The shorthand language of postcards
By Deborah Inkpen
Wish you were here: we’ve all written or read this line on a postcard. But many of us haven’t looked closely at how the postcard has changed our everyday language or shaped modern literature. Dr. Bradley Clissold, a faculty member in Memorial’s Department of English, is hoping his research into postcards written in the late 19th and early 20th century will showcase how these vehicles of modern communication have influenced how we currently read and write almost 100 years later.
Dr. Bradley Clissold handles some of his research material at the Harry Ransom Centre. (Photo courtesy the Harry Ransom Centre)
“Postcards have a shorthand language specific to their materiality,” said Dr. Clissold. “The origins of the picture postcard date back to the 1860s, and even though this form of modern communication has been surpassed by more technologically efficient means, the postcard has not been replaced. It retains its cultural currency as an easy and inexpensive communication medium, and over the past 140 years the postcard has continued to evolve as a cultural touchstone and historical register.”
Dr. Clissold recently received an Andrew W. Mellon research fellowship to conduct research at the Harry Ransom Center, a cultural archive that houses over 36 million literary manuscripts, including a copy of the first Gutenberg Bible. He will spend two months at the Center in Austin, Texas, to study their collections of postcards. His focus will be, in part, on the ways in which postcards exist as neglected precursors to the shorthand language used in text messaging and e-mail.
“I am looking at the ways language gets modified by these types of technologies and different materialities,” he said. “People have not really explored how the postcard, and the telegram before it, helped to initiate a silent revolution in everyday linguistic practices and did so in a very popular and democratic way.”
For Dr. Clissold, another important aspect of this project is that it helps to preserve postcards as valuable archival resources for future generations of scholars. “There is finally a slow but growing trend among postcard collectors and archivists to no longer dismiss the ‘postally used’ postcard as devalued and worthless,” he said. “Through my research, I hope to generate a greater appreciation for the value of postcard writing and reading, and encourage the preservation of these artifacts of cultural identity.”
He is also connecting the language of postcards to literary movements in the beginning of the 20th century. “Literary authors were experimenting with language fragmentation and abbreviation in literature in ways that are very similar to the messages written on postcards by postcard writers,” he explained. “A lot of Modernist literature, which roughly dates from 1890 to 1939, is considered elitist and esoteric a literature apparently designed only for a very sophisticated, hyper-educated specialist who could decipher such experimental works.”
Dr. Clissold argues that the “same types of fragmentation and truncation of language that appear in Modernist literature were commonly practiced on postcards by many everyday users of postcards.
“The same types of language-play were being used at both this high end of aesthetic production and at this so-called low end of daily communication, so I am trying to unite these two fields of cultural practice to argue that if people could deal with postcard forms, they could, in theory at least, deal with the more experimental linguistic forms of Modernist literature.” This claim allows Dr. Clissold to challenge the misrepresentation of Modernist literature as cultic and not written for the “common” reader.
“You can’t hide anything on postcards; it’s an open form of correspondence: the mailman, if you had servants, any third party who comes into contact with them can read them and most do,” said Dr. Clissold. “As a result one often finds coded messages and private language games on inscribed postcards which is also reminiscent of some of Modernism’s more experimental authors.”
This work is part of a larger book project Exchanging Postcards: Vernacular Modernism and the Field of Cultural Reception, which attempts to read the postcard as a popular material support for early 20th-century literary aesthetics by focusing on how the postcard functioned as a practical application for the production and reception of Anglo-American modernist experiments in linguistic and literary form.