Don’t Go Gentle: Writing Colourful With(out) Adverbs

img_8430Adverbs are colourful things. Despite the advice of writers like Stephen King, they can do a lot to spice up your prose.

Agatha Christie, for example, was a prolific user of them. She used regular English adverbs (those ending in “-ly”) frequently, to great stylistic effect. Take, for example, this passage from And Then There Were None:

  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?’

But adverbs can be treated in even more creative ways. Here, for example, is a passage from Henry Green’s 1945 novel, Loving, the story of English servants during World War II:

  ‘Sssh,’ said Edith watching rapt. The children turned. There were so many doves they hardly knew which way to look.
  ‘And then there came a time when this wicked tempting bird came to her father to ask her hand,’ Miss Swift said, passing a dry tongue over dry lips, shuteyed.
  ‘It don’t seem right not out in the open,’ Kate mentioned casual.
  ‘And again over there too and there,’ said Edith.
  ‘Where?’ said cried Miss Evelyn too loud though not too sharp as she thought to interrupt Miss Swift. The nanny just put a hand on her arm while she droned.

Notice the difference? As Sebastian Faulk writes in his 2005 introduction to the Living, Green’s prose is full of “stylistic quirks” – not least in his approach to adverbs. Although there is one regular adverb in the passage (“they hardly knew”) there are, many more words (like “loud” and “sharp”) that look, at first glance, like irregular adverbs – or, worse, downright ungrammatical ones.

You only have to pick up a page at random to find a myriad of other examples. There’s “he said low”, “this brought her up sharp”, “he went on canny”, “Edith said indifferent”, “she answered amused”, “take everything so solemn”, and so on. Whereas Christie is writing using a very standard form of English, Green is being more linguistically creative. In taking regular English adverbs (like “loudly” and “sharply”) to the guillotine, he is deliberately breaking grammatical norms. For me, the effect is striking – striking brilliant, even.

To understand why, it’s worth putting Green’s prose under the microscope. As it turns out, he’s doing more than just chopping off bits of words. There’s actually quite a lot to say about the linguistics of what Green is doing. And, although he’s playing with norms, he’s not necessarily breaking any grammatical rules.

In standard English, we are used to seeing adverbs immediately before or after verbs in a sentence. In grammatical terms, adverbs are said to modify the verb – that is, they say something about how the action is performed. (Adjectives are also modifiers, but they modify a noun.) Most English adverbs end in “ly”, and we tend to put them after the verb, so we are well used to seeing the standard pattern you see in Christie’s passage: “Vera said hoarsely”, “she felt suddenly”, and so on. When we see a modifier after a verb that breaks that pattern, as we do throughout Green’s passage, it’s always going to feel unexpected.

Of course, there are some adverbs that don’t end in “ly”. Adverbs like “fast” and “slow” are called flat adverbs, and generally have the same form as a related adjective. Because they don’t fit the standard pattern, adverbs like “fast”, “slow”, “hard”, “wrong”, “far”, and so on, generally feel slightly less formal than regular ones. But they have been around for centuries and so are a perfectly legitimate part of English.

So, one explanation for what Green is doing, is that he’s taking regular adverbs and turning them into flat ones. The effect is to create a sort of blunt, informal style that perhaps echoes the dialect of the below-stairs workers in his novel. (In Loving, both the narrator and the characters approach adverbs in the same way). Indeed, although Green was a member of the upper classes, he was enchanted by the dialect of the men that worked in his father’s West Midland iron foundry.

But that’s not the only explanation. The other explanation is that “loud”, “sharp”, “casual”, and so on, are not being used as adverbs at all. They are, in fact, being used as adjectives.

It’s certainly rarer in English to see adjectives immediately after a verb in a sentence. But it’s certainly not impossible. One exception is what linguists call copulative verbs. These are special verbs (in sentences like “you look good”, “stay safe”, “the pies remained fresh”), which link the subject directly to an adjective. Copulative verbs explain what’s happening in the Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, for example, and in the expression “hang tough”.

Another exception is where what looks like an adjective is actually working like a noun and is, in fact, the direct object of the verb. That’s the case, for example, in Apple’s famous “Think different” advertising campaign.

Another exception is present participles (ending in “ing”) which function like adjectives, and which are not uncommonly found next to verbs. Here are a couple of examples from Loving:

(1)       ‘What’s this?” he enquired chuckling, a light in his eyes.
(2)       ‘Pounds?’ she asked making her eyes big.

Although some style guides would insist on a comma between the verb and the present participle, there is nothing particularly striking about the sentences above.

A fourth exception is adjective phrases, which are grammatically identical to adjectives on their own, but where the adjective is part of a larger chunk. The sentence below is perfectly grammatical, and not at all striking, even though the adjective phrase sits immediately after the verb:

(3)       ‘Yes,’ she said, always happy to help.

However, if you strip the adjective phrase down to just the bare adjective (“happy”), the effect might be a bit strange looking (shouldn’t it be “happily”?). But you still understand it in the same way:

(4)       ‘Yes,’ she said, happy.

This is how I read Green. In the passage from Living, I don’t interpret his “casual”, “loud”, “sharp”, and so on, as adverbs, flat or otherwise. Instead, I interpret them as adjectives. That is, they are saying something about the subject of the sentence rather than the verb – about the person doing the action rather than how they are doing it. It’s the same for Leonard Cohen’s famous lyric “You want to travel with her / You want to travel blind”. It’s the same for “Eat colourful” in this marketing for ready-made Indian food.

It’s also the same for Dylan Thomas’ famous line of verse “Do not go gentle into that good night” where, for me, it’s not about how we go – rather, it’s about not being “gentle” when we do.

Thomas perhaps even stands above Green as a master in surprising you with an adjective where you might expect to see an adverb. In Under Milk Wood, for example, there is “The boys are dreaming wicked”. Elsewhere, the cats of Llareggub “lope sly”. And so on. Stylistically, these examples are striking. They’re unexpected and surprising. Even if the sense is little changed in each case, because it plays with grammatical norms without necessarily breaking any rules, the substitution of an adjective feels more creative – more poetic, somehow.

Of course “Do not go gently” might have sounded just as powerful in its central message of raging against our inevitable journey to the grave. But it wouldn’t have sounded like Dylan Thomas. (Winston Churchill, maybe – but not Dylan Thomas.) Likewise, Living would still have been a masterpiece of modernist literature without Green’s “stylistic quirks”. But it wouldn’t have been so uniquely his.

Beyond simply the strangeness, it’s worth dwelling on a more nuanced effect of the substitution. One of the main arguments against adverbs in prose is that they amount to author intrusion. That is, because the narrator is effectively making a judgement about how an action is performed (“fast”, “loudly”, “questioningly”, and so on), their subjective presence is apparently intruding into the story. Green told the BBC in 1950 that he always avoided the “authorial adverb” because, in his words, “nothing kills life so much as explanation”.

Finally, I would propose another potential stylistic effect. In all of these examples there is an intrinsic ambiguity. In each case, it’s possible to interpret the word immediately following the verb either as a novel (flat) adverb or, as I prefer, as an adjective. (As one linguist writes: “If intransitives are followed by an adjective, the adjective is ambiguous between modifying the (intransitive) verb or the subject nominal.”) Because of the ambiguity, there’s some sense of “mystery” – of not knowing exactly what the narrator is really telling us. That speaks neatly to Green’s assertion that all other humans are essentially unknowable.

Regular adverbs will always have their place, irrespective of what Stephen King might think. And others have already preached the use of flat adverbs as a stylistic device. But, as Green and Thomas show, I think there’s even more fun to be had in surprising the reader with an unexpected adjective or two. It might start to feel like a cheap trick, once you know what’s going on. But it will definitely make your prose stand out (he said, confident).

At least, of course, until everyone starts doing it.

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Grief Is The Thing With Compounds

crow-vector-silhouette

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:

Rub-a-dub-dub,
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”

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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.

 

References
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.

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.

Just what is it about language?

IMG_5751Just what is it about language that we love so much?

Why do we enjoy a good neologism? Why do we revel in an arcane expression? Why do we admire a good pun, and love a bad one even more? Why are we possessive about words we think hardly anyone else knows? Why do we worship words, as it were, like “discombobulate” and “whimsy” and “gusset”.

And, why do we praise a good phrase? What is it about a good metaphor, the poetry of Shakespeare, or the catchy rhetorical tropes of a dance show judge? Just what is it that makes us bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at even the most everyday of language?

Or to put it another way: why do I write this blog? What is it that language bloggers, book readers, novelists, speech-writers, stand-up comedians, poets, language learners, and lovers of this Fry & Laurie sketch all have in common? Why is it that we humans might feel emotionally drawn to language, beyond its principal function of communication?

By coincidence, the last two novels I read both offered answers. Admittedly, the explanations they offered were as different as the novels themselves.

The first book was Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller; the second was I am China by Xiaolu Guo, the tale of a star-crossed Chinese couple and a young British translator, Iona. Guo’s book is a tremendous read for language lovers (more on that in a later blog). Early in the novel, she describes how Iona is drawn to language, especially foreign ones, and how language offers her a way of connecting with others:

“To delve into words, to live with them circling in her mind, allows her to regain something of her life. Perhaps this, most of all, is what enables her to connect. As a teenager, driven crazy by the boredom of living on a small Scottish island inhabited largely by sheep, she found herself longing for foreign words: the alien sounds, the unknown syllable, the mysterious sign. Learning languages consumed her. She stuffed herself full with them, and went to university for more. Perhaps a foreign language would offer her an escape. At school everyone teased her about acting because of her striking resemblance to Hollywood actress Winona Ryder, but shy Iona never saw herself as an actress. She retreated into words.”

In Tropic of Capricorn, Miller has a different – and characteristically more visceral – explanation for his relationship with words:

“‘I love everything that flows,’ said the great blind Milton of our times. I was thinking of him this morning when I awoke with a great shout of joy: I was thinking of his rivers and trees and all that world of night which he is exploring. Yes, I said to myself, I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences.”

As I read the passages, I didn’t think either really summed up what it is that I love about language, although I could see something in what Guo writes about the “mysterious” and exotic sign. But the two books did get me thinking about the question of why we might be emotionally drawn to words and sentences, vowels and consonants, and just what other explanations there might be.

Have we as human beings evolved to “enjoy” language to some degree and, if so, why? For example, does it facilitate or accelerate – or is it even a requisite for – the learning of our first language? Language is a semiotic system. It involves things and signs (such as sounds or scribbles on a page) to represent those things. So, is it really the things we love – the concepts? Or is it the representations of those things? Is our love of spoken language about aural pleasure (or “sound-sex” as Stephen Fry so aptly puts it) like it is for music? And is our love of written language about visual pleasure – enjoying the printed sign like a painted landscape?

Or is our love of language about things that flow, as Miller suggests? Is it something about transience and streams of ideas? Or is it about a taste of the exotic, like it is for Guo’s protagonist? Are words a mean of escape? Or is language something that connects us deeply with other people, and with ourselves?

I’m sure there are many possible answers and, no doubt, an exploration of them all would provide the material for a long and very interesting book.

A book filled, of course, with pages upon pages of wonderful language.