The New Keywords?

Humanists love words, and with good reason.  Studying the history of a word like culture reveals an enormous amount about how we make the world meaningful, who we are, and how we got this way.  Scholars of literature, culture, and intellectual history have largely followed Ferdinand de Saussure and his structuralist successors in conceiving of language as “rather like a dictionary of which each individual has an identical copy.”  In studying words and their histories, they have been able to rely on the alphabetical finding tools of print media, including concordances, indexes, and card catalogs, not to mention actual dictionaries.

Cyberformalism makes the case for expanding our concept of the Saussurean sign, and with it the domain of philological inquiry, beyond the words in dictionaries. Building on the work of Cognitive and Construction Grammar, it argues that in addition to words we learn a structured repertoire of linguistic forms – variously abstract, idiomatic, and complex pairings of signifier and signified.

Most of the book is devoted to telling stories about socially, intellectually, and poetically consequential linguistic forms over long stretches of time.  Milton and Shakespeare get considerable attention, but the book is no less interested in everyday linguistic creativity.  Here’s an example.  When you encounter the sentences Donuts are the new cupcakes, Coffee is the new wine, Orange is the New Black, Forty is the new thirty, Sitting is the new smoking, and so on, you learn the form X BE the new Y, which signifies that Y is superseded by X selected from a shared semantic category. In learning this form, you come to know, on the one hand, its morphological and syntactic structure, the complex relations between its prefabricated (the new) and variable (X, Y, BE) parts, and, on the other hand, the functional role it plays in discourse, its communicative use.  Crucially, you are not limited to repeating instances of the form that you’ve already heard.  By filling its variables in creative but constrained ways, you can produce an indefinitely large number of new sentences that you’ve never heard before.  That’s how someone came up with Donuts are the new cupcakes in the first place. 

Cyberformalism doesn’t stop with linguistic analysis. It argues that linguistic forms perform consequential social, intellectual, aesthetic, and ideological work, shaping us and the ways we interpret the world.  The peculiar cultural function of form X Be the new Y helps to explain its prevalence. It is no accident that it first arose in the discourse of the fashion industry, with black or navy as the prototypical value of Y, since its various instantiations analogically extend to other spheres of life the temporality of fashion, in which one season’s color, cut, cloth, or stitching is invariably displaced by the next.  In an age of dizzying technological, scientific, and historical change, the form offers a means not only of describing the relentless displacement of outmoded ways of living but of giving this process a comfortingly ironic expression, turning anxiety into verbal play through hyperbole (smoking remains smoking even when sitting is the new smoking).

I don’t suppose X is the new Y is especially momentous or essential to our language capacity.  Yet without taking account of forms like it, any account of poetics (how literature is made) or hermeneutics (how we interpret texts) will be deficient. There is more to language than words, more to meaning than lexical semantics, more to creativity that selecting words and combining them into sequences. Yet prevailing assumptions about language, along with the technological limitations of print finding tools, have kept linguistic forms and their histories hidden from view.

But the technological limitations are changing. Though dictionaries and other print tools are not up to the task of locating signs without fixed alphabetical content, new and emerging digital finding tools are. Increasingly powerful search engines that make use of Natural Language Processing can match abstract patterns and identify nouns and verbs and even noun phrases and verb phrases.  When coupled with huge and growing full-text digital archives like Google Books and Early English Books Online, advanced digital finding tools now allow scholars to find linguistic forms and trace their histories across the full sweep of the textual past. 

I wrote Cyberformalism to persuade humanists to begin telling the same sorts of rich and multifarious stories about linguistic forms that they were telling about words long before Raymond Williams made “keywords” a mainstay of cultural studies. I’m not ready to proclaim that Linguistic forms are the new keywords quite yet.  But I hope the book offers scholars the conceptual and digital tools for studying how we remake and are remade by language – in epic poems and in tweets, on the Elizabethan stage and on protest signs – through the creativity we exercise every day.

Daniel Shore is the Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University. He is the author of Cyberformalism: Histories of Linguistic Forms in the Digital Archive and Milton and the Art of Rhetoric.