The other day I started reading The Language of Food: A Linguist reads the menu by Dan Jurafski, in which he explores food origins and unravels their hidden messages such as how come American menu´s call their main courses entrées, why we toast, and the connection between fermented fish sauces and tomato ketchup. Linguistic change often plays a big role in how we got here. Quite literally in the case of tea as that depends on whether trade happened by land or by sea.
This book fresh in my mind probably primed me to become fascinated by this quote by Wells in his work on the World’s Brain, an apparatus meant to share global knowledge:
In comparison with any preceding age, we are in a state of extreme mental fermentation.
Fermentation to me, a linguist who loves food, is the process of controlled rot. By regulating the rotting process you create a bacterial environment in which flavour can be developed. About a year and a half ago due to the pandemic and an overall explosion on the internet, breadmaking became a popular household endeavour in which people started feeding their sourdoughs as an isolation pastime. The same was the case for me until I gave in to my disinterest for sourdough. My interest shifted from loafs to other fermentable food items and I ended up making my own kimchi, be it traditional with napa cabbage, an fascinating linguistic item on its own as napa is derived from the Japanese word for cabbage leaves, or with Brussels sprouts, which though called sprouts are cabbages too. Pickling food and bread baking have become part of my association with the verb ‘to ferment’ and as it seasoned my life I associate it with positive change.
Ultimately, I learned about how fermentation in many cultures functions as preservation.
For all the algorithms and web crawlers are concerned fermentation is the process in which microorganisms brings about desirable change in food and beverages as the search engines provide me with what I would consider relevant results. Fermentation the way Wells used must have been metaphorical in use. He did not suggest that back then in 1938 the good people were going through a physical alternation of their brain structure through the workings of microorganisms. There must be more other uses of the word to ferment. ‘Ferment meaning’ returns a Google search result with a second definition of the verb by Oxford languages as ‘incite or stir up (trouble or disorder)’ and describes the noun as ‘agitation and excitement among a group of people, typically concerning major change and leading to trouble or violence.’ For the verb Oxford languages provides the example sentence: “the politicians and warlords who are fermenting this chaos“.
The definition of the noun might provide me with a relevant result, yet it does not deliver.
This dissatisfaction stems from how I came to understand fermentation as a process which creates a culture to strive and how ‘leading to trouble or violence’ is not in line with this belief. Another factor is that Wells sketches a future in which we thrive towards better understanding of one other. This too is not in line with ´leading to trouble or violence´ as the result of the mental fermentation would lead to positive social change.
This notion of positive social change is subjective. Wells was a socialist in a capitalist society and his idea of accessible information to all challenged the status quo where knowledge is power. Especially if this information where to be guarded editorially and with the utmost jealousy against the incessant invasion of narrowing propaganda as well as necessarily press strongly against national delusions of grandeur, and against all sectarian assumptions.
The World´s Brain when biased in such a way would indeed incite disorder as it invokes an unwanted shift in power.
I cherish Wells’ idea of this biased world brain, but I am not experiencing it. Eighty-three years later I am surfing through what could have been the World Brain, but navigating it to collect, arrange, or digest the knowledge available adequately at all is proving itself to be difficult.
I continue to read to the rest of the chapter and find many critiques on the system that could just as well be written in this day and age. In comparison with his era we might find ourselves in the same mental fermentation, but in the sense of how in many cultures fermentation is used as preservation.