What makes language delicious?

Author: Christopher Johnson | Filed under: Uncategorized

We need a new kind of popular discourse about language. We need to talk more about what makes everyday language delicious. I’m not talking about literature. That’s the world of Michelin three-star restaurants and the finicky critics who dine in them. I’m talking about popular verbal culture, which is all around us: jokes, song lyrics, funny headlines, slogans, taglines, brand names, sound bites. Our linguistic pot-luck buffet.

Verbal culture is different from most other kinds of culture because everyone contributes. Everyone talks (or signs) and everyone writes: tweets, blog posts, email, Craigslist ads, Amazon product reviews, messages on greeting cards, little signs stuck into cheese–something. Language is democratic that way. You don’t have to take lessons and you don’t need any special equipment. Verbal culture is woven into everything we do. It’s work and play, sometimes at the same time.

In practice, our verbal culture is lively and hardworking, playful and pragmatic. But when we start to talk about language, we tend to get a little uptight. The main problem is that we’re obsessed with the idea of correctness. Those of us who think we know how to use language correctly get bossy, and the rest of us worry that the Language Bosses will find out we’re stupid and make fun of us.

We have reasons to be concerned about correctness in certain contexts. But we focus on it while ignoring almost everything interesting about language.

At their most helpful, the Language Bosses are linguistic poison sniffers, like Remy the rat in the Pixar film Ratatouille. (In case you haven’t seen the film: Remy has a gift for cooking, longs to be a chef, and lands the opportunity to work, surreptitiously, in a Parisian restaurant. At one point, however, he abandons his dream and puts his sensitive nose to work sniffing out poison in his rat colony’s food. It’s useful work, but uninspiring.) The Language Bosses help us avoid deadly mistakes when we’re writing important documents that will be scrutinized and judged, like college application essays and job cover letters, but they pay little attention to the flavors and textures of language.

When we “loosen up” and look on the fun side of language, we tend to focus on arcane things like obscure words (“Did you know that thing on the end of your shoelace is called an aglet?”) and surprising etymologies (“Did you know that the words glamour and grammar come from the same source?”). There’s nothing wrong with these fun facts, but they’re valued precisely because they’re exotic and don’t have much to do with our living verbal culture. It’s as if we can’t see the poetry in our own everyday language use.

Let’s start looking.

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