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.

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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.

Crags, Cæsters & Crans: The Multilingual Tapestry of England

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

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

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

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

Day One: St Albans to Carnforth

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

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

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

Day Two: The Lake District

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

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

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Day Three: Homeward bound

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

 

References

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

It all started with the Vikings

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

Literary language, literary culture

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

A “magnificent language, both simple and rich”

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

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

Geeking out on etymology

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

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

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

IMG_7642

Magnificent characters

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

Proper names

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

Verbal hygiene in action

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

And don’t forget the clapping

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

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

 

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.

“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.

The ‘either…or’ politics of language

IMG_3389Cognitive science has shown us that, like it or not, we have the tendency to see the world in terms of opposites. Things are either hot or cold, black or white. People are either young or old, fat or thin. In terms of their identity, they are either one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’.

It’s not surprising, then, that so much of political debate is framed in terms of ‘either… or’. The Government should be clamping down on benefit fraud. Or it should be curbing bankers’ bonuses. When Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician’ she was cleverly creating a binary distinction between having conviction, and seeking agreement. In this rhetoric, any politician that sought consensus was weak, whereas she of course was strong.

Importantly, the same binary distinctions are also prevalent in political (as well as everyday) discussions of language. Children should speak ‘proper’ English in the classroom; or, children should have the right to speak their own dialect at school. Immigrants should learn to speak English; or, everyone should have the right to access public services in their own language.

Here’s one example. In the UK, there have been a number of recent reports of schools banning pupils from speaking their local dialect in the classroom. Here, the reasons for such interventions are often framed in terms of ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ language. In one report, a head teacher from Birmingham complained of increasing numbers of pupils coming through nursery with little or no ‘proper English’. Most people would agree there is a need for children to speak Standard English to access the wider job market. It follows that children should be made to speak Standard English – not the dialect which they have grown up speaking at home.

Elsewhere, there have been reports of growing numbers of school children who do not speak any English when they arrive at primary school. In February 2014, The Daily Mail reported that English will soon become a second language in one in 9 schools in the UK. The growth is driven by immigration, in particular from Eastern Europe. As such it is a highly political issue. In the words of one think tank, ‘Educating children who do not speak English as their mother tongue […] puts a huge financial strain on schools’. Clearly, kids who speak Romanian or Somali or Gujarati – and not English – as a first language are a burden on the taxpayer.

Further afield, reports of ‘last speakers’ dying – taking with them entire languages – are relatively frequent. As academics and language activists have pointed out, when a language dies, so much more is lost too: a culture, an entire world view, and quite possibly a vast body of local knowledge. Of the 7000 or so languages spoken around the world, a significant number of them are under threat from extinction. In USA, for example, of the more than 300 Native American languages originally spoken, fewer than 200 remain; as many as 70 of these languages could become extinct within the next decade.

One of the major driving forces for language death is the growth of a global economy – so, for many, it is unavoidable. Parents don’t want to speak the language of the minority to their children, the state doesn’t want to teach it, and teenagers don’t want to learn it. Because, if young people are to access the best jobs and the best opportunities, they will need to speak English not Washo, Russian not Tuvan, Mandarin not Kanakanavu.

All of these issues of language policy and planning might seem intractable. But perhaps they are not. Perhaps the answer is not a regional dialect or a standard dialect. Perhaps the answer is not Russian or Tuvan.

Although we might be programmed to see the world in terms of opposites, let’s pretend for a moment that the answer is not one language or another. Instead, let’s pretend it is both languages.

Growing up in Britain and speaking English, you could be forgiven for thinking that speaking more than one language – bilingualism – is the exception, rather than the rule. Commentators, educators and business leaders have long bemoaned the deficit in language skills in the UK with, for example, the number of people studying languages at university at an all time low. The British Academy’s 2013 ‘State of the Nation’ report on the demand and supply of language skills in the UK concluded that: ‘There is a strong evidence that the UK is suffering from a growing deficit in foreign language skills at a time when globally the demand for language skills is expanding’.

As such, it may not be at all obvious that speaking two languages could be the answer to anything. But further from home bilingualism (or multilingualism, defined simply as speaking more than one language) is actually more common than you might think.

In Switzerland, for example, speaking more than one language is a fact of life. With four official languages the State Government, and much of local Government, simply couldn’t function without widespread bilingualism. And in the Philippines, as well as national languages Filipino and English, at least another 100 languages are spoken. Bilingualism is so prevalent, that it’s not uncommon for Filipinos to happily code-switch between both Filipino and English – as is the case for many bilingual communities around the globe. Worldwide, something like 1 in 3 people routinely use two or more languages for work, family life and leisure (Li, 2007).

In fact, bilingualism turns up pretty much everywhere – even in the UK. In Wales and Scotland, for example, significant numbers of people speak Welsh or Gaelic as a first language, as well as English. TV drama Hinterland, for example, recently broke ground by being filmed in both Welsh and English language versions, using the same actors. Even among native English speakers, there are people who buck the (monolingual) trend. Current England manager Roy Hodgson, for example, has managed football teams in 5 different languages – arguably with the least success managing his current side in his mother tongue.

As the media has been quick to report, immigration to the UK is driving rapid growth in multilingualism. As a result, London has become one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the world. Today, over 300 languages are spoken across the city. Over a third of children in London will speak English at school, but a language other than English at home (Gibson, 2007). Interestingly, this gives rise to the paradox – also common to USA and Australia – of both second language deficiency and extreme multilingualism.

And, if you extend the concept to those people that can speak more than one dialect of English, then many more people could be considered bilingual. It’s not uncommon to know more than one dialect of a language and use each of them selectively in different contexts. One of them might be the local (say West Country) dialect we grew up speaking and still use with our family; the other might be the Standard British English we use when we speak to our boss.

There’s also a growing body of scientific evidence to show the cognitive benefits of speaking a second language. Bilingual people, for example, are found to be better at filtering out irrelevant information in ‘conflict tasks’. Some studies have found that bilingual people perform better in creative problem solving tasks. Recently, researchers have shown that babies brought up hearing more than one language have a greater thirst for novel images, indicative of a high IQ in later life. Bilingualism may even hold back the onset of dementia in later life. And brain scans have shown that learning another language can, quite literally, make the brain grow. And there are social benefits too. Learning languages opens up the possibility of understanding entirely new cultures, and new ways of life. Just as some languages hold words for concepts that don’t exist in other languages, learning multiple tongues can offer perspectives on the world that aren’t available in a single language.

Slide1So, what about the banning of ‘incorrect’ English in school? Few people would disagree that speaking a standard language is a necessity for accessing the wider job market. But many people would also argue that to dismiss regional dialects as inferior (‘incorrect’ or ‘improper’) is surely problematic – not least because it can damage the confidence of vulnerable young people. The answer, of course, is that children should be encouraged to value their own dialect – and their ability to speak it – as well as the Standard English they will need in wider society.

And what about the problem of ever increasing numbers of school children in UK who arrive at primary school not speaking English? The answer is that they should be taught to speak English at school and – at the same time – they, their teachers and wider society should value their ability to speak a second language. As others have pointed out, at a time when the UK’s language skills are sorely lacking, these bilingual children will be a rich resource for the future. We should drop the negative spin, and focus on the positive.

And finally, what about the problem of indigenous communities abandoning their native language to speak the language of the majority? As linguist K. David Harrison points out in his book The Last Speakers, the answer is the same:

‘It’s certainly fair to ask: “Aren’t kids better off shedding a small local language and becoming globally conversant citizens?” In response, wouldn’t an even better scenario be kids who increase their brainpower by being bilingual and enjoy the benefits of both a close-knit ethic community and a sense of national or global participation?’

In all three cases, the answer is bilingualism. We should move away from debates about language, and any policies that follow, which are based on ‘either…or’. Instead we should be talking about language only in terms of ‘and’.

Politically, this will still require a huge paradigm shift – especially in countries where policies of monolingualism (like Napoleon’s ‘One nation, one language’) have been firmly entrenched for centuries. But such policies are near-sighted at best. In his book, I think Harrison sums it up nicely when he says:

‘[…] we live in a society that curiously undervalues bilingualism. Millions of school children spend countless hours drilling the verb forms of Spanish, while just a classroom away, millions of other children who speak Spanish with their parents at home and could be fully bilingual are shamed for having a slight accent and intimidated into giving up their Spanish. “English only” is one of the most intellectually ruinous notions ever perpetuated upon American society, and one of the most historically naïve. We have always been a multilingual society, even before we became a nation.’

In the USA, as elsewhere, policies of monolingualism are not the answer. They could actually be part of the problem.

So, do you want to maintain the intellectual wealth contained within local languages and dialects, at the same time as acknowledging the need for national standards and lingua francas? Do you want your students to be proud of their heritage, but have the skills and confidence to compete for jobs nationally? Do you want to have employees that will make you more sales worldwide, and help you beat your competitors in the global marketplace? And do you want to increase your creativity, hold off dementia, and literally grow your brain?

The answer is simple. The answer is bilingualism: Value it, support it, celebrate it.

 

References

Gibson, M. (2007). Multilingualism. In D. Britain (Ed.), Language in the British Isles (pp. 257-275). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Li, W. (Ed.). (2007). The Bilingualism Reader (2nd ed.). Oxford: Routledge.