The Syntax of Starbucks

For years after moving to the Pacific Northwest I avoided Starbucks, and not for any altruistic anti-big corporation reasons either; no, what kept me away for so long was a strong aversion to the humiliation of being unable to order my coffee.  The conundrum of Starbucks is that, by its very nature, it is filled with impatient people who are in a hurry and haven’t had the soothing elixir of their morning coffee to get them through the experience of… waiting for their morning coffee.  So, we all stand there in line, going over in our heads what to order, only to fail miserably in the end and to be corrected – loudly – by a hipster in an apron who is doodling on a disposable coffee cup. 

The whole experience is like everything I hate about the DMV combined with one of those dreams where you show up somewhere in public without your clothes on.  You stand there, jangling your change, shuffling your feet to keep the line moving, mentally rehearsing your order so that when you get to the front of the line you’ll be ready for the perky Barista or Baristo… or is it Baristbro? (What is the male version of a barista anyway?) then they undermine you by coming out from behind the counter to do a jump-in-the-line surprise attack, where some well-meaning, overly efficient baristperson offers to “get your drink started” and you- flustered by this cunning pre-emptive strike- sputter out your drink order, all the while praying that you haven’t forgotten something. 

I am a graduate student interested in language development and in my studies I came across a quote attributed to Max Weinreich, a prominent linguist, who said that the only difference between a dialect and a language is that “a language has an army and a navy”.  It got me thinking that Starbucks, with its lexicon of nonsensical words and complicated syntax, its military precision, its ever expanding global presence and its legions of followers, might just qualify as the birthplace of the world’s newest language.  Let me take you back 20 years, to the year 1990.  I know that this is hard to believe, but as of 1990, there was no such thing as a Starbucks anywhere in New Mexico (where I grew up).  Nobody in my community had ever uttered the phrase “I’ll have an iced-tall-caramel-macchiato.” And yet now, in 2010, my four year old daughter knows how to speak Starbucks- even if her mother still struggles with the vernacular. 

So today, my mind swimming with all I’ve been learning about linguistics and language acquisition, I popped into Starbucks to pick up a drink for myself and a friend. I’d jotted my friend’s order down on an envelope so that I wouldn’t forget anything.  The place was all but deserted at 2pm – which made me feel a bit too comfortable – cavalier even, when I sashayed up to the cash register and exchanged pleasantries with the guy behind the counter.  I completely missed the fact that he was wearing a black apron – indicating that he was a ninja among mere mortal baristpeople, or, as Starbucks describes it on their website, a “Coffee Master”.  I pulled the envelope from my pocket and began the delicate dance of ordering.  “I’ll take a venti white chocolate…” I notice a slight, almost imperceptible tightening of his shoulders, and I realize I’ve already screwed this up, but it’s too late to stop… “iced non-fat with extra whip” I spit out, defeated.  There is a slight pause where- I SWEAR – he sighed, and then shouted, “Okay, That’s an ICED VENTI WHITE MOCHA NON-FAT EXTRA WHIP.”  Touché.

Now, normally at this point in the exchange I would slink off to the high counter where the drinks magically appear (looking like orphaned children waiting on a deserted train platform) and where I am forced to repeat my shame by asking “Uhm, hey, is this one my Large White Chocolate Ice Drink?” Well, Not Today.  Emboldened by my recent research of language, I say to the coffee ninja, “I am amazed at the way you guys do that – I never seem to be able to order right – even when I write it down!”  He chuckles politely, then leans in conspiratorially and says, “When I was hired 7 years ago they trained us how to call back orders, but nowadays (here he waves his hand dismissively), they are so lax about it– they don’t train the new people to do it anymore,” he ends with an eye roll.

I shake my head sympathetically, indicating that I, too, am incensed by this lackadaisical attitude.  But the truth is, I can’t help but wonder why this bothers him so much.  So I press: “Why do you still do it?”  Here he pauses thoughtfully before replying, “I don’t know, I guess it’s just that I learned the right way to do it and now I can’t do it just any old way.”   Then he cheerfully tells me about a new iPhone app that is designed to help people like me order their Starbucks drink properly.  I thank him for the information, grab my coffee – I mean, my iced-tall-no-foam-latte – and am on my way.

6 thoughts on “The Syntax of Starbucks

Add yours

  1. Well, So cool! I think it’s such fun to get a chance to read your words, posted for the world to see! Your audience is already growing.

    Sending you good writing vibes,


  2. You are so insightful and I found this piece very entertaining and hilarious. I love your sense of humor and know this is the beginning of a wonderful adventure! Sending you good thoughts for future works!!

  3. My embarrassment lurks in shaddows of not ordering something cool like you do. I only want a ‘cuppa coffee’ please. I am treated with distain saved for the uneducated and the great unwashed. Sad.

  4. I could read this piece over and over again, Ellie. You’re so talented. Good thoughts go with you on this great new adventure.

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