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.

Finding Dylan In “Translation”


Bob Dylan in 1963

I’ve busked a few Bob Dylan numbers in my time. I’m one of those people who ruin the end of parties by bringing out their acoustic guitar. In my twenties, I used to play regularly at folk clubs and open mic nights. One of my favourites is “Boots Of Spanish Leather”. And I do a mean “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – or at least I think I do.

It’s not just Dylan songs. I have an anachronistic love of singer-songwriters from the 1960s and early 70s, so I like singing songs by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen too. And, until about five years ago, I would always sing them with a North American accent – the same sort of approximate, hybrid North American accent that most British artists resort to when they sing.

On “Tangled Up In Blue”, for example, I would go to town trying to imitate both the standard and less standard features of Bob Dylan’s idiosyncratic accent (“Finno-Hebraic Minnesotan, by way of Greenwich Village”, according to journalist Graeme Wood). I would g-drop right from the opening line (“Early one mornin’…”). I would drop the yod from “Lord knows I’ve paid some dues”. I’d elongate most of stressed monopthongs, like the “e” vowel in “offered meee a pipe”. I would reduce the /aɪ/ dipthongs in “I” and “my” to “ah” and “mah”. I’d reduce the unstressed “of” (for example) in “I seen a lot uh women” to a schwa. And so on.

It wasn’t until someone asked me once why I was singing in an American accent that I started to question it. I realised it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was automatic. I was trying to recreate “Mr Tambourine Man” as perfectly as I could – note for note, word for word. So, in some ways, it made sense to copy every phoneme too.

Then, I got a bit more into folk music. I started to listen to English folk musicians like Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy. They, like almost everyone on the folk scene, sing unashamedly in their own accents. It’s actually something of an unwritten rule among folk singers (often attributed to 20th century folk revivalist Ewan MacColl) that you only sing songs in a language or dialect that you speak.

Later, I studied linguistics. I found out that accent, and dialect more generally, is just one part of what sociolinguists refer to as “style” – the part of language, which is not about “what you say” but rather “how you say it”. Sociolinguists posit that our linguistic style is intrinsically linked to our social identity. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, it’s almost impossible to say anything to anybody without them making some kind of judgement about who you are – where you are from, where you were educated, what you do for a living, and so on. And, just like we can code-switch between languages, within our personal repertoire, we can style-switch depending on whom we are talking to, and what sort of identity we want to project.

It made me realise the obvious – that when I sing in an American accent, I’m not being myself. I’m taking on someone else’s identity. I’m being the one thing that the folk singers of the 1960s were aiming to avoid: inauthenticity. I’m being a fake.

It took a long time to unlearn the habit, a bit like a golfer having to change their swing. But these days, I only sing covers of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in my own accent – a sort of generic South-East England British Standard English with the odd Nottingham vowel thrown in.

However, when the guitar comes out, I’m still left with a problem when it comes to Bob Dylan. The reason is that Dylan didn’t just sing in dialect, he wrote in it. His songs are not only full of phonological markers of his Woody Guthrie-influenced Midwestern dialect. His identity is marked both lexically and grammatically in the lyrics.

Take “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” for example. Across the four verses, there are particular forms of address (“honey”, “baby” and “gal”) that I would never use. There are archaic forms of goodbye (“fare thee well” and “so long”) and North American terms like “rooster”. There’s the addition of the prefix “a-” to present participles, which somehow makes me think of Mark Twain, concurrent with the frequent g-dropping (“a-thinkin’ and a-wanderin’”). There’s the contraction “I ain’t”, which isn’t part of my dialect (I’d say “I’m not”). There are bare adverbs (“you treated me unkind”), and grammatical constructions (“it ain’t no use to”), that don’t exist in British Standard English. There’s the North American use of simple past where British English would use the past perfect, and some nonstandard conjugations (“the light I never knowed”). In fact, probably the only stylistic feature in the entire song, which I would also use in speech, is the contraction of “kind of” to “kinda”.

Because of all the wonderful lexical and grammatical stylistic features, it turns out, there are very few Bob Dylan songs that I can sing without putting on someone else’s identity.

There’s only one solution. It’s the same thing you would do if you wanted to sing something written. You have to rewrite the lyrics in your own dialect. You have to attempt some sort of “translation”.

Of course, that’s not a trivial thing to do. Change just one word of a song, or one syntactic construction, and you can screw up the rhyming pattern or scansion. More fundamentally, you are faced with the same challenge all translators are faced with when changing one language for another: finding a replacement word or phrase (say, for “gal” or “it ain’t no use”) that doesn’t completely wash out any sense of identity entirely.

But, with a bit of effort, you can do it. Here’s how I now sing the first verse of “Don’t Think Twice”:

There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
If you don’t know by now
There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
It doesn’t matter anyhow
When your alarm clock rings and it’s a brand new day
Look out your bedroom window, and I’ll be gone away
You’re the reason that I just can’t stay
Don’t think twice, it’s OK

I’m definitely not saying it’s as good as the original. But it’s still recognisably the work of the Nobel Laureate – and I can sing it while remaining true to my own suburban, English identity.

Of course, hardcore Dylan fans will be screaming, “heresy!” But I would argue the opposite. Fans think of Bob Dylan as a true authentic: someone who never compromised, who was always true to his own, idiosyncratic self. I like to think, by “translating” Dylan so as not to compromise my own authenticity – I’m actually giving Dylan the respect he deserves.


This excellent book by David Pichaske includes an in depth discussion of Bob Dylan’s dialect. There are a couple of interesting papers in the journal Oral Tradition on translating Dylan into French and Spanish.

Image in the public demain downloaded here.

Volcanoes and “æ”: Why Iceland is a feast for linguists too

IMG_7311Iceland may only have a population of roughly 300,000 but, as a nation, it punches well above its weight in many things: in terms of its scenery, its musical output and, most recently, in its footballing achievements.

For naturalists and ornithologists, Iceland has puffins and arctic terns. For musicologists, it has Sigur Rós and Björk. For geologists, positioned as it is where the continents of Europe and North America rub up against each other, Iceland is something of a mecca. It is a country of glaciers and fjords, of mountains and volcanoes, lava fields and basalt columns, of hot springs and fumaroles and geysers gushing forth gas and liquid from the depths. If Jules Verne is to be trusted, the very centre of the Earth can be reached via one of the craters of Snæfellsjökull, a snow-capped volcano on Iceland’s Western peninsular.

But I’d like to argue that Iceland has plenty to offer linguists and language lovers too. Here are just some of the highlights:

It all started with the Vikings

Like Danish and Norwegian, Icelandic is a Nordic language, part of the broader Germanic family. However, although it is derived from Old Icelandic, a western dialect of Old Norse, Icelandic is not a language that speakers of Danish and Norwegian can readily understand. This is because, since Iceland was first settled by Vikings in the 9th century AD, it has remained relatively isolated. While other Scandinavian languages (Faroese excepted) have changed substantially due to external influences from the rest of the continent, in its grammar, written Icelandic has not changed substantially in about a thousand years. As a result, modern speakers can still read the original Icelandic sagas of the 12th century.

Literary language, literary culture

It’s not just that Icelanders can still read the sagas – they still do. And they don’t stop there. As the narrator of Halldór Laxness’ Atom Station says of Iceland: “everything is read, beginning with the Icelandic sagas; and then everything.” When Jules Verne’s protagonists arrive in Reykjavik, on their famous Journey, their Icelandic host tells them: “every farmer, every fisherman, knows how to read and does read.” And, as well as being a nation of readers, Icelanders like to write too. Apparently, something like one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. Famous Icelandic authors include Laxness himself, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

A “magnificent language, both simple and rich”

IMG_7701At the beginning of A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Professor Lidenbrock tells his nephew Axel that Icelandic is “that magnificent language, both simple and rich, containing the most diverse grammatical combinations.” (It’s fitting indeed that Verne’s protagonist is as much a linguist as he is a geologist.) Alda Sigmundsdóttir, author of The Little Book of Icelandic, is a little less flattering. She calls her mother tongue “a bloody mess grammatically, a nightmarish mishmash of inflected nouns, verbs, adjectives and pronouns”.

For an English speaker, Icelandic certainly looks complicated in terms of its grammar. Like German, for example, it has four noun cases and three noun genders. But, because of its isolation, the vocabulary of Icelandic has remained relatively simple compared to that of English (which has shamelessly begged, stolen and borrowed words from a whole host of other languages). As a result, English words that used to mean the same thing in Icelandic tend to have undergone a process of relative semantic narrowing. For example, in Icelandic, hundur refers to any type of dog. In English on the other hand, as a result of competition with “dog” (from Old English), the cognate word “hound” now only refers to hunting dogs.

Geeking out on etymology

IMG_7708Because of the shared Germanic roots of Old Norse and Old English, and because many Old Norse words were adopted into Old English during the Viking settlement of the British isles, there are plenty of words in Icelandic that look familiar to English speakers, and vice versa. For example, the Icelandic word for house is hús, for book bók, for daughter dóttir, and so on.

Old Norse left its mark in particular on the geography of the British Isles. As a result, lots of Icelandic place names look familiar to speakers of British English (especially those from the north of the England). In Iceland, there’s Snæfell and Kirkjufell. In the Lake District, there’s Scafell and Low Fell. In Iceland, there’s the Hafnahólmi and Stykkishólmur. In the Bristol Channel, there’s Flat Holm and Steep Holm (a holm is an islet in a river). In the south of Iceland, there’s a town called Höfn (literally “Harbour”). In the south of England, there’s Newhaven. In downtown Reykjavik, there’s Lækjargata and Geirsgata (an Icelandic gata is a road or street). In my hometown of Nottingham, there’s Castle Gate and Wheeler Gate.

Incidentally, the word “Viking” derives from the Old Norse for bay (Reykjavík, as it happens, is literally “smoky bay”). As Sigmundsdóttir says, “it is pretty easy to geek out on Icelandic and English etymology if you like that sort of thing” – and, frankly, who doesn’t?


Magnificent characters

IMG_7667Perhaps my favourite thing about Icelandic is its alphabet, which still retains three graphemes from Old Norse which also existed in Old English but which don’t survive into written English today: eth (ð or Đ), thorn (þ or Þ) and æsc (æ or Æ). (I love this video for the song Dýrð í dauðaþögn by Icelandic artist, Ásgeir Trausti, as much for the Icelandic alphabet as for the music and the stunning scenery.) ð and þ represent voiced and unvoiced versions of two Icelandic phonemes which are similar to the two phonemes written, voiced or otherwise, as “th” in English. For phonologists, ð is a voiced alveolar non-sibilant fricative, and þ is the unvoiced version, both pronounced with the tongue slightly retracted compared to the English dental fricatives in “that” and “this”, respectively. In Icelandic, the letter æsc (also known as ash in English) signifies the diphthong /ai/ as in “ice”.

Proper names

Although it’s a bit old fashioned in its gender politics, Icelandic names follow a delightfully simple patronymic system where a person’s surname is derived from their father’s first name by adding the suffix son (son) or dóttir (daughter). Author Alda Sigmundsdóttir is literally “Sigmund’s daughter”. Egil Skallagrimsson, the violently unhinged protagonist of the eponymous Icelandic saga, is the son of Skallagrim. And so on.

Verbal hygiene in action

IMG_7699Icelanders are – justifiably – very proud of their language. As a result, the country has a somewhat conservative attitude towards the influx of foreign loanwords, especially from English. Officially, the Icelandic language is under the control of the Icelandic Language Committee, whose job it is to regulate the Icelandic lexicon and Icelandic grammar. As Sigmundsdóttir explains, it’s their job to invent new Icelandic words for new and foreign concepts. So for example, instead of taking the English word “computer” and assimilating it to Icelandic phonology (to kompjúter), the committee invented an entirely new word (tölva), which means something like “prophetess of numbers”. Still, despite their best efforts, Anglicisms are still creeping into informal Icelandic. Examples include: tjilla (to chill out), sækó (psycho) and sjitt (shit). Incidentally, there’s even an official list of first names that Icelanders are allowed to call their children (this one regulated by the Icelandic Naming Committee).

And don’t forget the clapping

And finally, as well as verbal and written communication, it’s worth adding that Icelanders also excel at the non-verbal variety – as anyone who heard Iceland’s travelling fans perform their “Viking thunder clap” at Euro 2016 will know. Frightening stuff!


All photos are by the author, and were taken in June 2016. For more information about the Icelandic language I can thoroughly recommend The Little Book of Icelandic by Alda Sigmundsdóttir.


Dialogue she wrote, Agatha Christie-ly: Adverbs in “And Then There Were None”


Agatha Christie in the 1970s

After watching the latest adaptation of And Then There Were None, I decided to finally sit down and read it. I already knew “whodunnit”, and how they did it (clever, clever!), and I’d already seen at least two other adaptations of Agatha Christie’s most loved crime novel (each at least twice). But I was now keen to know how she wrote it.

One of the most immediate aspects of Christie’s writing is her crisp, efficient style. Her focus is on action and dialogue. There is only a limited amount of descriptive prose, with only the occasional simile or metaphor. But what struck me most was her extensive use of adverbs, especially as modifiers of the reporting verbs of direct speech (“she said”, “he exclaimed”, and so on).

Here’s a typical example of dialogue from the novel:

   Vera said hoarsely:
   ‘I don’t understand you.’
   Her fingers worked spasmodically. She felt suddenly afraid of this quiet old soldier.
   He said musingly:
   ‘You see, I loved Leslie. I loved her very much…’
   Vera said questioningly:
   ‘Was Leslie your wife?’

Christie uses this “she said X-ly” construction prolifically. Reading through, I counted at least 46 different adverbs employed in this way. They include: abruptly, angrily, apologetically, anxiously, bitterly, conventionally, critically, decisively, dryly, easily, genially, gravely, hotly, quickly, (“almost”) mechanically, mildly, pacifically, questioningly, slowly, softly, sulkily, unsteadily, vehemently, violently, wonderingly. (Probably my favourite, used to describe the abrasive tones of Judge Wargrave, was “acidly” – which I thought Charles Dance captured perfectly in the adaptation.)

The reason Christie’s extensive use of adverbs in dialogue is so striking is because it’s so out of fashion among contemporary writers. Stylists from Ernest Hemingway to Cormac McCarthy have tended to eschew them completely. Stephen King went so far as to write that the “road to hell is paved with adverbs”. Jenifer Egan, in her 2006 novel The Keep, even leaves out most reporting verbs, instead rendering dialogue as in a screenplay, so adverbs don’t even have anywhere to sit. It’s no surprise that much of the advice out there on the internet for novice writers is pretty clear on the subject: leave the adverbs out! In her novel, Egan even goes so far as to poke fun at this literary prejudice:

   […] She said, I don’t like facts.
   Danny: I don’t like nouns. Or verbs. And adjectives are the worst.
   Nora: No, adverbs are the worst. He said brightly. She thought hopefully.
   Danny: She moaned helplessly.
   Nora: He ran stiffly.
   Danny: Is that why you’re here? To get away from all the adverbs in New York?

The reasons for this contemporary animosity towards adverbs, however, are often a little opaque. One online guide I found states vaguely that adverbs “weaken your writing” and urges writers to use “stronger, more specific words”. In his essay, King gives similar reasons saying, for example, that “Utterson said contemptuously” is “weaker” than “Utterson said” – even though it’s not entirely clear how the “strength” of a word should be measured.

However, that’s not to say there aren’t some valid reasons for leaving out adverbs. The first of these is irrelevance. If it doesn’t add to plot or character development, and it doesn’t help the reader understand what’s going on, then (following Orwell’s advice) there’s no reason to modify the reporting verb with an adverb. The second is redundancy. In sentences like “she whispered quietly” and “he shouted loudly”, because of the semantic overlap between the reporting verb and the adverb, the adverb becomes mostly superfluous.

The third reason to eliminate adverbs, and perhaps the most convincing, is what one editor refers to as author intrusion. The argument is that when the author tells us what is going on in dialogue, for example through the use of adverbs, they get in the way of the reader’s natural understanding of the dialogue itself. Sociolinguists would say that, whenever an author uses an adverb, they take a stance. That is, they make a subjective judgement about the relevant character and their speech: what mood they are in, what message they are trying to convey beyond the words they are speaking, even how loud they are speaking relatively to some norm, and so on. In doing so, we suddenly become conscious of the author, and their own subjectivity, while the interlocutors in the dialogue get pushed into the background. For this reason, the argument goes that it’s better to simply show us what is happening through plain reporting verbs or, in Egan’s case, nothing but the dialogue itself.

Christie, however, would surely disagree. Certainly there’s no redundancy or irrelevance in her masterful prose and, as a reader, I don’t find her adverbs intrusive or distracting. Instead, the adverbs help to render the finer points of speech. The challenge with the “show” approach to dialogue is that, with only 26 letters of the alphabet and a limited number of punctuation marks, it’s very difficult to capture the various linguistic levels at which information is conveyed in conversation (although Jack Kerouac had a go in Visions of Cody). Christie’s adverbs add important nuances about the characters, such as Wargrave’s “acid” manner, which ultimately serve as clues to who the murderer might be – or, more often than not, as red herrings.

The adverbs enhance the writing in other ways too. For me, the prosodic structure of “she said X-ly” has a pleasing rhythmic quality, especially when a three-syllable adverb gives rise to a musical triplet (“he said bitterly”). The repetition of the “she said X-ly” construction throughout Christie’s prose is also a neat example of parallelismone of the oldest rhetorical tricks in the book.

Fashions may have changed since 1939 when And Then There Were None was published. But there’s no denying that Agatha Christie was a great writer – how else could she have become the best selling author of all time? So, if she used an arsenal of different adverbs in her dialogue, then perhaps they’re not so bad after all.



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.