Eating Words

Food for Thought

At this point in my life, there aren’t too many foods that I cannot identify. Unless you are Korean, you would probably have no idea what this is in the photo. I had no clue when I saw it at a large Korean supermarket in Queens.

As a baby, before she started talking, my daughter ate just about everything we gave her. Even when she didn’t like something, she made her decision after she enthusiastically shoved it in her mouth. This changed after she began identifying the food with words. She stopped trying foods unless she knew what they are called. For most people, this fear of eating something wordless persists for the rest of their lives. When they see a dish they cannot identify, they nervously ask, “What is it?” as if knowing the word would change the taste of it.

This is how we know we experience everything through the protective layer of language—so much so that we have no clue how to experience anything directly. In fact, we never “experience” anything because it’s always mediated by language. We only interpret, not experience, everything that happens around us. When an experience is forced on us without this linguistic protection, it can be frightening.

Think about why ghosts are scary. If you saw a translucent person standing in front of you in a dark hallway, why wouldn’t you simply go up to it curiously and try to figure out what it is, whether he can talk, or you can touch? You become scared because you have no linguistic framework to interpret what you are seeing. It’s not because it’s dark. If the apple in your hand lifted upward when you let go, you would be scared too. Whether it’s bright or dark is irrelevant. You lose your linguistic protection when something like that happens. Babies and dogs wouldn’t be scared because their worlds are not mediated through language. Our fear is like the fear of being naked in public—rationally speaking, as long as it’s not cold outside, there is nothing to worry about. That fear exists only within our shared linguistic world.

Special thanks to @yoonhwaj for identifying what this is.