Milking The Cow, Amoebic Dysentery & Other Metaphors For Creative Writing

metaphors-for-creativityOne of my Christmas presents this year was Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life by American novelist Anne Lamott. It’s a book for aspiring writers and novelists – aren’t we all? – and it’s full of advice and inspiration about the writing business. It’s also honest, spiritual, and consistently funny. Lamott writes a bit like Charles Bukowski spliced with Alice Walker.

What really struck me about the book is the range of metaphors Lamott uses to describe the creative writing process. The title itself comes from a memory she has of her brother, in tears, momentarily defeated by a high school assignment he has to write about birds. She recalls her father putting his arms around him and telling him to “just take it bird by bird”: a metaphor she says is helpful in approaching a novel –one paragraph or one chapter at a time.

Early on, for example, Lamott writes about writing as a form of magic or divinity:

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve thought there was something noble and mysterious about writing, about the people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers.”

Later, she compares setting down the plot to driving a car at night and only being able to see as far as the headlights. Elsewhere, she describes bringing the plot to a climax as if composing a symphony:

“The climax is that major event, usually towards the end, that brings together all the tunes you have been playing so far into a major chord, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed […]”

Somewhere in the middle, she describes writing dialogue as an act of translation:

“You’re translating the sound or rhythm of what a character says into words. You’re putting down on paper your sense of how the characters speak.”

At one point, she compares creativity – the generation of novel and striking ideas – to holding a lantern in the dark while her unconscious (which she imagines as a “kid”) digs for treasure:

“I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn’t know even know what the kid is digging for half the time – but she knows gold she she sees it.”

Then, she compares the act of writing – of arranging those ideas on paper – to knitting or embroidery:

“What we have in our head are fragments and thoughts we’ve heard and memorized, and we take our little ragbag and reach into it and throw some stuff down […]”

And to painting:

“I talked earlier about the artist who is trying to capture something in one corner of his canvas and keeps discovering that what he has painted is not what he had in mind.”

And also gardening:

“What happens instead is that you’ve gone over and over something so many times, and you’ve weeded and pruned and re-written […]”

All of her metaphors for writing are memorably evocative. I particularly liked the analogy of milking a cow: “the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it”. And perhaps the most striking of all is the one she uses to describe getting over writer’s block:

“[…] it was like catching amoebic dysentery. I was just sitting there minding my own business, and the next minute I rushed to my desk with an urgency I had not believed possible.”

But what’s interesting for me is the way Lamott is using metaphor – as an artist rather than a scientist – to explore the very real cognitive processes of linguistic creativity.

As she herself says in the book: “metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known”. It’s true that we don’t yet fully understand the complex linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics involved in the creation of language, let alone creative language. If we did, we wouldn’t need authors. We’d be able to design a computer programme to write the next Booker Prize winner. The Nobel Prize for literature would have already been awarded to Microsoft or Google.

Instead, linguistic creativity remains a fascinating subject for research (and novelists, at least a handful of them, can still make a living). While the metaphors Lamott uses to describe the process of writing – or at least how she herself perceives that process – perhaps don’t explain how linguistic creativity works, they do provide places for scientists to start looking.

For example, why might a writer experience the emotional need to write such that finishing a novel feels like being milked? Is the lantern holder really different to the kid digging, and what does that say about the structure of the brain? And why might creativity sometimes feel like running to the lavatory?…

They’re all great questions, of course. Indeed, they are exactly what this blog is about.

Grief Is The Thing With Compounds


Crow Silhouette by Colleen O’Dell

Every year, Swansea University awards the Dylan Thomas prize for young writers. This year’s winner was Max Porter for his debut novel, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, the tale of a grieving father and his two young boys coming to terms with the death of their mother. It’s a short work, just over one hundred pages long, as much prose poem as novel. It’s sad, funny, and honest. It’s also linguistically inventive. I liked it a lot.

The story, in which the father and the boys are helped in their grieving by a magical, mischievous crow, is inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes. It’s fitting that, like the work of Ted Hughes, Potter’s book is also marked stylistically with the use of novel compounds. Here’s how it starts with the father describing the first few days after the mother’s death:

“I felt hung-empty. The children were asleep, I drank. I smoked roll-ups out of the window. I felt […] I would permanently become this organiser, this list-making trader in clichés of gratitude, machine-like architect of routines for small children with no Mum.”

On the next page, there’s “knotted-string dream” and “dinner party post-mortem bitches”. At some point the protagonists find themselves “loving the journey of hurting, hurting-hurting”. The flat they live in is “spit-level”. And so on.

Even if Porter isn’t always consistent with his use of hyphens (there are also “ball drops” and “dread dead”), “hung-empty”, “spit-level” and so on are all linguistic compounds. They are words (mostly nouns and adjectives, but also verbs and adverbs) formed by combining together two or more other words. (Technically, a compound must contain at least two root morphemes). And they are novel – at least in the sense that they don’t appear in the dictionary.

I’ve written about compounds before. They fascinate me because they show creativity – which is, after all, about novel combinations – in perhaps its purest and most essential form.

And it’s not just me who’s into them. Researchers have written entire theses on the subject – about compounding in contemporary English poetry, for example, or the various types of compound nouns in Middle English verse. Certainly, Ted Hughes liked his compounds. He even said once that the first praise he received as a young poet was for a compound epithet he’d written.

Max Porter’s book is also full of them. Sprinkled across the pages are two-part compound nouns (or nominal compounds). They include: “left-behinds”, “cock-cheek”, “futile curse-lifting”, “song-legend”, “death-chill”, “plum-pear”, “garden-song”, and “ball drops”. The visiting crow does a lot of what is perfectly described as “unbound crow stuff”.

Most of these compounds are what linguists call “endocentric”. That is, they consist of a head (the second part of the compound), which defines the general category of the compound, and a modifier (the first part) so that “death-chill” is a special type of “chill”, and so on. A few, however, are “exocentric” in that don’t have a formal head. “Left-behinds”, for example, is made up of a verb and an adverb. Although it is a noun, it’s not a type of “behind”.

There are also plenty of compound adjectives. When the boys brush their teeth they leave “a white-speckled mess” on the bathroom mirror (and not, more simply, “a white, speckled mess”). The father recalls the “boom-dry loveliness of Ted Hughes’ warm Yorkshire accent” when speaking in front of a “Ted-savvy crowd”. There’s also: “a breath-catching wait”, “dread dead”, “hung-empty”, “Shakespeare-heavy”, “Stonehenge shamanic”, “tabloid despicable”, “very blood-sport”, “spit-level”, “blood-drunk fox cubs”, “tar-black bone”, “flint-stubbled ground”, “BRAKE-FAILED BANGERS”, and even “God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating, math-bomb motherfucker”.

Again, most of these are endocentric with adjectival heads modified by either another adjective (“hung-empty”) or a noun (“Shakespeare-heavy”). Again, a few are exocentric. “Blood-sport”, for example, is formed by conversion of a (compound) noun to a (compound) adjective, and doesn’t have a formal head. Again, all are wonderfully creative.

There are compound verbs, including “back-kicked the door shut” and “mourn hunt with pack lunches”. The compound verbal noun “curse-lifting”, above, is itself formed from a compound verb (“curse-lift”), as are the compound adjectives (technically participles) “God-eating”, “trash-licking”, “word-murdering” and “carcass-desecrating”. I also spotted one compound adverb, in “the beak hurled down hammer-hard”.

Happily, Porter doesn’t just limit his creativity to two-part compounds. There are also some brilliant three-word compound adjectives, for example: “behind-glass cosy”, “dry-stone strong”, “beer-gold light”, “fuck-sacks sad” and, perhaps my favourite, “fuck-you-yellow”. There are also plenty of three-part compound nouns: “stroke-reversing suede”, “lazy-boy burn”, “decent Prince win”, “tangled wool hammering”, “hand-puppet crow”, “Boys/Dad boundary”, “bouncy castle elm” and “math-bomb motherfucker”. In all cases, the first two words in the sequence form a compound, which then modifies the head noun (the final word in the sequence).

Porter is so at home with compounds that sometimes he uses hyphens to compound words where generally you wouldn’t. “White-speckled mess”, above, is one example. Elsewhere the dad recalls the mother saying, “it hurts, fuck, fuck-fuck it hurts”. The hyphen here doesn’t just help in capturing the rhythm of speech (you could also imagine punctuating this as “it hurts. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, it hurts”). More powerfully, the hyphen also gives a sense of going beyond “fuck” to a compound fuck: a sort of double-fuck or fuck-squared. And even where the compounds aren’t novel, Porter always employs them with a skilful sense of rhythm as in this sentence early on: “we were young boys with remote-control cars and ink-stamp sets”.

In sum, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is well worth a read. Not least, it’s a master-class in lexical creativity, a real Ted-fest of compounds, jam-packed with “unbound crow stuff”. The man himself would have been impressed.

Asyndeton in Bukowski’s “Ham on Rye”

I recently did what everyone should do at some point: I read Ham on Rye. What’s most striking about Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical novel – apart from the characteristic honesty and humour – is the style. Bukowski was a fan of the “tight and bloody line” and the novel is written in simple declarative sentences, à la Hemingway. It reads, at times, like a string of jabs to the ribs.

What’s also noticeable about Bukowski’s prose is that he rarely resorts to the rhetorical figures of poetry and classical oratory. In the novel, there are certainly very few metaphors or similes. But there is one figure he uses habitually, if not frequently: asyndeton.

Asyndeton (literally “unconnected”) is a fancy name for a fairly simple thing: the omission of conjunctions between words, phrases, or clauses. It refers to a syntactic process (which grammarians call “asyndetic coordination”) in which parts of speech are joined together simply by placing them next to each other without an intervening word like “and” or “or”.

For example, this is how Ham on Rye starts, with Bukowski stringing whole clauses, asyndetically, with just commas to separate them:

 “The first thing I remember is being under something. It was a table, I saw a table leg, I saw the legs of the people, and a portion of the tablecloth hanging down. It was dark under there, I liked being under there.”

Although he then goes straight back to basics:

“It must have been in Germany. I must have been between one and two years old. It was 1922. I felt good under the table.”

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle wrote, critically: “asyndeton and the frequent repetition of the same word are correctly rebuked in written style”. The philosopher probably wouldn’t have approved of the Bukowski’s opening then – nor the fact that asyndeton (like word-repetition) is a very commonly used literary device. Examples of asyndeton are pretty easy to find. In Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, for example, we have asyndeton of noun phrases:

“I envied her her phlegm, her indolence, her insouciance […]”

In James Joyce’s Ulysses we have asyndeton of both prepositional phrases (“by words, by sounds of words”) and adjectives:

“We mustn’t be led away by words, by sounds of words. We think of Rome, imperial, imperious, imperative.”

In Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners we have asyndeton of successive adjectival phrases neatly wrapped around asyndeton’s polar opposite, polysyndeton:

“Yet day after day Cap still alive, defying all logic and reason and convention, living without working, smoking the best cigarettes, never without women.”

Asyndeton is not just a feature of English, either. Here, for example, is asyndeton of verb phrases in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet:

“Cada um de nós é vàrios, é muitos, é uma prolixiade de si mesmos […]”

So, if asyndeton is used so often, just what is it used for? What’s its purpose?

First of all, asyndeton is stylistically striking. Instead of “X, Y and Z”, which you might expect to see in the formal prose of a newspaper or a textbook, you have “X, Y, Z”. Like any figure of speech, asyndeton, is a deviation from the linguistic norm. It draws your attention as a reader. And, because asyndeton tends to be associated with poetry rather than flat prose, it conveys a general sense of the poetical. If an author uses asyndeton, at some level they are saying, “I am being poetic.”

Richard Lanham defines a figure of speech as “a device or pattern of language in which meaning is enhanced or changed”. So how, specifically, does asyndeton change or enhance meaning? How is asyndeton different to other figures of speech?

Asyndeton turns out to be a bit of a slippery beast. It can produce a variety of effects depending on when and how it is used. One of the most commonly cited effects of asyndeton is to speed up the rhythm of a passage. That’s certainly the case with this sentence from Cynan Jones’s The Dig, for example, where the asyndeton helps evoke a startled bird:

“There was a burst of charcoal, a blackbird, a sudden quick call in the quiet.”

Another effect of asyndeton is to give a sense of equality, by removing a stress that a conjunction might otherwise provide, in a list of coordinated items. Compare, for example, “I came, I saw, I conquered” with “I came, I saw, and I conquered”.

Sometimes, of course, asyndeton just helps with the scansion or the rhythm:

Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick-maker,
All put out to sea.

And asyndeton can be used, cunningly, to make opaque language even more opaque. For example, Francine Prose describes Paul Bowles’s short story, A Distant Episode, as a story “about language as one way to predict when the kick in the head is coming, language as the essence of the self that registers the fact that one’s head is getting kicked”.

At a semantic level, asyndeton applies a kind of fuzzy logic to the relevant list of words or phrases. In the following excerpt from Ham on Rye it’s not clear whether Bukowski means “and” or “or” – whether he’s going to become all of these things, or just one. The absence of semantic clarity leaves something for you to think about as a reader, and potentially help you engage with the writing:

“I felt as if I were destined to be a murderer, a bank robber, a saint, a rapist, a monk, a hermit.”

Because of this fuzzy logic, asyndeton also gives a sense of incompleteness. Whereas “X, Y and Z” suggests a closed set, “X, Y, Z” is less rigidly bounded. In this sentence from Quiet Days in Clichy, you get the sense that Miller could keep eating even after the figs and nuts:

“I felt like having clams, lobsters, oysters, snails, a broiled bluefish, a tomato omelette, some tender asparagus tips, a savory cheese, a loaf of bread, a bottle of chilled wine, some figs and nuts.”

The fuzzy logic also means that similar terms can be thrown together. Recently, I saw an advert for a Mark Wahlberg film on the side of the bus. In large letters were two quotes calling it “explosive” and “outstanding”. Because of the semantic overlap between the two adjectives (“outstanding” should generally entail “explosive” in reference to an action film), you wouldn’t say Deepwater Horizon was “explosive and outstanding”. But you might say it was “explosive, outstanding”. Aristotle said words have a “special force” when listed asyndetically like this. Because “many things” seem to be said at once, he wrote, “amplification is produced”.

So, the functions of asyndeton are multiple. But, for me, the most profound function of asyndeton, like the repetition of words, is to reveal the act of creation itself. Amit Chaudhuri wrote recently in The Guardian that “long sentences and intricate syntax are records of either a thought process of a sensory one”. For me, that’s true of asyndeton too. In the excerpt from a hungry Henry Miller above, the asyndeton clearly captures a string of pleasurable ideas bubbling, one by one, to Miller’s mind – in a sense, the process of dreaming. For me, asyndeton reveals a lot about how ideas come to us: raw, disordered, unbounded, illogical. It reveals an initial stage of writing that comes before the conscious process of critique and refinement.

And because asyndeton reveals an unconscious thought process, sometimes, it can reveal a deeper emotional state – and therefore pack a stronger emotional punch. In one memorable chapter, Bukowski writes about how his father would come home from work, and beat him. It goes like this:

“I heard my father come in. He always slammed the door, walked heavily, and talked loudly. He was home. After a few moments the bedroom door opened. He was six feet two, a large man. Everything vanished, the chair I was sitting in, the wallpaper, the walls, all of my thoughts. He was the dark covering the sun, the violence of him made everything else utterly disappear. He was all ears, nose, mouth, I couldn’t look at his eyes, there was only his red angry face. […] Then he laid on the strop. The first blow inflicted more shock than pain. The second hurt more. Each blow which followed increased the pain. At first I was aware of the walls, the toilet, the tub. Finally I couldn’t see anything. As he beat me, he berated me, but I couldn’t understand the words. I thought about his roses, how he grew roses in the yard.”

The passage is clearly without humour. It is also ripe with asyndeton – of noun phrases and also clauses. It’s uncharacteristically ripe, in fact. It jars with the rest of Bukowski’s sparse, plain style. Because of the asyndeton, you can almost feel the anguish felt as Bukoswki was writing it. This is a hard-drinking, hard-talking, hard-fighting man letting his emotions flow.

And that – the asyndeton – is what makes it pack such a punch.

Crags, Cæsters & Crans: The Multilingual Tapestry of England

IMG_7774I don’t normally write about etymology. The origin of words and names is a fascinating subject in itself, mixing as it does linguistics and history with just about any sphere of knowledge. But mine is a blog about language and creativity, and there are plenty of excellent blogs on etymology (like this one) already out there. However, after a weekend road-trip from my home in the South East of England, to the Lake District in the North West, I was inspired to break the habit and write about the curious etymology of English geography.

England, like many countries, boasts a wonderfully creative assortment of place names – as Bill Bryson celebrates with the title of his recent book, The Road to Little Dribbling. Naming all of its various locations and geographical features, over the centuries, has surely taken a great deal of creativity. In many cases, place names are nouns (like Ham from the Old English hamm for enclosure), or adjectivally modified nouns (West Ham) acting as very simple descriptions. Many are noun compounds either with some kind of particle or suffix (Birm-ing-ham), or without (Cam-bridge). Some place names, like that of Pease Pottage (literally “pea soup”) in West Sussex, go beyond simple descriptions into the poetic realm of metaphor.

But what struck me on the trip is the degree of multilingual creativity (of sorts) that has been involved in naming the various villages, towns and cities, rivers, lakes and mountains, you find up and down the country. It’s not just that different languages have been used to name places by different people at different times – from the earliest Celtic languages and the Latin of the Romans, to the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and Old Norse of the Vikings, to the French of the Normans, and even some Italian. What struck me was how often, because of the way they have influenced each other over time, the various languages have been thrown together within English place names. It’s surely something of a paradox that in such a seemingly monolingual country, England’s multilingual past is etched into its very geography.

The best way to show you what I mean is to take you with me on my weekend road trip across the country. So jump in, fasten your seatbelt, and off we go.

Day One: St Albans to Carnforth

After breakfast, we set off from St Albans, an old Roman town a few miles north of London, and take the M1 north through Hertfordshire, then Northamptonshire – two of the many English counties taking a suffix from the Old English scīr meaning “district”. Then, it’s into Leicestershire, where the motorway passes a few miles from the burial place of Richard III and our first example of multilingual creativity: the word Leicester stems from the Anglo-Saxon Ligora-cæster: a neatly Romano-British mixture of the Celtic name of a tribe or river and an Old English word for Roman fort (from the Latin castrum). Incidentally, not far to the West is Ashby de la Zouche, probably one of the coolest sounding English towns, which provides our second example. Ashby derives from the Old English or Old Norse for “ash tree”, and the Old Norse bý for “farmstead”. “De la Zouche” is French and comes later, from the family name of a bunch of Norman aristocrats.

IMG_7758Then, it’s up through Nottinghamshire, my home county, and into Derbyshire where we turn off the motorway towards the market town of Chesterfield (open land by another Roman cæster). From there, it’s west over the Pennines, the range of hills that form the central spine of England, named at some point in the 18th century, probably to ape the Italian Appennini. Then, it’s on into the Derbyshire Dales (from the Old English dæl for “valley”), part of the wider Peak District, the country’s first national park. Here the road gets windier and things get generally wilder, and there are more sheep. We drive past Baslow (burial place hlāw of some Anglo Saxon bloke called Bassa). Then, it’s on to once plague-stricken Eyam (from the Old English ēg for island, in the dative plural, meaning something like “bits of land between streams”).

After a quick sandwich in the Miner’s Arms, it’s then back on the road. We drive on north-westward into Cheshire and the village of Disley, from the Old English leāh for clearing in a wood, for a quick visit to Lyme Park (location of another -ley, Pemberley, in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice). From here it’s up the M6, past Greater Manchester and all its traffic, into Lancashire. Through the window to our left is a third Anglo-Saxoned Celtic-Latin hybrid, Lancaster (from cæster and the Celtic-named river Lune). Finally, we reach our overnight destination, where we are fed a hearty plate of roast lamb by our hosts, my aunt and uncle. The Lancashire town of Carnforth was once just a ford populated with cranes (from the Old English cran) until a gradual metathesis eventually switched the two phonemes around.

Day Two: The Lake District

IMG_7755On Saturday, it’s the main event. After breakfast, we drive a few miles on into the Lake District, the national park which is famously home to one only “lake”, but many equally beautiful “meres”, “tarns” (from the Old Norse), and “waters” (Old English) – it’s also abundant in “crags” (from Celtic), “gills” (Old Norse gil), “fells” (from the Old Norse fjall), and “edges”. We drive north along the touristed shores of Windermere (lake of a bloke called Vinandr), remembering that calling it “Lake Windermere” would be tautology (like River Avon and Lake Michigan). On the way to Ambleside we pass a sign for Troutbeck (from the Old Norse bekkr for stream). Then, it’s on to lovely Grasmere (grassy lake), once home and burial place of William Wordsworth, for a spot of lunch. Finally, a bit further on, we reach our least body of water, Thirlmere, in the shadow of Helvellyn – the third highest fell in the Lake District (and England for that matter), a hill with something of a question mark next to it, etymologically speaking.

From there, it’s back down to Windermere and a cross-country route home which takes us via Arnside, a small seaside town on the treacherous tidal “sands” where the river Kent flows into Morecambe bay, before cutting back to Carnforth for one final night. Incidentally, Morecambe is another example of multilingual naming: it comes to us from the Latin recording of an older Celtic name (Morikámbē) for the bay itself.

Version 2

Day Three: Homeward bound

The next morning, it’s time for the long drive home. We take the less scenic route this time but it’s no less interesting, etymologically speaking.



The Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A. D. Mills (1998).




Eponyms, -oriums and “Boaty McBoatface”: A Brief Guide to Naming Research Facilities

Slide1When it comes to linguistic creativity, scientists like to give their humanities colleagues a run for their money. From poetic titles to journal articles and research grants, scientists love a good label – and not least for the various labs and research facilities they work in.

Some of these names – like the Large Hadron Collider and the Swiss Light Source – can be fairly functional, but even the most prosaic are usually converted to acronyms. The largest radio telescope in the world, to be built in South Africa and Australia, will be called the Square Kilometer Array (its acronym “SKA” conjuring up associations with Caribbean rhythms). Perhaps most famous of all, CERN stands for “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire”.

Sometimes, the relevant noun phrase can be forced to fit more elegant acronyms. UCL’s Pedestrian Accessibility & Movement Environment Laboratory is affectionately known as “PAMELA”. The last UK national supercomputing facility, the High-End Computing Terascale Resource, was known as “HECTOR”. The current one, ARCHER, is no less heroically named. In the list of the world’s biggest supercomputers – which includes Titan, Sequoia and Stampede – connotations of power and size abound.

As well as acronyms, eponyms honouring famous scientists are also common. The Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research – named after one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA – will open this year in London. In the North of England, the Sir Henry Royce Institute will be a major centre for materials science. Alan Turing, WWII code-breaker and father of modern computing, was pardoned in 2013, shortly before the unveiling of plans for a new national centre for data science fittingly named The Alan Turing Institute.

It’s not just a recent trend. When Imperial College London was established in South Kensington after the Great Exhibition of 1851 the entire area – also home to the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria & Albert Museum – was named “Albertopolis” in honour of Queen Victoria’s husband. Via similar application of the Greek suffix -polis (meaning “city”), the site of the London 2012 Olympics is being renamed “Olympicopolis”. The former Olympic Park will become a new cultural quarter in the East End with University College London establishing a new campus there, and the Smithsonian setting up a new museum. Employing another suffix (the Latin -orium denoting “place of”) the UK Government have announced £138M funding for a new UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure & Cities. This national research centre, called “UKCRIC” for short, will have its headquarters at the Olympicopolis.

As well as UKCRIC, the Alan Turing Institute and the Sir Henry Royce Institute, another major research facility recently announced by the UK Government is a new £200M polar research vessel. The vessel hit the headlines recently when the Natural Environment Research Council launched a public competition to find a suitable name for the ship. The linguistic creativity of the general public being what it is, the most popular name suggested so far is RRS “Boaty McBoatface”. Other popular suggestions include:

RRS Boatimus Prime
RRS I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie
RRS What Iceberg?
RRS Ice Ice Baby
RRS Not the Titanic
RRS Boat Marley and the Whalers
RRS Boatback Mountain

Although it’s not clear whether NERC will ultimately honour the public’s choice, the name Boaty McBoatface has definitely caught the wider imagination. Creative linguistic variations include a racehorse in Australia called “Horsey McHorseface”, a commuter train called “Trainy McTrainface”. There have even been suggestions to name a new ape at Bristol Zoo Gorilla McGorillaface and, on Twitter, there have been calls to forget “Czechia” and rename the Czech Republic “Country McCountryface”.

It’s not just me that has noticed the similarity between the Xy McXface construction and Keep Calm and X (and also Fifty Shades of X) except with some added reduplication and splash more silliness.

So there you have it. From eponyms, acronyms and suffices, there are a number of neat ways to make a research lab seem just that bit more exciting. But if you really want to make a lab or science facility appealing to the general public, then you know what to do.

From William Shakespeare to Amy Tan: Do bilinguals make better writers? (2)

IMG_7123In my last post, I started to argue that there is a link between bilingualism – the ability to speak a second language to some degree of proficiency – and linguistic creativity. That is, bilinguals like Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway were better writers in English because they could speak at least one other language as well.

My argument was based purely on anecdote – essentially that, if you look at any list of the 100 greatest novels of all time, a large number of the authors represented will be proficient in another language.

However, there is more than just anecdotal evidence to support the claim. Over the last four decades, there has been a huge amount of research on the potential advantages (and disadvantages) of bilingualism on various aspects of cognition. This includes a growing amount of research on the link between bilingualism and creativity.

Before looking at the research it’s worth first defining some terms. As human beings, we have the capacity to perform various mental processes. Creativity, just one of these processes, is actually a fairly complex concept. In everyday life, being “creative” can mean anything from being good at solving maths problems to being handy with a paintbrush.

Among scientists, a commonly accepted definition is that creativity is the ability to come up with novel and useful (or appropriate) ideas. And the production of these ideas is generally assumed to involve two different mental processes. The first process, divergent thinking, involves producing a number of different ideas in response to some question or problem. The second, convergent thinking, involves searching and analysing these ideas to find the most appropriate one(s). So, if I want to complete the sentence “the man screamed like a…”, divergent thinking is coming up with noun phrases like “banshee”, “baby”, and “boy scout”. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is settling on “chimpanzee on fire”.

When it comes to producing novel ideas, divergent thinking is key. Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast”. Coining such a memorable metaphor for the City of Light needed both divergent and convergent thinking but, without the former, the latter would have got Hemingway nowhere. As a result, most researchers interested in creativity tend to focus on measuring individuals’ ability to think divergently. To do so, they tend to employ one of a number of standard tests.

In these tests people might be shown random doodles (something like the inkblot test) and asked to write down as many ideas as they can for what they might represent. Or, they might be shown some visual puzzle and asked to come up with creative solutions to it. One of the most common tests, the Torrance Test, evaluates three aspects of divergent thinking based how many ideas individuals produce in a set period of time (“fluency”), how different the ideas are from each other (“flexibility”), and how different they are to ideas that other people come up with (“novelty”).

In the 1970s, in an early study of bilingualism and creativity, a researcher at the University of North Dakota looked at how elementary school students performed on the Torrance Test (Landry, 1973). The first two groups of students, from the second and sixth grades, were at an elementary school that provided a foreign language programme. The second two groups of students attended an elementary school, which didn’t provide any foreign language tuition. All students in the study had English as their first language. Although there was no significant difference found between the two groups of second-grade students, the researcher found that sixth-grade girls who had received bilingual education did perform better in measures of fluency and flexibility.

In a more recent study, a researcher at the University of Haifa compared the creative thinking abilities of bilingual Russian-Hebrew children in both Hebrew-language and dual-language Kindergartens in Israel, against those of monolingual Hebrew-speaking children (Leikin, 2012). The children, from similar socio-economic backgrounds, were tested at the start of Kindergarten and then, again, one year later. The researcher found that there was no significant difference between the divergent thinking of the three sets of students in the first round of tests. However, when the tests were repeated, the bilingual students in the dual-language programme performed significantly better (in terms of flexibility and novelty) compared to the monolingual group, suggesting that regular exposure to two languages at school did enhance creative thinking.

Doing this sort of research is always challenging and it’s almost impossible to control for all the factors – age, socioeconomic background, education level, cultural background, and so on – that might affect the creative performance of the individuals concerned. Even establishing a study group with similar levels of mono- or bilingualism is challenging enough. When it comes to speaking multiple languages, everyone is different, for example in terms of whether they speak a second language at home, when they began learning the language, how many other languages they might speak, and what those languages are. For example, researchers (including an old Professor of mine) recently found that habitual code-switchers performed better on the Torrance Test than non-habitual ones (Kharkhurin & Wei, 2015). Inevitably, whenever you measure the creativity of any random sample of people – bilingual or otherwise – you will get a wide range of scores. Although everyone is creative, some people are just naturally more creative than others.

Despite the research challenges, most researchers are now in agreement that there is a positive correlation between bilingualism and creative thinking. That is, on average, bilinguals are more likely to be more creative thinkers (and therefore more creative writers) than their monolingual counterparts.

The next question, of course, is why?

A few explanations have been offered as to why this might be the case. One theory is simply that bilinguals benefit from a wider range of experiences than monolinguals because they operate in more than one languages and, often, within more than one culture. As a result, they have access to a wider range of ideas, which they can combine together to form new and novel ones.

One of the most appealing theories was suggested by Anatoliy Kharkhurin, a psychologist from the American University of Sharjah, in his book Multilingualism & Creativity. Kharkhurin points to the fact that, within our brains, all our knowledge of concepts and things is stored in a complex, interconnected semantic network. This network is known to have two layers or levels.

At the bottom level are the concepts themselves – things like DOG and CAT and CASTLE. Within this layer, related concepts are horizontally connected. For instance, the concepts DOG and CAT might be connected since both are quadrupeds and common household pets (and, between them, they account for the majority of the videos on Youtube). As a result, thinking about cats is likely to make you think about dogs too. The concepts DOG and CASTLE, on the other hand, are unlikely to be interconnected. So, thinking about dogs won’t immediately make you think about turrets and drawbridges.

In the next level up (the lexical level) are the linguistic labels for each of these concepts – for example, the words “cat”, “dog”, and “castle”. Importantly, the levels are vertically interconnected so that the concept CAT is connected to the lexical item “cat”, DOG is connected to “dog”, and CASTLE is connected to “castle”.

There are also further horizontal connections within the lexical level so that “dog” might be connected to words like “log” and “fog” because they each share two phonemes. As a result, if someone said to you the word “dog”, because of the various links in your semantic network, you might think about cats and logs. But you would be unlikely to think about castles.

That is, unless you also spoke French. Although bilinguals will still have only one set of concepts in the bottom layer of their semantic network, they will have two sets of linguistic labels in the next level up. So a French-English bilingual will have both “château” and “castle” connected to the concept CASTLE, and both “cat” and “chat” connected to the concept CAT. Therefore, if you said the word “dog” to a French-English bilingual it might make them think of cats, which might make them think of the word “chat”, which might make them think of the (phonetically related) word “château”, and therefore the concept CASTLE – a train of thought which just isn’t open to a monolingual speaker of English.

This process of language-mediated concept activation is one of the key processes, Kharkhurin proposes, behind the positive correlation between bilingualism and creativity. And, by way of a real life example of this process in action, here’s a passage Jack Kerouac wrote in his diary in February 1950:

“In my sleep I referred to myself, in French, not as “writer” but as arrangeur – he who arranges matters; at the same time, I associated this fraction with eating supper (manger). I woke up to remember this.”

So there you have it. On average, bilinguals are found to be more creative (linguistically and otherwise) than monolinguals, and there are some convincing theories for why this might be the case.

Of course, there’s far more to good writing than divergent thinking. But it seems fair to say that, if you aspire to be a successful novelist and you already speak a second language, then you’re off to a good start.



Kharkhurin, A. V., & Wei, L. (2015). The role of code-switching in bilingual creativity. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 18(2), 153-169.
Landry, R. G. (1973). The Relationship of Second Language and Verbal Creativity. The Modern Language Journal, 57(3), 110-113.
Leikin, M. (2012). The effect of bilingualism on creativity: Developmental and educational perspectives. International Journal of Bilingualism, 17(4), 431-447.

From William Shakespeare to Amy Tan: Do bilinguals make better writers? (1)

IMG_7123Do bilinguals make better writers? Are people who speak more than one language better at carving out a sentence, finding an apt metaphor, or using words in new and exciting ways? Are they better at telling stories that move us, at presenting ideas that excite us, at rendering dialogue that speaks to us?

Or, in more scientific terms, is there any causal link between individual bilingualism and linguistic creativity?

Creativity more broadly – which can be defined as the ability to produce novel and useful ideas – is just one component of our mental capacities. There have been decades of debate as to whether bilingualism has any bearing on our cognitive capabilities and, over the years, the pendulum of evidence has swung back and forth.

At first, it was thought that kids who grew up speaking more than one language would be at an intellectual disadvantage over their monolingual counterparts. Then, a whole range of research emerged to suggest that there were instead potential cognitive advantages of being bilingual, particularly in terms of increased “executive control” – that is, the ability to focus on certain information while inhibiting others while undertaking certain specific tasks. (There is also evidence to suggest that being bilingual may reduce the risk of developing dementia in later life.) Now, the pendulum has swung back towards the middle ground, as some of the findings on the so-called bilingual advantage have been called into question.

But what about the more specific question of whether bilinguals are more creative, linguistically speaking?

Well, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that they indeed are. Just look at the bookshelves of your local library, or lists of the “greatest novels of all time”, and you’ll find plenty of bilingual authors.

First of all, there are those authors who grew up bilingual. Novelist and diarist, Anaïs Nin was of Cuban and French descent, grew up in both Paris and the US and, although Spanish was her first language, wrote her famous journals in French and then English. Of Henry Miller, she once wrote: “There are words in other tongues I must use when I talk about you. In my own, I think of: ardiente, salvaje, hombre.” At about the same time, Jack Kerouac was growing up in Massachusetts, but the language he spoke at home with his family was French-Canadian. Throughout his life, Kerouac was aware of his bi-cultural identity. In a diary entry from 1945, he congratulated himself for being at least “half American”. He also wrote: “Quand je suis fâché, je sacre souvent en français. Quand je dors, je rêve souvent en français” (“When I’m annoyed, I often swear in French. When I sleep, I often dream in French”).

Much contemporary, Western fiction represents the second- or third-generation immigrant experience of their bilingual authors – that of being between (and beyond) two or more languages and cultures. For example, Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was born in the Dominican Republic but raised in New Jersey. His novel, rich with Spanish-English code-switching starts as it means to go on:

“Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everyone’s always going on about – he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.”

Fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, Jhumpa Lahiri, was born in London to Bengali parents, and grew up in USA. Lahiri has bravely written her forthcoming novel in Italian, the language of the country in which she now lives. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, was born in Afghanistan but emigrated to California with his family when he was 15. And Amy Tan, author The Joy Luck Club, was born in California, and raised bilingual, speaking English and Mandarin. She has written about how she makes use of all of her “Englishes” in writing her fiction, including the “broken” or “fractured” English (what linguists call the interlanguage) of her Chinese immigrant mother.

Then, there are the authors who grew up speaking languages other than English, but who ended up writing classic works of the English language. Perhaps most famously, Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in English, his second language after Polish. Nigerian novelists Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Okara wrote in English, albeit in an English that was deliberately tailored to their own, unique African identities. And I’ve written recently about contemporary author Xiaolu Guo, named one of Britain’s Best Young Novelists by Grant Magazine, who began writing in English because she couldn’t find translators to translate her novels from Chinese.

Then, there are native speakers of English, who wrote in English, but who learned other languages either at school or while living abroad – and whose experience in these languages had obvious influences on their work. Perhaps most prominently, William Shakespeare would have spent most of his time at grammar school in Stratford-Upon-Avon wrestling with the six noun cases of Latin. Shakespeare wrote whole passages of his plays in French, and was rare among Elizabethan playwrights to do so. Ernest Hemingway was born in Illinois, but spent most of his life outside of the US, living in Paris and Cuba and elsewhere. His writing is littered with Italian, French and Spanish. In The Old Man And The Sea, for example, the novella which earned him the Nobel Prize for literature, Hemingway alludes to the Cuban setting:

“But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky […].”

Another example is Cormac McCarthy, who was born in Rhode Island, but who lived for a while in Ibiza. His classic Blood Meridian is similarly sprinkled with Spanish words and Spanish dialogue. In fact, the list of famous English-language authors that spent significant amounts of time living in non English-speaking countries is remarkably long. James Joyce wrote mostly about Dublin, but lived for most of his life outside of Ireland – in Trieste, Zurich, and in Paris, where Ulysses was first published. George Orwell famously went Down And Out In Paris And London, and wrote about his experiences. Capturer of post-war, kitchen-sink life (and fellow Nottingham-lad) Alan Sillitoe lived for six years in France and Spain, writing Saturday Night, Sunday Morning in Majorca. And, another famous writer from Nottingham, D H Lawrence, spent most of his life in voluntary exile, in Europe and elsewhere.

Then, there are authors who have looked to dead languages to spice up their fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, was famously a scholar of Anglo-Saxon. Sticking to the world of fantasy and science-fiction, Frank Herbert borrowed heavily from a variety of languages, including French and Arabic, to find the new words he needed for his Dune universe. And George R. R. Martin may not be a linguist himself, but he still shows a remarkable sensitivity to multilingualism in his world of Dragons and White Walkers.

Of course, this list doesn’t include authors writing in languages other than English. For example, Alexander Pushkin was the Russian language’s first great poet, but he grew up speaking French with his parents, like most Russian aristocrats of the time, and only learned Russian vernacular from servants. Marcel Proust spoke English, even if not fluently. In A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, for example, he makes code-switching to English a particular affectation of Odette, Swann’s lover and later wife.

And, of course, this is a pretty Western-centric selection. However, if you were to look at the bookshelves of China, or India, or South America, I’m sure you would find a similar story – or possibly an even greater prominence of bilingual authors.

What I’ve presented so far is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is a link between bilingualism and linguistic creativity – in crude terms, that speaking more than one language, does indeed make you a better writer.

But, of course, such evidence is hardly scientific. It hardly points to a measurable, quantifiable correlation between bilingualism and linguistic creativity.

And, even as anecdotal evidence, presenting a list of famous bilingual authors is problematic in other ways too. What I could have done instead, to try and argue the opposite case, is to present a list of famous authors who are certifiable monolingual. But finding anyone, even in ostensibly monolingual countries like the US and the UK, who doesn’t have some degree of proficiency in a foreign language like French or Spanish is actually pretty difficult. That’s important because, with the list above, I’m not making any distinction between people who have grown up with two different languages, those that learned a second language at school, and those that have lived with a second language abroad. All, of course, reflect slightly different flavours of being “bilingual” and – inseparable from this – different levels of individual experience with more than one culture. You could certainly ask, if it exists at all, where does the “bilingual effect” on creativity start and end?

Importantly, even if there is a correlation between linguistic creativity and bilingualism, that doesn’t prove any kind of direct causation – that being bilingual causes people to be more creative writers.

For example, for the authors who learned languages later in life, what’s to say that the thing that drove them to move abroad and learn foreign languages wasn’t the same thing that drove them to write fiction – that is, some deeper love of language? What’s to say the two things aren’t just facets of the same phenomenon that inspires me to write this blog, for example, or that Amy Tan wrote about in her essay Mother Tongue?:

“I am a writer. And by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language – the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade.”

But even if the causation is not clear, the correlation is interesting enough. And it turns out there is scientific evidence, from research in psychology and linguistics, to suggest that there really is a positive correlation between bilingualism and creativity.

And that’s going to be the subject of the next part of this blog.