Framing the City as Language

There is perhaps no greater impact on our lives than where we live. Our environments are the metaphorical rebar for the communities we emerge in and the social structures they contain; with the potential to reinforce cultural hegemonies (for better or worse) or radically revise the ways we live. Historically, the documentation of cities has been rich and diverse. Architectural models, city planning, tracking demographics, personal accounts, paintings, photographs, novels, and travel guides are some of the more common ways to look into the depths of an urban center in attempts to deconstruct it as a physical location, a historical site, or an overlapping of demographic concentrations. Rather than these approaches, I propose viewing each city as a unique language with its own linguistic features such as vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. It is a view more closely entwined with examining what Edmund N. Bacon, an urban designer and writer, calls “perceptions of the city” (Bacon 174).

Languages can be broken down into their phonology, morphology, semantics, lexicon, and syntax, which build a grammar, or a set of rules that frame a language. Cities can be similarly broken down into smaller building blocks that add up to an entire system for communicating. This logic tracks simply enough but first there are some basic features of language which might seem to prevent a comfortable analogy between language and built environment.

Most linguists and linguistic theories accept language to be arbitrary and conventional. That is, words have meaning insofar as a group of speakers agree on the meaning and collectively use it to indicate the same concept or object. At first glance, it appears obvious that architecture is not arbitrary at all but it is closely intertwined with its concrete ramifications. However, the physical reality of a building is not its only meaning in the same way the literal sound of a word is not its true definition. It is the associations we make when we hear a word. It just takes a reexamination of what arbitrariness could mean when extrapolated from words and applied to language and built environments. While specific words are often arbitrary the production of language itself is not. The need for system of communication is not random and changeable nor are the needs that cities address for their inhabitants. Likewise, the ways in which we construct cities can be examined as largely arbitrary, though the physical construction of the cities is not.

In a literal breakdown of the city, we can examine its building blocks. Like language, cities are built from the concrete realization of an idealized notion. Phonemes are the “basic form of a sound as sensed mentally rather than spoken or heard” (Fromkin et al. 230). In language, we can look at the difference between phonemes and allophones. The phoneme /p/ can be actualized by its allophones, an aspirated /ph/ or an unaspirated /p/, depending on the environment the phoneme finds itself in (Fromkin et al. 230). In the construction of cities we bring our ideas of support and shelter into being, we build bricks, pour concrete, or chisel stone. Just as in language, the environment guides the materials we use and the most basic of methodologies employed to build a city.

In New York, an extremely common phoneme is the brick. It is clearly identifiable as a distinct piece which, on its own, has a history and context, but alone on the side of the road carries very little meaning. Another example is glass as a material before it is used as a window, mirror, or door. A culture’s habituation to the production of such material is what will define how often and how it is used. Further, some languages possess sounds which do not exist in others. In Xhosa clicks, which includes phonemes such as the “tsk” English speakers use, are speech sounds that fit easily into words. Clearly, English speakers are physically able to produce this sound, but because of the linguistic environment in which they were raised, they are often unable to integrate clicks into their words (Fromkin et al. 192).

Morphemes are “most elemental unit of grammatical form” in a language (Fromkin et al. 37). In other words, they are the smallest part of a word that still contains meaning. “Un-” is a morpheme that most English speakers are familiar with. It is a unit that carries meaning, despite not being an entire word, and we understand the grammatical sense in which it must be used. It would be easy for an English speaker to figure out the intention of a nonword such as “*unsee” because they could understand both morphemes, un- meaning not and the morpheme see.

In understanding the language of the city, we can view morphemes in much the same way, as the smallest unit of architecture that retains a unique assigned meaning. The column is a useful point of comparison between language and architecture. It functions as a morpheme within the city. A column seen independently of any building, still carries its implied meaning and retains its functionality. A column applied to any building denotes support, its literal purpose, however, it is also rife with connotation. It carries historical and cultural implications, in an American context often associated with Ancient Greece and democracy. Its connotations are powerful enough that the column has come to be strongly associated with democracy and is frequently used in government buildings as an allusion to a fair and ancient democracy.

It has been claimed that unlike words and language, “buildings do not assert anything about the world” (Donougho 57). But they do. If we examine a city as language, let us imagine buildings as words. Nelson Goodman, a philosopher who worked in the fields of aesthetics and analytics states as a matter of fact that buildings do not denote (unless by including some form or mural or mosaic which depicts a scene) but this understanding is a failed attempt to force architecture into a pre-existing conception of language. From when we are children, we are cultured to understand the denotation of buildings, what they literally mean, as well as their more nuanced connotations. The spacing of windows, the materials used, and other architectural ‘tells’ communicate the purpose of a building. In commercial buildings, we can further consider signage and words in our interpretation of buildings. Goodman’s differentiation between the “‘denotation’, ‘exemplification’, ‘expression’, and ‘mediated reference’” of buildings can is simultaneously restrictive and productive (Goodman 644). In, “How Buildings Mean,” he restricts a building’s denotation to any explicit pictures, murals, and mosaics it contains but if we think about buildings the way we think about words, the architectural structures themselves indeed carry denotation, in addition to their implications and history. Indeed, the study of buildings themselves could be termed a sort of etymology. The context of the neighborhood or nearby area can also reveal information about the building’s meaning.

Syntax is the part of language that deals with “sentences and their structures” (Fromkin et al. 77). Consider here that blocks and streets make up cohesive sentences which function according to the rules of the city. Just as syntax differs between languages, the syntax of different cities can vary greatly. A city’s syntax is determined by rules, just as a language is, but the motivations are, arguably, less arbitrary. A drive-in Sonic burger would not fit into the block make up of midtown Manhattan the way it does in Bakersfield, California. Rules of the economy of space govern layout in a densely populated metropolis, while the abundance of space in other places allows convenience to take preeminence. In cities (or the neighborhoods within cities) where houses are more common than apartment buildings, economic demand could not support two laundromats three doors away from each other, yet it is a common sight in Manhattan.

Using the compilation of phonemes, morphemes, lexicon, and syntax, we can begin to build a comprehensive grammar of a city. Linguists differentiate between types of grammars that are produced to discuss language, two of which are relevant to an examination of urban environments: prescriptive and descriptive grammars. Prescriptive grammars do exactly what their names imply: They attempt to prescribe the “correct” grammar of a language onto a culture. Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English with Critical Notes (1762) was one such grammar that laid down rules of English, which were widely adopted because of his social standing and influence at the time (Fromkin et al. 10). However, the more productive use of the language-city is in building a descriptive grammar, shedding new light on the rules that govern our urban spaces, and acknowledging the diversity within. Just as there is no true Standard American English, there is no “true” city. Grammar, in actual use, is always an amalgamation of general rules which are deviated from in varying degrees by actual speakers of the language. A city like New York does not conform to a strict and rigid set of patterns, just look at the West Village’s stubborn refusal to adhere to the famous grid system that dominates so much of the island. Rather, Manhattan is a family of dialects that all share certain features, leaving the neighborhoods for the most part mutually intelligible.

So to what ends do we frame the city as language, simultaneously unique and universal? With this frame, we can begin to understand the city in a new light. It lends itself to a more clinical, scientific analysis. It allows for examination that passes no judgment, following the mindset of a descriptive grammatician, while still leaving room to search for meaning and impact on the human inhabitants of a place. While still based in concrete fact, the application of linguistic theory has slightly more give than statistics, design plans, and demographic analyses. By looking at cities the way we look at language, we can compare without ranking; an easy tendency to fall into when contrasting two places to live. Suddenly, in the same way we can view variation in subject-object-verb order between languages without particular bias, we can examine the sprawl of Los Angeles and the dense weave of Venetian alleys as contrasting productions, each of which follow the rules of each urban center.

Going one step further, the distance a linguistic analysis gives us from the social aspect of the city provides another gateway into that very human sphere. In fact, we can begin to see similarities emerge in how we examine language as reflective of the group who speaks it, and a city as reflective of its population. By following this process of clinical distancing and later societal analysis, we can look first at the levies and road maps of downtown New Orleans, and then the reasons for that building in a manner that is analogous to the way in which linguists have examined the creole spoken there; at what Paris’s boulevards can tell us about the French revolution just as the adoption of beef, pork, and poultry into English can tell us about Norman-French and English relations.

Though writing grammars and explicating the rules of a language is ideally descriptive and not prescriptive, those and their divergences rules do not slip by unjudged by society as a whole and neither do the implications of diverse languages. Dialects or creoles are especially vulnerable to being looked down upon by a society at large as being substandard or uneducated. An examination of the biases engendered by language is, in fact, useful in framing how we judge others based upon neighborhood or dwellings. If we can think about Harlem not just as a geographic area defined by its demographics, but as a unique dialect within New York, we can examine the rules that govern its physical layout in a more objective manner, without ignoring the very real economic and social implications of residing there both historically and in present day. By examining cities as languages, we are able to bring forth a productive analysis of both the neutral facts of a built environment and rules it follows, as well as a more nuanced look at the social implications of the ways cities are constructed and what led to their structures.

Linguistic framing also opens the door to the application of theories such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its multiple forms which argue, with varying degrees of strength that language goes far beyond reflecting history and society but actively affects the way we view the world. Maybe we cannot actively change the languages we speak, not in any intentional and timely manner at least. however, if we can view our cities as another sort of language, we can much more easily implement what we know about the effects of cities and built space on its occupants. City-as-language is not a radical revision of urban studies, it is simply a slightly different lens through which to look at our world, one that may reveal new problems and hopefully one that can present new answers as well.

Works Cited

Bacon, Edmund N. “Language of Cities.” The Town Planning Review. Vol. 56, No. 2, Design and Conservation in the City. Liverpool University Press, Apr., 1985, pp. 174-196.

Donougho, Martin. “The Language of Architecture.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 21, No. 3 , pp. 53-67,University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. An Introduction to Language. Cengage Textbook. Kindle Edition. 2001.

Goodman, Nelson. “How Buildings Mean.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 11, N. 4, pp. 642-653. The University of Chicago Press, 1985.