Friday, February 15, 2013

Language and Food

When I went to bed on Saturday night I promised myself I was finally going to catch up on some much needed sleep, so when I woke up at 6:00 AM Sunday morning, a mere five hours after I’d gone to bed, I lay still with my eyes closed for about an hour, trying all the tricks I knew to re-induce sleep. I mentally retraced every tedious detail of what I’d done the previous day in my head, counted down and then back up and then down again from 100. I tried to completely void my mind of all thoughts and imagine nothing but darkness. Nothing was working though, so I decided maybe reading for a while might lull my brain back to a state where I could nod off.

I perused my bookshelf in search of something that was interesting enough to pull my brain away from all of the random thoughts that were gripping it, but not so enthralling that I wouldn’t be able to put it down after 15 or 20 minutes and fall back asleep. I figured something along the lines of a text book or self-help might be in order, so I selected On Writing by Stephen King. My parents had given me the book for Christmas or my Birthday a couple years earlier and I’d never even opened it, so I figured now was the perfect time to dive in.

However, as I finished the “introduction” of the book, in which Amy Tan expressed to Steven King that she was disappointed that language is something that interviewers never asked her about, but she wished they would, my brain was wide awake, whirring with my own thoughts on linguistics, so rather than sleeping as I had planned, I found myself very much enjoying the fact that I was awake, sitting in my cozy bed, sipping Jasmine tea and writing at 7:49 AM on a Sunday morning.
Amy Tan's right people do habitually take language for granted, yet it's so vitally important. (She was thinking more about why we use the language that we do), but in general, I think language has shaped human society more than anything else, (except perhaps food). Not only has language allowed people to achieve the wondrous things we have thus far, but it is still the most vital tool we each possess to obtain personal success as well as being the instrument that ensures the survival of our species as a whole.


The mere fact that people can communicate through language is almost magical. How did language even begin? Was there just 1 super genius cro-magnon that thought of a way to express ideas and then taught others and then it just spread? Or were there multiple geniuses around the world that somehow came up with systems of language at the same time? What makes us humans so unique and special that we have the capacity to develop and use complex languages while other animals seem not to – at least not to the same extent?

Language must have started out simple. Nouns probably came first because you can just point at a thing and make a noise and then you have equated that thing to that noise. Verbs would probably be a lot harder because you’re never doing just one thing, so it would be hard to isolate the exact concept you were trying to communicate…Take the verb, run, for example. While you’re “running” you’re also “lifting your foot”, “moving” and “getting farther away” etc… those are all different things that you could be indicating when pointing at an animal that’s running. Plus with running there is an implication of a certain speed as well as the motion itself, so even seemingly simple verbs would have been very complicated to define without already having an extensive arsenal of other words at your disposal to really explain what you were getting at. Which is why I say, it’s miraculous that people can speak and write with such intricacy today.

No matter how we came to possess our language skills, the fact that we can communicate so well with one another allows us to dominate the Earth the way we do. At first, language was mostly just used to help people transition from a lifestyle as wandering vegetarians to working together building more complex tools and developing strategies for hunting and protecting early man from the elements and other animals. Simple concepts were preserved and passed on to others and to future generations, so the more people there were communicating the more new ideas were developed and passed onto successive generations to build on, so even though individuals died, with ideas preserved and transferred through language, human society as a whole lived on and has continued to become increasingly complex. Civilization has been advancing on its path from generation to generation ever since the development of language…  almost as if we people are like individual cells in in the giant organism that is human society… we all work together in our own capacity to keep our society functioning… but when we die we are replaced with others who can take our place and know exactly what we knew… and the language we us is like DNA for the giant society being. Words and books preserve the coding that allows each new human (cell) to learn his/her role in society and carry out his/her function.

Besides the mere fact that the human race as a whole has benefited from our capacity to use language, the aptitude with which an individual of our species wields language can be greatly important in determining where that person fits into society. If you are able to conjure up the right words at all times, you can talk your way out of trouble and into prosperity. There are limitations of course, but in general the more masterfully you use language, the more prosperous  and successful you'll be in your life. Linguistic charm can make up for short comings when you're pursuing a love interest (esp. if you're a guy who is seeking the company of a lady), if you can turn a phrase in the right way you might nail an interview and land a job over someone who may actually be more qualified for the job itself and if you're a lawyer your entire job revolves around delivering and manipulating language in just the right way to make existing laws say what you need them to say. It's amazing the power you can possess with a masterful command of language.

The profound importance of language is also evident in the hostility and hardships that can result from misuse of words. Misunderstandings about the intent behind a statement can cause people to come to blows and has been known to cause larger conflicts or even war.  "Language barriers" between people of differing cultures can make assimilating into a new culture nearly impossible and can pigeonhole a new comer to a foreign land thus reducing his/her job prospects to mostly menial work because precision with language is increasingly necessary the more complicated a career is... and anyone who has tried to communicate with someone without a mutually fluent tongue between you, knows it is just exhausting and frustrating when the language you were raised with, that would so easily explain something, has to be replaced by a drawn out series of pantomime gestures and facial expressions. Because the modern world demands so much human interaction, its extremely difficult to get along in a place where you cannot properly communicate with those around you. 

The other aspect of human society (besides language) that I find to be the most vitally important is food. Language and food may seem, at first glance, like two completely unrelated things, but they both have grown in complexity in a parallel way.  After all, it was through language that humans were able to coordinate with each other to make tools and collaborate in hunting which then led to development of agricultural systems to raise food and later, with a consistent source of ingredients, culinary development became possible.  Thus food procurement and cultivation was one of the first practical applications of language which in turn spurred on the need to propagate language. 

Food is vital to life in general – if you don’t have enough food nothing else matters. You simply cannot care about things or have any sort of enjoyment in life if you are starving. Food, unlike language, is a basic necessity and so people have always made it a central part of life. For those people who are fortunate enough not to be starting, food is a central facet of society and culture.

The daily schedule of people (or at least of most Americans) is structured around when you eat. Eating provides an occasion for you to take a break from whatever else you are doing 2-3 times a day. For me, eating -lunch is the only reason I am allowed to leave my office each day. Sure it’s a biological necessity to have food, but for me, it really doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes to prepare and consume something that will give me enough calories to adequately continue to work efficiently through the day. However, it’s something that’s considered a basic human right (at least in America) to be allowed enough time to procure and consume something that tastes good as well as nourishes you and most companies also allow, for the occasions of lunch, enough time off from work to relax and socialize while eating.

For most people, dinner is something that is an even more important part of the day than lunch. Eating dinner may be the only occasion for many families to gather around a table and talk. Most “dates” involve dinner or at least some type of food or beverage. Traditional gender roles revolve around the “the dinner table”, where women use the money that men bring home to cook and set a meal before their family. Such roles may not be so strictly observed anymore, but there are still some implicit roles in a household that are defined by food preparation. In short food is important to the most vital daily social interactions.

The TYPE of foods you choose to consume or not consume can be very culturally significant and can indicate your values. Sometimes the types of foods you eat are simply a reflection of the resources available to you, such as consuming regional fruits or vegetables, but in other cases the foods you consume (or foods you choose not to consume) can be very significantly tied to your moral and/or religious beliefs. You may choose to be a vegan or vegetarian for ethical or religious reasons, many Jews keep Kosher, many Muslims seek out Halal foods and fast during Ramadan, Catholics often choose to give up a certain food for Lent and many people choose to seek out organic or Fair Trade foods or avoid certain foods like coffee or peanuts etc for various reasons because of the way they are cultivated. Each of these dietary choices is made conscientiously with consumers dedicating time and effort to align their diet with their beliefs and because of this, persons who observe these sorts of dietary restrictions often seek to associate more or exclusively with others who both have the same beliefs and observe the same dietary practices.

Certain delicacies are so hard to procure and/or expensive that they have become associated with a prominent social status. Caviar, lobster or truffles, for example, are things that most people in the world will never consume because they are so costly. However, the very fact that they are considered to be so luxurious, makes many people willing to spend more than they should on such things just so they can have the same experience as a really wealthy or famous person. To many people, special occasions are made even more special when you overspend on pricey delicacies at dinner time. (I don’t happen to prescribe to that particular line of thought, I’d take reasonably priced food that tastes good over fancy food that tastes good any day… and though I have dined at some swanky restaurants, I am yet to find a restaurant in any price range that beats my favorite $10.00 per plate Burmese joint).

Beyond the necessity, daily significance and cultural importance of food, the actual cultivation of food has had a tremendous impact on the world- especially as global population continues to increase so rapidly. It seems like people who are involved in the more scientific development of food are so completely concerned with being efficient NOW that they are creating huge problems that will damn all future generations. It’s so great in the short term that we can produce an over abundance of food using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but the fact that we have to keep upping the dosages to keep up with soil depletion and chemical resistant pets should be a huge red flag.  Mass producing food in general is just  bad science. Things are genetically modified and “products” are kept as uniform as possible in order to ensure that consumers will have consistency  when they purchase certain types of food, which just goes against the entire concept of evolution. By eliminating genetic diversity you reduce the ability of plants and animals to have long term success in adapting to the changes in the world. Use of chemicals and pesticides is like “trying to get one over” on nature, but the natural order that existed long before humans (and will continue after we obliterate ourselves in one way or the other), is so beautiful and perfect in its function.

I wish scientist  would use their skills and resources to create a system that draws on the lessons of nature rather than fighting against it… individuals doing small scale organic farming in their yards or on patios and sharing, trading or selling crops amongst each other would be so much better in so many ways, but it’s so hard to imagine it as a concept that would ever actually take hold because capitalism seems to demand that we 1 continue to move forward  and expand, 2, sell products to consumers / create a demand for whatever supplies we have, so if for example, the product you have a supply of is chemical fertilizer, you should have a sales pitch that accentuates the positives and minimizes the negatives (in short ignore the long term consequences to society in order to maintain the immediate health of your company). Thus at the end of the day, you end up serving money rather than society. Focusing on the bottom line so often comes at the expense of things that actually matter. I suppose the way lobbyists and chemical co. spokesmen present information to politicians and the general public in order to push their own agendas  is just a good example of how using the right words on the right people can  impacts the whole of human society.

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