. In kindergarten, snack time is generally built into the schedule. Although there are some diet plans built around having many small meals throughout the day rather than the standard three square meals, generally people don’t eat snacks to survive. In the case of those diets, one eats mini-meals rather than purely snacks. Because snacks are primarily non-utilitarian, they enjoy the most freedom in expression.

When I was a kid, I used to (and still do) take enormous pleasure in trying to think up new snacks and treats. While lying in bed trying to fall asleep or staring out the bus window on the way to school I used to think up fantasy treats; I performed numerous experiments on the textures of various things after being microwaved or frozen (there was an especially in depth series of experiments regarding the achievable textures of marshmallows in the microwave). This kind of experimentation is at the heart of snack culture. Nothing is sacred and everything is at least worth trying. Snacking is a perfect low-risk environment for play and creation. I was not the mother of the house; I did not have to cook and provide for the family. I am the daughter who is free to cook to provide for her own interests and imagination. Because snacks are frivolous, they are free.

Doubt and a Lack of Satisfaction

The grand total of all varieties of snacks available on Walmart.com (including candy, cookies, chips, crackers, nuts and trail mixes, and granola bars) is 4879 options, as of November 2013. When attempting to make the right choice regarding the search for the satisfying snack, this overwhelming number of options is the primary hurdle. I, at least, experience a slight doubt that I’ll choose correctly when the options become too great (this is common, also, at record and thrift stores where most options are probably great, but I have no way of knowing which are the best). Mathematically, the odds of choosing correctly are not in your favor. What ways can one ensure a correct choice? A friend recently told me, “If I only have rice to eat, I will be satisfied with rice.” With this thought, it seems that one way to achieve satisfaction is to deal with the reality of the situation and decide to be satisfied.

But what if there is satisfaction in the lack of satisfaction experienced in the search for the satisfying snack? At our most ancient cultural roots, humans are hunter-gatherers. The acquisition aspect of the utilitarian hunt has become too easy to be totally satisfying. The never ending search for the satisfying snack comes about as a way of staying un-satiated in order to never tire of and never complete the hunt. There is something pleasurable about wanting.

Info-Snacks

Snacking today is not just limited to food-snacks. Rather, snacking has become our primary mode of consumption in most areas. Food, media, relationships, thoughts, even the acquisition of objects. We deal in frequent short bites of varied things; with the advent of the internet and the ever growing global economy, the proliferation of accessible, consumable goods has followed. Snacking is just a way of coping with this information overload, this overload of possibilities as it allows one to make more choices and sample more bites. While the world has always contained more than any one human could comprehend, humans were rarely ever confronted by the whole world all at once. Now, even just one company, Google, can provide access and answers to more inquiries than any individual could ever ask (even if all the questions were asked, there are still the images to browse and the maps to wander).

This overwhelming everything has created a new system of self-definition. Rather than being defined so heavily by what you do and where you are, it seems that a lot of how people are defined today is by What They Are Into and How/How Much They Are Into It. With the accessibility of information and quasi-experience available through the internet and other media, there are no longer many limits of what an individual may have been exposed to given their geographic location or social status. Anyone has the ability to have heard of or to be interested in anything. This makes it seemingly all the more important to define and declare oneself. The declaration has become especially image-based rather than action-based due to the rise of screen-based living. Much of life on the internet centers around consuming and producing all of the info-snacks that make up the whole [persona].

As our known universe continues to expand with the progression of history, invention, and discovery, there will continue to be more and more of everything, but the individual will continue to be individual. Individuals may not be able to act of the scale of the universe and take it in all at once, but we can always make the attempt to sample it all and eat on the go. In an article titled, “Snacking Could Be the Future of Eating,” Gary Stibel, executive of New England Consulting Group (whose clients include Frito-Lay) predicts that “You and I will continue to snack more and sit down to meals less.”8

Who knows.

Photo : Dylan Thadani

  1. “I can never not eat the whole bag. Except usually I’ll stop when there are just 5 chips left at the bottom because I know that if I take one more handful I’ll have eaten the whole thing. So I always have a bunch of bags of chips with chip clips on them that have only five chips inside.” -anon.
  2. “Snacking Constitutes 25 Percent of Calories Consumed in U.S.” – IFT.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
  3. “U.S. Consumers Adhere to Tree Meal Times Daily But Define Meals Differently and Snack Often, Reports NPD.” – NPD. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
  4. “Bite Sized Bliss.” Food Processing InPerspective™ by Cargill Salt. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.
  5. Peters, Jeremy W. “Fewer Bites. Fewer Calories. Lot More Profit.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 July 2007. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
  6. Mininni, Ted. “MarketingProfs.” MarketingProfs Daily Fix Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
  7. Wyatt, Sally L. SNAXPO2013-for-Webinar. N.p.: SymphonyIRI Group, 2013. PDF.
  8. “Food Processing.” Food Trends: Snacking Could Be The Future Of Eating. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.