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.

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.

Proust Was A Neuroscientist… And Also A Linguist

ProustMarcel Proust was a neuroscientist, according to researcher-turned-sciencewriter, Jonah Lehrer. I’d like to argue, he was also a linguist.

Lehrer might have been publically disgraced for inventing Bob Dylan quotes in a follow-up book about creativity, but he had a point. The great rememberer was interested in a great many things – in music and theatre, in nature and architecture, in fashion and society, in love and jealousy, in time and memory. And if you’ve ever read any of the volumes of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (recently reimagined as a graphic novel), you’ll know he was fascinated – above all – by how we conceive and perceive these things in our heads. Proust’s interest in psychology was profound enough to have inspired a personality questionnaire that still features regularly in Vanity Fair magazine. And political commentators are even now referring to Proust in trying to make sense of Donald Trump.

After a recent trip to Paris, I was inspired to finally sit down and read the five hundred or so pages of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s epic novel. Although I knew he’d have a lot to say about art and psychology, about nature and society, I was surprised at how much he had to say about language.

So, as well as being a neuroscientist, I’m going to argue that Proust was also very definitely a linguist. Here are ten reasons why:

1. Just like any good linguist, Proust knew his parts of speech

To describe and study language you first need to be able to categorise and label its various components. In Swann’s Way, for example, Proust talks of the “imperfect” and the “preterite”, “proper names”, “metaphors”, “figures of speech”, “indirect speech”, and “particles”.

2. Proust was interested in where words come from

Proust was definitely into his etymologies. As well as a whole section in Swann’s Way devoted to place names (and the various romantic associations the narrator makes with them), Proust makes various etymological asides. Like this one:

(I’m not certain, by the way, of the etymology of Roussainville. I’m rather inclined to think that name was originally Raville, from Radulfi villa, analogous, don’t you see, to Châteauroux, Castrum Radulfi, but we’ll talk about that some other time.)

3. Proust understood how language changes

Relating to his interest in the origins of words, Proust had an understanding of how language changes over time. For example, he mentions elision, a key process in language change in which words, or bits of words, get left unsaid:

[Mme Verdurin] still said instinctively “the de La Trémoïlles,” or rather (by an abbreviation sanctified by usage in music hall lyrics and cartoon captions, where the “de” is elided), “the d’La Trémoïlles,” […]

4. And he understood how new words and phrases can become old hat

In Swann’s Way, Proust shows insight into how new bits of language – particularly words and phrases – are born. For example, he describes how “do a cattleya” becomes a shared euphemism for more intimate physical acts, after Swann uses the pretext of rearranging an orchid on Odette’s dress to lean in for their first kiss. He describes how the phrase becomes a key part of the two lovers’ shared language (what linguists might call a famiolect), which eventually loses all association with the flowers themselves.

Proust also knew how new words and phrases (like “to give a free hand” and “to be absolutely floored”) can be born as metaphors – another major force for language change – and how, over time, the literal origins of such metaphors can be gradually forgotten:

[antique pieces of furniture] charmed her like those old forms of speech in which we can see traces of a metaphor whose fine point has been worn away by rough usage.

Proust knew that some metaphors – like “splitting hairs” – can become so overused that they become clichés. And, cloaked in satire, he had an Orwellian dislike of them:

“D’you know, that’s a funny thing; I had never noticed it. I may as well tell you that I don’t much care about peering at things through a microscope, and pricking myself on pin-points of difference. No, we don’t waste time splitting hairs in this house,” Mme Verdurin replied, which Dr Cottard gazed at her with open-mouthed admiration and studious zeal as she skipped lightly from one stepping-stone to another of her stock of ready-made phrases.

5. He knew something about how words and concepts are stored in our brains

Proust’s narrator speaks often of the “associations” he makes between the various things he encounters and different parts of his memory – what he refers to as the tangled network of “mental habits, of seasonal impressions, of sensory reactions”. Psycholinguists (and neuroscientists in general) differentiate between our episodic memory (where we store information about specific instances and experiences in our lives) and semantic memory (of facts, ideas, concepts, and meanings) – although both are connected and interdependent. Proust also knew that different concepts in our semantic memory can be more closely connected than others. When referring to Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, near his family’s home at Combray, the narrator talks of “the distance that there was between the two parts of my brain in which I used to think of them”.

Proust also understood how our semantic memory connects to another network in our brain where we store the words or lexemes (including proper names) that represent the concepts within it:

Thus was wafted to my ears the name of Gilberte, bestowed on me like a talisman which might, perhaps, enable me some day to rediscover the girl that its syllables had just endowed with an identity, whereas the moment before she had been merely an uncertain image.

6. He could see connections between concepts and the sound of the words

For a long time, one of the most fundamental assumptions in linguistics was the arbitrariness of the sign. That is, as language develops, lexemes (like “love”) are chosen to represent the underlying semantic concept in an entirely accidental way, so that the string of phonemes in the word has no meaning in itself. These days, it’s more readily accepted that this isn’t always true. Words can, and quite often do, have a degree of iconicity. Proust was definitely aware of the possibility of associations between the component sounds of words and the concepts they represent. For example, when the narrator thinks about the Norman Cathedral in Coutances, he imagines “its final consonants, rich and yellowing, crowned with a tower of butter.” Elsewhere in Swann’s Way, the pronunciation of “ch” leads to a sensual association between the word “charming” and a budding flower:

And she [Mme de Laumes] murmured, “How charming it is!” with a double ch at the beginning of the word which was a mark of refinement and by which she felt her lips so romantically crinkled, like the petals of a beautiful, budding flower […]

7. And he knew what happens when connections go missing

Proust was aware that certain neurological disorders, resulting from brain disease or injury, can lead to the loss of these lexemes, or the ability to access them (asphasia), or even the loss of the underlying concept in the semantic memory:

Moreover, the name Swann, with which I had for so long been familiar, had now become for me (as happens with certain aphasiacs in the case of the most ordinary words) a new name.

8. He’s not just interested in what people say, but how they say it

Throughout the novel, Proust pays close attention to how his characters speak, in particularly to prosody (stress and intonation). For example, the narrator manages to make Swann sound like a precocious university student:

[…] whenever he spoke of serious matters, whenever he used an expression which seemed to imply a definite opinion upon some important subject, he would take care to isolate it by using special intonation, mechanical and ironic, as though he had put the word or phrase between inverted commas […]

What Proust refers to as “intonation” and “accentuation” (and what is often translated into English as “tone” by Moncrieff and Kilmartin) is more generally what linguists refer to as (speaking) style. He knows that his characters, like real people, use different styles – which might be more or less formal – at different times, according to who they are speaking to, what they are speaking about, and why. For example, the narrator says that Odette “invariably adopted a poetical tone when she spoke to Swann about my uncle”. And Proust knew that speaking in a style which is not appropriate to the context is not a very gentlemanly thing to do:

[Swann] was shocked, too, being accustomed to good manners, by the rude, almost barrack-room tone the pugnacious academic adopted no matter to whom he was speaking.

9. He knew that our identities are created in what we say and how we say it

The view that identity is “created”, “constituted” and “constructed” (all Proust’s words) is a prevalent one in applied linguistics, and across the social sciences. Instead of the (essentialist) perspective which says we all have only one unique and stable personality, the theory says instead that our identity is the sum total of what we do and what we say – each an act of identity or identification with a certain group of people. For example, if we throw a baseball, we are telling people we are sporty. If we speak in a French accent, we are telling people that we’re French. If we speak in a style associated with the upper classes (for example, Swann speaks with the “the style of the Guermantes set”) we are identifying with them. If we mention Proust in a blog, of course, we are telling people that we think we’re clever. And so on.

Early on in Swann’s Way, it’s clear that Proust shares the same (socially-constructed) view of identity:

But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will.

And like any good applied linguist Proust knew that, because we can speak or act differently around different people, we can create different versions of ourselves:

Doubtless the Swann who was a familiar in all the clubs of those days differed hugely from the Swann created by my great-aunt when, of an evening, in our little garden at Combray, after the two shy peals had sounded from the gate […].

10. And he’s interested in what code-switching says about our identity

One way of creating a complex identity is to mix languages – what linguists call code-switching. Odette, for example, is very prone to litter her French with English words and phrases:

Comme il est gentil ! il est déjà galant, il a un petit œil pour les femmes : il tient de son oncle. Ce sera un parfait gentleman, ajouta-t-elle en serrant les dents pour donner à la phrase un accent légèrement britannique. Est-ce qu’il ne pourrait pas venir une fois prendre a cup of tea, comme disent nos voisins les Anglais ; il n’aurait qu’à m’envoyer un « bleu » le matin.

The narrator describes how, in pronouncing the word “gentleman”, she clenches her teeth “so as to give the word a kind of English accentuation”. Is Odette simply showing off? Is it pomposity? It’s difficult to tell, but the code-switching adds a layer of nuance to her character.

So, there you go. I hope I’ve done enough to argue that Proust was more than just a great rememberer and novelist. As well as a neuroscientist – and probably a great many other things – he was a pretty good linguist too.






Forget Hemingway: This Is How A Linguist Would Write Dialogue

IMG_6834Anyone who has ever sat down to write fiction will know that dialogue is one of the hardest things to write.

That’s partly because speech is so complex. Language works at a variety of levels: phonological (at the level of accent), lexical (the words used), morphosyntactic (the grammar), prosodic (the tone, stress and rhythm), discourse (how multiple phrases and sentences are combined), pragmatic (how meaning is influenced by context), and even paralinguistic (the nonverbal signs and cues, such as hand gestures and facial expressions, that often occur alongside speech). When we talk, we convey meaning at all of these levels simultaneously – and not just in terms of what we say, but also in terms of how we say it.

Let’s take for example a very simple sentence, “you want a cake”. How I say that sentence to you will substantially change the information I convey. For example, if I increase the pitch of my voice towards the end of the sentence (a change in prosody), I will be asking you a question: “you want a cake?”. If I don’t, I will probably be making some sort of statement about how hungry you are. If I raise the amplitude of my voice, I might be telling you that I’m angry with you. If I say the sentence in a Scottish accent (a change at the level phonology), I will be telling you something about where I am from. If I speak in Received Pronunciation, I will be telling something about my social class. If I change the word “cake” to “petite madeleine” (a change, at the lexical level, in what linguists call “register”) I will be telling you something about my culinary knowledge, and so on.

In general, whatever choices I make across these various linguistic levels, when I say something as simple as “you want a cake”, I can’t help but tell you something about my identity – a topic which is still of great interest to linguists.

Things get even more complex when two or more people are speaking. First of all, real people don’t tend to talk to each other in complete sentences. Instead, they talk in fragments of sentences or phrases, or often just in single words. Moreover, real life dialogue doesn’t tend to be “she said, he said”. People do tend to take what linguists call “turns” in conversation, following some fairly fundamental rules of conversation, but quite often these turns overlap when multiple speakers speak at once.

It’s exactly this richness and complexity of everyday language that makes it such an interesting topic for researchers and linguists. And, as it turns out, capturing and representing the complexity of dialogue is as much a challenge for the linguist as it is for the novelist.

Novel writers take a myriad of approaches to rendering dialogue, differing in how they approach the degree of complexity. Some authors wilfully choose to ignore it. Ernest Hemingway, for example, takes a famously minimalist approach. In the dialogue of A Farewell To Arms, there’s little or no information about the levels of prosody or phonology. Instead, as a reader, you are left to create these for yourself from what you know about the characters:

‘You are all her dear boys,’ Catherine said. ‘She prefers the dear boys. Listen to it rain.’
‘It’s raining hard.’
‘And you’ll always love me, won’t you?’
‘And the rain won’t make a difference?’
‘That’s good. Because I’m afraid of the rain.’

In her novel The Keep, author Jennifer Egan takes this minimalism to another level. She eschews reporting phrases (like “he said” and “she replied”) entirely. Instead, the speech is stripped to the bare bones and presented like screenplay dialogue:

Danny: Shit. Where the hell is he?
Rafe: Could be right underneath us.

Here, the only information beyond the levels of words and grammar is the question mark, which indicates (at the prosodic level) a rise in pitch at the end of Danny’s utterance. You do get some sense of the identity of the speakers (his use of “shit” indicates that Danny probably isn’t a catholic priest), but you don’t know what accent the characters are speaking in, if they are speaking quickly or slowly, if they are whispering, and so on.

Punctuation in English is fairly limited. As a result, beyond marking questions (?) or exclamations (!), it’s pretty difficult to really show how characters are speaking. Instead, many authors resort to telling us how they are speaking. Although Stephen King is famously not a fan of the adverb, it is a convenient way to elaborate the manner of speech. For example, take this dialogue from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The adverb “decisively” suggests to me perhaps accelerated speech and a stress on the “not”:

The driver for the second taxi said:
‘Like to sit inside while you’re waiting?’
Vera said decisively:
‘Not at all.’

Older authors, however, do a lot more telling in their writing. In this bit of dialogue from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, wealthy manufacturer Josiah Bounderby is talking to his housekeeper, Mrs Sparsit. Here, Dickens makes much more of an effort to capture the complexity of the speech, especially using adverb phrases (such as “in a highly superior manner”). Moreover, in Mrs Sparsit’s second turn, stress is indicated by the use of italics:

“I wish with all my heart, Sir,” said Mrs. Sparsit, in a highly superior manner; somehow she seemed, in a moment, to have established a right to pity him ever afterwards; “that you may be in all respects very happy.”
“Well, ma’am,” returned Bounderby, with some resentment in his tone: which was clearly lowered, though in spite of himself, “I am obliged to you. I hope I shall be.”
Do you, Sir?” said Mrs Sparsit, with great affability. “But naturally you do: of course you do.”
A very awkward pause on Mr. Bounderby’s part succeeded. Mrs. Sparsit sedately resumed her work and occasionally gave a small cough, which sounded like the cough of conscious strength and forbearance.
“Well, ma’am,” resumed Bounderby […]

The dialogue here is clearly much richer, especially in its description of prosodic features. Still, because of Dickens’ use of standardised spelling, there’s still little information about what’s happening at the phonological level – that is, about accent and, for example, the regional or social backgrounds of the two characters. This is in contrast to this final excerpt, from Story In Harlem Slang by Zora Neale Hurston, in which the dialect (“de family”) is deliberately rendered using phonetic spelling:

“Sweet Buck, you fixing to talk out of place.” Jelly stiffened.
“If you trying to jump salty, Jelly, that’s your mammy.”
“Don’t play in de family, Sweet Back. I don’t play de dozens. I done told you.”

Of course, the more information writers include in their dialogue about what’s happening at the various linguistic levels, the harder it will be to read. There is an inevitable trade-off between accuracy and readability, detail and clarity. But, whether or not you like it from a stylistic point of view, it’s clear that Dickens’ and Hurston’s prose is richer linguistically, for example, than Hemingway’s.

It turns out that linguists have to a very similar problem to address when they are trying to transcribe speech data – both for the research itself and then, ultimately, for presentation in books and journals for other linguists to look at. Usually, what details linguists will record in their written transcriptions will depend on what linguistic features, at what linguistic levels, they are interested in.

For example, the following is a basic transcription of a conversation I recorded for my own Masters thesis. In it, a group of scientists are discussing potential research project ideas (and having a playful joke about the more existential aspects of quantum theory at the same time):

Ben:     Quantum states first maybe?
Anne:  Yeah.
Pete:    It’s a good one.
Sam:    We all want to be the author of ‘On The Ontology of Quantum States’
Pete:    Confirmation
Sam:    You need to be, like, you need to speak in French and smoke as you explain.

If you were, say, a lexicographer interested in word usage, this sort of transcription might be enough. However, it’s clear that this very basic transcription ignores lots of information about the other levels of language: of phonology, prosody, and so on.

For example, if you were a linguist who was particularly interested in accents and dialects, you could instead transcribe the data phonetically (using the International Phonetic Alphabet). Then, you’d be able to see from his pronunciation of the first vowel sound in “quantum” that Ben isn’t, for example, from North America.

Ben:     kwɒn.təm steɪts fɜːst meɪ.bi
Anne:  jeə […]

One of the most common transcription systems for analysing this sort of dialogue is called Jefferson notation. Used particularly by linguists and sociologists interested in “conversational analysis”, Jefferson notation is less concerned about phonological features. Instead, it is much more interested in capturing prosodic features of speech (of stress and intonation), as well as information about how the various speakers are interacting: that is, whether they are politely taking turns, constantly interrupting each other, all speaking at once, and so on.

By way of an illustration, this is what the dialogue looks like transcribed in Jefferson notation:

Ben:     quantum states first °↑maybe°
Anne:  yeah=
Pete:    =it’s a good one
Sam:    we all want to be the author of (.) >on the ontology< of quantum states
Pete:    confir er (.) confirmation=
Sam:    =you need to be like you need to speak in Fre:nch and smoke as you explai:n

Words in small circles (e.g. “°maybe°”) mean they are more softly spoken. Words in capital letters are spoken more loudly. Dots in parentheses indicate a small pause, but an equals signs (“yeah=”) means that there is no pause between one speaker’s turn and the next. Words in inward facing brackets (“>on the ontology<”) are spoken more quickly. A colon indicates a lengthening of the relevant syllable. And, finally, paralinguistic information (about laughter, for example) is put in double parentheses.

Inevitably, the transcription looks pretty complex, and is hardly easy to read. And it would get more complicated still if you tried to capture the phonological information in the same transcription! The point is that, whether you are a novelist or a linguist, it’s essentially impossible to capture all the complexity of speech on paper. And, even if you did manage it, the result would be essentially unreadable. All you can do is focus on the particular linguistic levels you are most interested in – or, if you are a novelist, the linguistic features of the dialogue your readers to focus on.

That’s not to say that, one day, some pioneering novelist won’t write all of their dialogue in Jefferson notation (and Jack Kerouac, for example, got some way towards that in Visions of Cody). Whether or not the result would be a bestseller, of course, is an entirely different question.

Incidentally, this is what Dickens passage would look like if a linguist had written it:

Spars:   I wish with all my heart sir that you may be in all respects very happy
Bound: well ↓ma’am (.) I am obliged to you (0.6) I hope I shall be
Spars:   DO you sir? (.) But naturally you do (.) >of course you do<
((Spars resumes work))
Spars:   ((coughs twice)) (1.3) ((coughs))
Bound: well ma’am

And, just for fun, here’s what the conversation between the four scientists might look like in a more literary form…:

They stood huddled around the flipchart. Pen firmly in hand, Pete looked to his colleagues. He wore a look of focus, ready as he was to capture their thoughts.
Ben spoke first.
‘Quantum states first maybe?’ he suggested, his voice trailing off meekly as he spoke.
‘Yeah,’ said Anne.
‘It’s a good one,’ agreed Pete. He began to write.
Then, Sam spoke. ‘We all want to be the author of… On The Ontology Of Quantum States,’ he joked.
A flurry of laughter erupted, and then subsided.
‘Confir, er, confirmation,’ suggested Pete, trying to stick to the job in hand.
But Sam continued. ‘You need to be, like, you need to speak French,’ he said, chuckling. ‘And smoke as you explain…’

(The names of the scientists in the transcription have been changed to maintain their anonymity.)