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.

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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?’
‘Yes.’
‘And the rain won’t make a difference?’
‘No.’
‘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
((laughter))
Pete:    confir er (.) confirmation=
Sam:    =you need to be like you need to speak in Fre:nch and smoke as you explai:n
((laughter))

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<
(1.2)
((Spars resumes work))
Spars:   ((coughs twice)) (1.3) ((coughs))
(0.5)
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.)

From creative writers to creative readers: Why it takes two to build a “hydrogen jukebox”

Hydrogen jukeboxLinguistic creativity, like any other form of creativity, is not a solo activity. For every creative writer there must be, necessarily, at least one creative reader – someone to first recognise, and then to make sense of, their novel use of language, their striking metaphors, neologisms, wordplay, and so on.

Take Howl, for example, Allen Ginsberg’s famous hymn to the “Beat” generation of post-war America. It celebrates all those who:

“[…] sank all night in the submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoons in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,”

This line, like the rest of the poem, is full of language which at first feels complex and obtuse. It is certainly not language which is immediately understood. Granted, anyone who has seen The Hunt For Red October will understand what a “submarine light” looks like. And anyone who has had lunch in a London pub will get a sense of what a “stale beer afternoon” might be like. But what about “hydrogen jukebox”? What on earth is that?

Although we’ve all probably suspected it of poets at one time or another, Ginsberg is rare in actually admitting that he didn’t always know the meaning of what he was writing. In a 1966 interview with The Paris Review, Ginsberg likened the way he juxtaposes seemingly unrelated words in his poetry to the way Cézanne juxtaposed colours against each other in his canvases. He said of combinations of words like “hydrogen” and “jukebox” that, even if he – like Cézanne with his colours – wasn’t consciously aware of what he meant in putting them together his mind over time would eventually find a way to connect them:

“In the moment of composition I don’t necessarily know what it means, but it comes to mean something later, after a year or two, I realise that it meant something clear, unconsciously, which takes on meaning in time, like a photograph developing slowly. Because we’re not always conscious of the entire depths of our minds […]”

Ginsberg’s “hydrogen jukebox” is an example of a compound noun – linguistic units in which a noun is paired up with another one to create a more complex noun phrase, some sort of hybrid of the two. As I have written about before, compound nouns are an example of creativity (defined in terms of novel combinations of concepts or things) in its purest form. They are also a pretty common phenomenon.

The metaphorical kennings of Old Norse epic poetry, for example, were commonly compound nouns (“whale road”, for example, meaning “sea”). In ancient India, compound nouns describing people (like “boy-king”, “man-fish” and “girlfriend”) were common enough for Sanskrit grammarians to gave them a special name: dvandva. And there are plenty of compound nouns in more modern languages too. German, for example, is full of colourful examples (like “hand shoes” for “gloves”). So too is Chinese. The Mandarin for “volcano”, for example, is literally “fire mountain”. And English is not short of a few compound nouns either: think of “workbench”, “calcium carbonate” and – fittingly – “compound noun”.

Compound nouns are also pretty common in literature. In his science fiction classic Dune, for example, Frank Herbert uses a number of them to coin new names for futuristic concepts like “stillsuit” and “filmbook”. And possibly because of his aversion to hyphens and other unnecessary forms of punctuation, compound nouns seem to be a marked feature of Cormac McCarthy’s writing. For example, in Blood Meridian, there is “dramhouse”, “gamingroom”, “walkboard”, “owlcries” “cookfire” and “riverrock”.

And compound nouns are a striking feature of Ginsberg’s poetry in particular. Elsewhere in Howl, Ginsberg coins the creative examples “negro streets”, “Blake-light tragedy”, “paint hotels”, “loveboys”, “madman dawn”, “goldhorn shadow” and “robot apartments”. In one line of the poem alone (not counting “traffic light”), I managed to find at least eleven examples of novel compound nouns:

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,”

But what do they all mean? As a reader, making sense of compound nouns like these is not a trivial thing. After all, what chance do we have if even the author of them isn’t sure what they’re on about?

Fortunately, just as when we read or hear any new word for the first time, we do usually have a few clues to work from. First of all, we can also look at the context for the compound noun in terms of the other words around it. For example, in making sense of “Peyote solidities”, “of halls” points us towards ornamental cacti in some building or other. And for compound nouns in particular, we can also look at their grammatical structure. Because of the way English grammar works, we understand the initial noun in the compound as being something that modifies the final noun, not the other way around. (It’s for this reason that a doctor’s “casebook” is not the same as a “bookcase”, even if one might be found inside another.) As such, we know at least that “ashcan ranting” is a type of verbal activity, and not a type of bin.

After that, figuring out the meaning of a novel compound noun involves connecting and associating its component nouns in new and novel ways. Wherever these concepts are semantically close to each other (for example, like “wine” and “drunkenness”) it’s pretty easy to figure out what is meant by their juxtaposition (“wine drunkenness”). For example, because “Joyride” and “neon” are related via the concept of cars and streets, it’s relatively easy to construct a mental image of “joyride neon”. But where the two concepts are semantically further apart things get more challenging. Because there’s no obvious semantic link between “sun” and “vibration”, it’s a bit harder to tell what a “sun vibration” is – or a “moon vibration” for that matter.

Understanding compound nouns like these, then, is itself an act of creativity. A poem like Howl, just like any piece of creative writing, doesn’t just require a creative writer – it also requires a creative reader.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, said in a 1969 interview with the BBC that the four most important things a reader should have is: memory, a dictionary, some artistic sense and – perhaps most importantly of all – an imagination. According to Nabokov, a creative reader is a re-reader – someone who will read and re-read a piece of writing in order to make sense of it, just like we might need to look at a Cézanne painting multiple times before we really feel we start to understand its meaning. He said:

“In reading a book we must first have time to acquaint ourselves with it […] at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.”

“Hydrogen” and “jukebox” are, on the face of it, as are far away from each other as concepts could be. When I first read Howl I had no idea what a “hydrogen jukebox” was. But after a while I did start to see some meaning in their juxtaposition. I began to see an allusion to the spectre of the post-war nuclear arms race: the threat of the atomic (“hydrogen”) bomb calling out over the (“jukebox”) radio. Of course, whether or not that’s what Ginsberg was thinking when he wrote it – subconsciously or otherwise – is another matter. But that at least is my creative reading of it.

The point is that, as we stare at a painting or re-read a passage of text in our minds, if we allow ourselves to be creative enough, we will eventually find its meaning. Or, at least, we will eventually find some meaning. Between even the most remote and unconnected concepts and ideas in our brains, we will eventually create new neural pathways that somehow connect them – even if, as Ginsberg says, it takes a year or two.

This creative act, the process of trying to find meaning in the seemingly obscure, is a big part of what makes linguistic creativity so much fun – for the reader, as much as for the writer.

“Je ne veux pas pain”: Interlanguage as Poetry

Slide1Sorry of my English….

So begins A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, the 2007 novel by UK-based Chinese novelist Xiaolu Guo. The opening line clearly sets the tone for the rest of the book: a first person account of Zhuang, a young Chinese woman who comes to London to learn English and falls in love with an Englishman almost twice her age. Set over a period of 12 months, it tells the story of Zhuang’s love affair and her resultant journey into adulthood, foregrounded against her struggle to learn English and adapt to an entirely new culture.

What is most striking about Guo’s novel is that it is written in deliberately imperfect English. Critically, as the story progresses, the language (especially the syntax and morphology) becomes more complex and more accurate.

Early on, for example, Zhuang’s English is far from proficient. It is marked by a lack of verb conjugation and very simplified negation (“I no speaking English. I fearing future”), and she frequently drops the copula entirely (“But I at neither time zone. I on airplane”).

However, by the end of the novel, Zhuang’s deviations from Standard English are far more subtle. She still commonly drops articles (“We wake up to noises from neighbours’ kitchen”), for example, or adds them where they wouldn’t normally appear (“We walk in the Victoria Park”) – which is perhaps not surprising since her native Mandarin functions perfectly well without them. And she makes the sort of mistakes that we all make when we learn our first language by logically and creatively applying rules (“Every night I inhale and outhale your breath”) where real language happens to be less than logical. But such errors are much less frequent than at the start of the novel.

It’s a neat literary device. As well as reinforcing the cultural distance between Zhuang and her adopted home (where a sense of “foreign” acts in both directions), the changing English acts as a metaphor for Zhuang’s irreversible personal journey. Moreover, it helps the reader – especially if they themself have wrestled to learn a foreign language – sympathise with the protagonist.

What we commonly might call “bad” English or “pidgin” Frenhc, or “foreigner talk”, linguists refer to in less value-laden terms as “interlanguage”. Interlanguage is the linguistic system that a learner of a second language will develop on their way to full proficiency. The term is used in recognition the fact that a learner’s language will be rule-based, even if those rules are “wrong”, or at least not the same as those used by native speakers.

Critically, interlanguage will generally preserve some grammatical features of the leaner’s first language (like Zhuang’s omission of articles) as well as overgeneralisations of certain rules from the language they are learning (as in Zhuang’s “outhale”). And although it will change over time as the learner approaches more native proficiency, interlanguage can also stop developing or “fossilize”. As a result, any interlanguage will be entirely unique to the learner and potentially therefore – as in some more famous cases – instantly recognisable.

But can a learner’s interlanguage be art? Can it be poetry? Can interlanguage make for great literature?

Interlanguage is certainly common enough in fiction as reported speech. Sometimes such language can be lazy, stereotypical or even racist, which is arguably the case for Daniel Defoe’s “savage”, Friday, in Robinson Crusoe (“Yes, my nation eats mans too, eat all up”). But interlanguage can also be used more elegantly and more sensitively. In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, for example, a conversation in a local cantina ominously renders the chaos of the linguistically contested US-Mexican borderlands:

Blood, he said. This country is give much blood. This Mexico. This is a thirsty country. The blood of a thousand Christs. Nothing.

And you can find interlanguage in poetry too. “Bad English” by Chinese-Australian poet Ouyang Yu tells of an English teacher living in China about to retire to his native Australia, wistfully reminiscing about his many students. In the last three stanzas, interlanguage features as reported speech for comic effect, but is also affectionately (we hope) mimicked by the teacher:

So, in his last class, he found time to speak
Their language: I felt exciting at the thought
Of returning to Oz as living here I often feel boring

I objected myself speaking such bad English
Although I do care you and I admire you

For things like this: ‘On that day’s noon’
And your brilliant slips of pen, like this:
‘We must all uphold human tights’

Although Guo might not be known as a “great” novelist, she’s already done enough with language to be named one of Britain’s Best Young Novelists by Granta magazine. And in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, she certainly makes interlanguage an art form.

Within the broad framework of Zhuang’s evolving English, which as I mention above works as a metaphor in itself, there are some great poetic touches. Towards the end of the novel, for example, Zhuang has taken a trip to France. She is sitting in a café when a waiter comes to offer her “du pain”.

‘Non. Je ne veux pas pain! I answer. I learn this from French For Beginners by Michael Thomas.
But one minute later, he comes back with a small basket of pain again, asks me:
‘Encore un peu de pain?’
‘Ca sufficient! I say, wiping my mouth, stand up.
No more pain in my life.
Only rice makes me happy.

In this brief passage, Guo plays with words in two languages – via a language learner’s “false-friend” (French “pain” meaning bread and the English word “pain”) – to beautifully convey Zhuang’s longing for home.

It’s obviously risky to write a whole novel or poem in interlanguage, and not everyone will feel comfortable playing poetically with a language which is not their own. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that interlanguage poetry and literature is not more common. But perhaps that’s a shame. Many teachers know that writing, and not just reading, poetry can really help learners to master a second language.

And, as Guo shows, interlanguage really can make for a good book. Even if it does need prefacing with an apology.

From “CHOAM” to “Chewbacca”: 10 Ways to Create New Words for New Worlds

Imagine you are some deity about to create a new universe from scratch, including all of its stars and planets, mountains and oceans, plants and animals. You’ll probably start with a handful of subatomic particles, a sprinkling of energy, and give it all a good mix together. If, as is more likely, you are a writer trying to build a new universe on your typewriter your building blocks are going to be different. To create a new Star Wars galaxy, or the desert planet of Arrakis, or the island of Westeros, you’re going to need new words – and more than just a few of them…

2015 is quite a year for science fiction fans. This December will see the release of the seventh chapter in the Star Wars series, The Force Awakens, one of the most eagerly anticipated films of all time – and potentially the most lucrative. 2015 also marks the 60th anniversary of Dune, Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece. Set millennia into our own “future”, Dune tells the tale of a young nobleman who enlists the powers of a strange desert people to avenge the death of his father.

Arguably, George Lucas’ Star Wars borrows more than just a desert setting from Herbert’s 1960s classic. One thing that the two sagas certainly have in common is an abundance of fantastic and exotic words. From Herbert, for example, we have “Paul Atreides”, “Vladimir Harkonnen”, “stillsuits” and “sandworms”. From Lucas and his colleagues, we have “Luke Skywalker”, “Darth Vader”, “lightsabers” and “ewoks”.

But just how did Frank Herbert and George Lucas come up with these wonderful new words?

Lucas and Herbert – just like George R. R Martin – might not be trained linguists. But, in naming the alien things and novel concepts that populate their fantasy worlds, they both demonstrate high levels of sophistication in lexicogenesis – the term linguist Gary Miller uses to describe the processes which give rise to new words. And, as it turns out, they rely on the very same processes of word creation that linguists have identified on our own planet – the very same mechanisms that all of us can use, and which keep English topped up with everyday neologisms like “manspreading”, “contactless” and “binge-watch”.

So, in celebration of a bumper year for science fiction, here are the ten main ways that budding science fiction writers, like Frank Herbert and George Lucas, can create new words for new worlds.

  1. Borrow words (and the concepts they represent)

Of course, new fantasy worlds need to have some commonalities with our own universe or otherwise we’d struggle to connect with them on any sort of level. It’s no surprise that both Dune and Star Wars feature humans (or humanoids at least) – as well as planets, stars, deserts, food, drink, gravity, love, hate, and so on. It’s trivial to say that, for most of these, there’s no need for a new word. It suffices to use the relevant linguistic label (the common noun), like “planet” or “star”, that already exists in English – or whatever language the writer is working in.

But where the word and concept doesn’t exist in English, there’s also the possibility of borrowing common nouns, and the relevant concepts they represent, from other languages too. Herbert does this masterfully in Dune, borrowing heavily from Arabic (“Butlerian jihad”, “erg”, “Mahdi”) and Persian, as well as Turkish, Latin and French. In Dune, the title for the ruler of the galaxy (the “Padishah” Emperor), for example, comes directly from Persian.

In borrowing these words and concepts, Herbert gives us a flavour of “Galach”, the “official language of the Imperium” and the native tongue of Dune’s central characters. In the same way that the English of North America mixes British English together with words and concepts from Spanish, French, and various indigenous languages, Herbert’s fictional language is “hybrid Inglo-Slavic with strong traces of cultural-specialisation terms adopted during the long chain of human migration”. Lucas too, is not afraid of a bit of borrowing either. The word “stormtrooper” (the English translation of “Stosstrupp”), for example, comes from Nazi Germany.

  1. Borrow proper names

In any science fiction universe, people and places need naming too. Proper names can be taken from a variety of source languages, and not just English. Herbert, for example, borrows many first names and family names directly from English (“Jessica”, “Duncan”) as well as Russian (“Vladimir”), Finnish (“Harkonnen”), Chinese (“Yueh”), and ancient Greek (“Leto”). Lucas also derives characters’ names from a variety of sources, including a Moghul emperor (“Admiral Ackbar”) and a 1960s TV character (“Han Solo”). Despite the linguistic diversity, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that the central characters of both Dune and Star Wars still have first names (“Paul” and “Luke”) that are less than alien to English speakers.

Proper names can also be borrowed to name other things too, such as places. Dune’s “Giedi Prime”, for example, is derived from the name of a star in the Capricornus Constellation. Luke Skywalker’s home planet “Tatooine” takes its name from a city in Tunisia.

And, as is the case on our own planet, you can use place names as surnames (Dune’s “Duncan Idaho” or Star Wars’ “Wedge Antilles”), or surnames as first names (“Anakin”, for example, comes from the surname of a British film director). And, likewise, if you want to give familiar names and labels just a whiff of the exotic, you can use an unusual spelling but keep the sound or pronunciation the same. One of Herbert’s minor characters, for example, is called “Piter”. This is something that George R. R. Martin does to even greater effect in A Game of Thrones (think “Robb Stark”, “Jaime Lannister”, “Joffrey” and “Ser Jorah”).

  1. Use existing words for completely unrelated concepts and things

Related to the first two, you can also take existing linguistic labels, from English or otherwise, and apply them to new – seemingly unrelated – concepts or things. In Star Wars, the proper names of characters “Wedge” and “Wicket” are everyday common nouns (the latter being everyday, at least, if you are a fan of cricket). In Dune, Arrakis’ all important spice “melange” borrows its label from the French for “mixture”. The drug “verite”, for example, looks like the French word for “truth”.

  1. Extend the meaning of existing words

In fantasy fiction, it’s not always clear whether there is supposed to be a semantic link, metaphorical or otherwise, between the linguistic label from our own planet and the concept, person or thing it is used to represent – even if you can’t stop yourself as a reader from mentally trying to find one. For example, it’s not clear whether the Dune spice is supposed to be a mixture of various substances, or whether “verite” – a bit like ten pints of lager – is more likely to make you tell the truth.

However, what is certain is that another very good way of naming new concepts and things is to simply take an existing word, and extend its meaning. Herbert, for example, uses this process of semantic extension to come up the word “shield” (some kind of electromagnetic defensive barrier) and “carryall” (a flying vehicle for transporting spice). Famously, Lucas extends the common meaning of “force” to describe the invisible “energy field created by all living things” that gives a Jedi their power.

  1. Extend the function of existing words

Related to this, another way to create new words is the process of conversion – that is, taking an existing word and changing its grammatical function. Verbing, the process of creating a verb from another part of speech, is a very common example of conversion in English (think “to email” and “to text”). Herbert does it, for example, with “weirding room”, creating a verb from the adjective “weird”.

  1. Play with a word’s component sounds

One simple mechanism for creating new words is to take old ones and make small changes to their pronunciation. For example, one of the major cities on Herbert’s Dune planet is “Carthag”, which can be arrived at by changing a phoneme (vowel or consonant) or two of “Carthage” (“Qartaj” in Arabic) – the ancient Tunisian city. Apparently, for Star Wars, Lucas derived the name “Chewbacca” from “sobaka” the Russian word for dog. Interestingly, these sorts of phonological changes often mirror the changes that happen to words on our planet, as languages evolve, or as they are borrowed from one language into another.

  1. Build new words from parts of old ones

In any language – certainly in any Earth language – words are built up from smaller chunks of meaning, called morphemes (themselves built up from phonemes). As a result, new words can be formed by chopping bits off existing words, or by adding adding other bits to them.

In Dune, for example, Herbert creates a name for the galaxy’s currency “Solari” by taking the word “solar” and adding “-i”, which looks suspiciously like the Arabic suffix used to describe people from a particular region (think “Iraqi” or “Pakistani”). He also derives the name of the prevalent language, “Galach”, by chopping the end of the word “galaxy”, in a process which linguists call back-formation. Similarly in Star Wars, to create the gangster “Greedo”, Lucas takes an adjective befitting the character’s penchant for money and adds the suffix “-o”, an English device for creating faux Italian or Spanish names (like “el stinko”).

  1. Combine words in new ways

Perhaps the most common – and most fundamental – way of creating new words is to simply combine old ones together. Both Herbert and Lucas rely heavily on compound nouns, which forge together two or more words – and the concepts which underpin them – to create entirely new ones. In Dune, for example, there are “stillsuits”, “groundcars”, “sandworms” and “battle language”. In Star Wars, famously, there are “star destroyers”, “lightsabers” and “the Death Star”.

On Earth as on more distant planets, wherever compound nouns get too long, especially when describing machines or organisations, it’s not uncommon to substitute them for a suitable acronym. On Arrakis, for example, the “Field CP” is a “command post”. In Star Wars, “ATAT” is an “All Terrain Armoured Transport”.

  1. Use any combination of the above

Of course, if you want to be really creative, you can use pretty much any combination of the processes above. Herbert, in particular, isn’t afraid to mix and match. He forms “lasgun” and “repkit”, for example, by contracting the compounds “laser gun” and “repair kit” to form what linguists call portmanteau words or blends. “CHOAM”, a powerful intra-galactic trading company, stands for “Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles”, where “Honnete” and “Ober” are borrowed from French and Old German, respectively.

  1. Create a new word from scratch

Finally, if all else fails, you can simply create a new word from scratch – that is, from some arbitrary combination of vowels and consonants. When you do so, you need to make a decision whether the new word you create will fit into the sound system of English – that is, the set of rules which govern which phonemes, and which combination of phonemes, are allowed in English – or whether it will fit into some other, possibly alien, language. For example, while “Han” and “Hoth” are entirely plausible words in English, “pchagavas” and “hrobas” in Herbert’s invented “Chakobsa” language, are definitely not.

It’s actually pretty difficult to invent a new word that doesn’t share at least some similarities with existing ones. But short of asking Frank Herbert or George Lucas directly, it’s really quite difficult to tell if a word is an entirely arbitrary invention, or whether similarities with other words are intended for artistic reasons. For example, is Paul Atreides’ home planet of “Caladan” a complete invention, or is it derived somehow from (the equally watery) “Caledonia”? Is the name for Dune’s native “Fremen” an accidental string of vowels and consonants, or is it a contraction of “Free men”? Because we all love looking for deeper, hidden meanings in words, the fantasy universes of Dune and Star Wars leave plenty of room for folk etymologies about the meaning of things. According to this website, for example, Han Solo’s name means “he who is alone”:

“Solo” means alone, and Han is very much a loner. Also in Swedish, Han means “he”. Combine these two definitions, and the resulting translation is “he [who is] alone.” 

Whether that’s what Lucas had in mind is highly debatable, and the man himself has been known to spread a few myths about how his characters’ names were created.

“I Am China” by Xiaolu Guo

IMG_6477I recently bought a copy of Xiaolu Guo’s 2014 novel I am China. As a Mandarin learner, and a linguist, I was intrigued by the premise on the back cover. Spanning London and Beijing, the novel tells the tale of a young woman slowly translating the romantic letters of two Chinese lovers, each separated from the other by political forces beyond their control.

The author, London-based Guo, has a track record of writing books of linguistic curiosity. Born in China, Guo moved to London in 2002 and won critical acclaim for her first English language novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers some five years later. That story – of a Chinese woman who comes to London to learn English and falls in love with a British man – is notable for being written in deliberately imperfect English, which then improves as the narrative unfolds.

As well as being a moving tale of love and loss, and an insight into Chinese censorship post 1989, I am China is also very much a book for lovers of language and languages.

The narrative, for example, is not constrained by national and linguistic boundaries, moving swiftly from Beijing to Shanghai, Dover to the Hebrides, Switzerland to Paris and finally Crete. Mostly it takes place in London, a city which is fittingly multilingual. On the bus, for example:

“Spanish-speaking, Swahili-speaking, French, German, Swedish, Japanese, Vietnamese, Greek, Turkish, Portuguese, Russian, the voices flood into Iona’s ears […]”.

Language is also integral to the novel’s three main characters. The first of these, Iona, is a young Scottish translator who studied Chinese at SOAS. She has been asked by her publisher to translate a set of diary entries and letters written by two young Chinese lovers. One of them, Jian, is a songwriter in a punk rock band, and a political activist; the other, Mu, is a performance poet. Adrift socially, Iona’s translations are a way of reaching out:

“To delve into words, to live with them circling in her mind, allows her to regain something of life. Perhaps this, most of all, is what enables her to connect.”

When she travels, Mu likes to tape the sounds and conversations around her which, just like Jack Kerouac, she dreams of transcribing into one huge book. Her lover, Jian, is inspired by the Misty Poets to write his own rhetorically-charged manifesto. Language, for all three of them, is essential: it is the medium of work, of art, of protest, of tenderness and of anger.

Critically, the novel hinges on Iona’s acts of translation, a device which means Jian and Mu’s story is slowly revealed to us as she works through the pile of letters and diary entries. As such, I Am China is a fascinating insight into the art and science of translating, and an interesting counter-point to David Bellos’ excellent Is That A Fish In Your Ear?.

For example, as she works, Iona ponders the “many basic difficulties in translating Chinese into English”. In Mandarin, there is “no tense differentiation; no conjugation of verbs; no articles, no inversions in questions […]”. At one point, she worries about how she can translate Jian’s swearing, without completely alienating potential readers. At another, she struggles to capture the stylistic variations in Jian’s writing, or simply to understand his “modern Chinese colloquial idiom”.

At a critical point in the story, as the importance of Mu and Jian’s letters starts to become clear, Iona discusses the concept of intranslatability with her former professor from SOAS. In translating the correspondence of the two lovers, the challenge for Iona becomes more than simply a lack of direct equivalence between words and phrases in Chinese and English. In understanding the text, and ultimately Jian and Mu as individuals, the question is how Iona can “get inside a person’s inner culture.”

What is also interesting, as a linguist, is Guo’s prose. While reading I wondered if very occasionally Guo’s lexical choices – which sometimes felt mismatched to the appropriate register – give her away as a non-native speaker of English (“A bearded man, maybe fifty-odd, with scraggly hair”). But, very possibly, I only arrived at such examples because I was looking for them. In general, the prose is colourfully rich. In French or Mandarin, I could only dream of writing a sentence like “Brandon walks as raindrops pelt down, exploding in his hair, like gobs of pigeon shit”.

Perhaps what is most interesting is what decisions Guo – who is really the person translating the (imagined) writings of Mu and Jian for us – makes in her “translations”. It is fitting that Guo’s principle protagonist worries about the amount of freedom she has as she works, and therefore the power she wields over her two protagonists:

“How much liberty does a translator have? It’s a question that has been playing on Iona’s mind. One has to build or subtract to make a text less obscure. That’s obvious. But Iona feels like something else is going on. Like she herself owns these diaries. Or she has the right to reshape them, or even a duty to do so.”

It’s interesting to speculate why Guo occasionally leaves “untranslated” certain words (“xiang chou” means “homesickness” or “nostalgia”), when Iona probably wouldn’t have:

“China is not here. You are not here. And my manifesto means nothing in this land and to these people. Xiang chou is the only emotion I have. I miss my land.”

Or why she leaves certain taboo expressions in Pinyin:

“Only the sea will ta ma de senselessly stay.”

Or why it is, when Guo translates Mu’s mother’s words about finding “an upright man of bamboo quality”, that she doesn’t find a phrase Western readers would more readily recognise.

A simple explanation is that the author, like Iona, is fully exploiting the freedom she has as a “translator”. And Guo is doing so, of course, for a variety of literary ends. The result is a fascinating book for all students and lovers of language.