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

Agatha2

Agatha Christie in the 1970s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Advertisements

Eponyms, -oriums and “Boaty McBoatface”: A Brief Guide to Naming Research Facilities

Slide1When it comes to linguistic creativity, scientists like to give their humanities colleagues a run for their money. From poetic titles to journal articles and research grants, scientists love a good label – and not least for the various labs and research facilities they work in.

Some of these names – like the Large Hadron Collider and the Swiss Light Source – can be fairly functional, but even the most prosaic are usually converted to acronyms. The largest radio telescope in the world, to be built in South Africa and Australia, will be called the Square Kilometer Array (its acronym “SKA” conjuring up associations with Caribbean rhythms). Perhaps most famous of all, CERN stands for “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire”.

Sometimes, the relevant noun phrase can be forced to fit more elegant acronyms. UCL’s Pedestrian Accessibility & Movement Environment Laboratory is affectionately known as “PAMELA”. The last UK national supercomputing facility, the High-End Computing Terascale Resource, was known as “HECTOR”. The current one, ARCHER, is no less heroically named. In the list of the world’s biggest supercomputers – which includes Titan, Sequoia and Stampede – connotations of power and size abound.

As well as acronyms, eponyms honouring famous scientists are also common. The Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research – named after one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA – will open this year in London. In the North of England, the Sir Henry Royce Institute will be a major centre for materials science. Alan Turing, WWII code-breaker and father of modern computing, was pardoned in 2013, shortly before the unveiling of plans for a new national centre for data science fittingly named The Alan Turing Institute.

It’s not just a recent trend. When Imperial College London was established in South Kensington after the Great Exhibition of 1851 the entire area – also home to the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria & Albert Museum – was named “Albertopolis” in honour of Queen Victoria’s husband. Via similar application of the Greek suffix -polis (meaning “city”), the site of the London 2012 Olympics is being renamed “Olympicopolis”. The former Olympic Park will become a new cultural quarter in the East End with University College London establishing a new campus there, and the Smithsonian setting up a new museum. Employing another suffix (the Latin -orium denoting “place of”) the UK Government have announced £138M funding for a new UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure & Cities. This national research centre, called “UKCRIC” for short, will have its headquarters at the Olympicopolis.

As well as UKCRIC, the Alan Turing Institute and the Sir Henry Royce Institute, another major research facility recently announced by the UK Government is a new £200M polar research vessel. The vessel hit the headlines recently when the Natural Environment Research Council launched a public competition to find a suitable name for the ship. The linguistic creativity of the general public being what it is, the most popular name suggested so far is RRS “Boaty McBoatface”. Other popular suggestions include:

RRS Boatimus Prime
RRS I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie
RRS What Iceberg?
RRS Ice Ice Baby
RRS Not the Titanic
RRS Boat Marley and the Whalers
RRS Boatback Mountain

Although it’s not clear whether NERC will ultimately honour the public’s choice, the name Boaty McBoatface has definitely caught the wider imagination. Creative linguistic variations include a racehorse in Australia called “Horsey McHorseface”, a commuter train called “Trainy McTrainface”. There have even been suggestions to name a new ape at Bristol Zoo Gorilla McGorillaface and, on Twitter, there have been calls to forget “Czechia” and rename the Czech Republic “Country McCountryface”.

It’s not just me that has noticed the similarity between the Xy McXface construction and Keep Calm and X (and also Fifty Shades of X) except with some added reduplication and splash more silliness.

So there you have it. From eponyms, acronyms and suffices, there are a number of neat ways to make a research lab seem just that bit more exciting. But if you really want to make a lab or science facility appealing to the general public, then you know what to do.

From William Shakespeare to Amy Tan: Do bilinguals make better writers? (2)

IMG_7123In my last post, I started to argue that there is a link between bilingualism – the ability to speak a second language to some degree of proficiency – and linguistic creativity. That is, bilinguals like Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway were better writers in English because they could speak at least one other language as well.

My argument was based purely on anecdote – essentially that, if you look at any list of the 100 greatest novels of all time, a large number of the authors represented will be proficient in another language.

However, there is more than just anecdotal evidence to support the claim. Over the last four decades, there has been a huge amount of research on the potential advantages (and disadvantages) of bilingualism on various aspects of cognition. This includes a growing amount of research on the link between bilingualism and creativity.

Before looking at the research it’s worth first defining some terms. As human beings, we have the capacity to perform various mental processes. Creativity, just one of these processes, is actually a fairly complex concept. In everyday life, being “creative” can mean anything from being good at solving maths problems to being handy with a paintbrush.

Among scientists, a commonly accepted definition is that creativity is the ability to come up with novel and useful (or appropriate) ideas. And the production of these ideas is generally assumed to involve two different mental processes. The first process, divergent thinking, involves producing a number of different ideas in response to some question or problem. The second, convergent thinking, involves searching and analysing these ideas to find the most appropriate one(s). So, if I want to complete the sentence “the man screamed like a…”, divergent thinking is coming up with noun phrases like “banshee”, “baby”, and “boy scout”. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is settling on “chimpanzee on fire”.

When it comes to producing novel ideas, divergent thinking is key. Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast”. Coining such a memorable metaphor for the City of Light needed both divergent and convergent thinking but, without the former, the latter would have got Hemingway nowhere. As a result, most researchers interested in creativity tend to focus on measuring individuals’ ability to think divergently. To do so, they tend to employ one of a number of standard tests.

In these tests people might be shown random doodles (something like the inkblot test) and asked to write down as many ideas as they can for what they might represent. Or, they might be shown some visual puzzle and asked to come up with creative solutions to it. One of the most common tests, the Torrance Test, evaluates three aspects of divergent thinking based how many ideas individuals produce in a set period of time (“fluency”), how different the ideas are from each other (“flexibility”), and how different they are to ideas that other people come up with (“novelty”).

In the 1970s, in an early study of bilingualism and creativity, a researcher at the University of North Dakota looked at how elementary school students performed on the Torrance Test (Landry, 1973). The first two groups of students, from the second and sixth grades, were at an elementary school that provided a foreign language programme. The second two groups of students attended an elementary school, which didn’t provide any foreign language tuition. All students in the study had English as their first language. Although there was no significant difference found between the two groups of second-grade students, the researcher found that sixth-grade girls who had received bilingual education did perform better in measures of fluency and flexibility.

In a more recent study, a researcher at the University of Haifa compared the creative thinking abilities of bilingual Russian-Hebrew children in both Hebrew-language and dual-language Kindergartens in Israel, against those of monolingual Hebrew-speaking children (Leikin, 2012). The children, from similar socio-economic backgrounds, were tested at the start of Kindergarten and then, again, one year later. The researcher found that there was no significant difference between the divergent thinking of the three sets of students in the first round of tests. However, when the tests were repeated, the bilingual students in the dual-language programme performed significantly better (in terms of flexibility and novelty) compared to the monolingual group, suggesting that regular exposure to two languages at school did enhance creative thinking.

Doing this sort of research is always challenging and it’s almost impossible to control for all the factors – age, socioeconomic background, education level, cultural background, and so on – that might affect the creative performance of the individuals concerned. Even establishing a study group with similar levels of mono- or bilingualism is challenging enough. When it comes to speaking multiple languages, everyone is different, for example in terms of whether they speak a second language at home, when they began learning the language, how many other languages they might speak, and what those languages are. For example, researchers (including an old Professor of mine) recently found that habitual code-switchers performed better on the Torrance Test than non-habitual ones (Kharkhurin & Wei, 2015). Inevitably, whenever you measure the creativity of any random sample of people – bilingual or otherwise – you will get a wide range of scores. Although everyone is creative, some people are just naturally more creative than others.

Despite the research challenges, most researchers are now in agreement that there is a positive correlation between bilingualism and creative thinking. That is, on average, bilinguals are more likely to be more creative thinkers (and therefore more creative writers) than their monolingual counterparts.

The next question, of course, is why?

A few explanations have been offered as to why this might be the case. One theory is simply that bilinguals benefit from a wider range of experiences than monolinguals because they operate in more than one languages and, often, within more than one culture. As a result, they have access to a wider range of ideas, which they can combine together to form new and novel ones.

One of the most appealing theories was suggested by Anatoliy Kharkhurin, a psychologist from the American University of Sharjah, in his book Multilingualism & Creativity. Kharkhurin points to the fact that, within our brains, all our knowledge of concepts and things is stored in a complex, interconnected semantic network. This network is known to have two layers or levels.

At the bottom level are the concepts themselves – things like DOG and CAT and CASTLE. Within this layer, related concepts are horizontally connected. For instance, the concepts DOG and CAT might be connected since both are quadrupeds and common household pets (and, between them, they account for the majority of the videos on Youtube). As a result, thinking about cats is likely to make you think about dogs too. The concepts DOG and CASTLE, on the other hand, are unlikely to be interconnected. So, thinking about dogs won’t immediately make you think about turrets and drawbridges.

In the next level up (the lexical level) are the linguistic labels for each of these concepts – for example, the words “cat”, “dog”, and “castle”. Importantly, the levels are vertically interconnected so that the concept CAT is connected to the lexical item “cat”, DOG is connected to “dog”, and CASTLE is connected to “castle”.

There are also further horizontal connections within the lexical level so that “dog” might be connected to words like “log” and “fog” because they each share two phonemes. As a result, if someone said to you the word “dog”, because of the various links in your semantic network, you might think about cats and logs. But you would be unlikely to think about castles.

That is, unless you also spoke French. Although bilinguals will still have only one set of concepts in the bottom layer of their semantic network, they will have two sets of linguistic labels in the next level up. So a French-English bilingual will have both “château” and “castle” connected to the concept CASTLE, and both “cat” and “chat” connected to the concept CAT. Therefore, if you said the word “dog” to a French-English bilingual it might make them think of cats, which might make them think of the word “chat”, which might make them think of the (phonetically related) word “château”, and therefore the concept CASTLE – a train of thought which just isn’t open to a monolingual speaker of English.

This process of language-mediated concept activation is one of the key processes, Kharkhurin proposes, behind the positive correlation between bilingualism and creativity. And, by way of a real life example of this process in action, here’s a passage Jack Kerouac wrote in his diary in February 1950:

“In my sleep I referred to myself, in French, not as “writer” but as arrangeur – he who arranges matters; at the same time, I associated this fraction with eating supper (manger). I woke up to remember this.”

So there you have it. On average, bilinguals are found to be more creative (linguistically and otherwise) than monolinguals, and there are some convincing theories for why this might be the case.

Of course, there’s far more to good writing than divergent thinking. But it seems fair to say that, if you aspire to be a successful novelist and you already speak a second language, then you’re off to a good start.

 

References

Kharkhurin, A. V., & Wei, L. (2015). The role of code-switching in bilingual creativity. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 18(2), 153-169.
Landry, R. G. (1973). The Relationship of Second Language and Verbal Creativity. The Modern Language Journal, 57(3), 110-113.
Leikin, M. (2012). The effect of bilingualism on creativity: Developmental and educational perspectives. International Journal of Bilingualism, 17(4), 431-447.

From William Shakespeare to Amy Tan: Do bilinguals make better writers? (1)

IMG_7123Do bilinguals make better writers? Are people who speak more than one language better at carving out a sentence, finding an apt metaphor, or using words in new and exciting ways? Are they better at telling stories that move us, at presenting ideas that excite us, at rendering dialogue that speaks to us?

Or, in more scientific terms, is there any causal link between individual bilingualism and linguistic creativity?

Creativity more broadly – which can be defined as the ability to produce novel and useful ideas – is just one component of our mental capacities. There have been decades of debate as to whether bilingualism has any bearing on our cognitive capabilities and, over the years, the pendulum of evidence has swung back and forth.

At first, it was thought that kids who grew up speaking more than one language would be at an intellectual disadvantage over their monolingual counterparts. Then, a whole range of research emerged to suggest that there were instead potential cognitive advantages of being bilingual, particularly in terms of increased “executive control” – that is, the ability to focus on certain information while inhibiting others while undertaking certain specific tasks. (There is also evidence to suggest that being bilingual may reduce the risk of developing dementia in later life.) Now, the pendulum has swung back towards the middle ground, as some of the findings on the so-called bilingual advantage have been called into question.

But what about the more specific question of whether bilinguals are more creative, linguistically speaking?

Well, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that they indeed are. Just look at the bookshelves of your local library, or lists of the “greatest novels of all time”, and you’ll find plenty of bilingual authors.

First of all, there are those authors who grew up bilingual. Novelist and diarist, Anaïs Nin was of Cuban and French descent, grew up in both Paris and the US and, although Spanish was her first language, wrote her famous journals in French and then English. Of Henry Miller, she once wrote: “There are words in other tongues I must use when I talk about you. In my own, I think of: ardiente, salvaje, hombre.” At about the same time, Jack Kerouac was growing up in Massachusetts, but the language he spoke at home with his family was French-Canadian. Throughout his life, Kerouac was aware of his bi-cultural identity. In a diary entry from 1945, he congratulated himself for being at least “half American”. He also wrote: “Quand je suis fâché, je sacre souvent en français. Quand je dors, je rêve souvent en français” (“When I’m annoyed, I often swear in French. When I sleep, I often dream in French”).

Much contemporary, Western fiction represents the second- or third-generation immigrant experience of their bilingual authors – that of being between (and beyond) two or more languages and cultures. For example, Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was born in the Dominican Republic but raised in New Jersey. His novel, rich with Spanish-English code-switching starts as it means to go on:

“Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats everyone’s always going on about – he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.”

Fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, Jhumpa Lahiri, was born in London to Bengali parents, and grew up in USA. Lahiri has bravely written her forthcoming novel in Italian, the language of the country in which she now lives. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, was born in Afghanistan but emigrated to California with his family when he was 15. And Amy Tan, author The Joy Luck Club, was born in California, and raised bilingual, speaking English and Mandarin. She has written about how she makes use of all of her “Englishes” in writing her fiction, including the “broken” or “fractured” English (what linguists call the interlanguage) of her Chinese immigrant mother.

Then, there are the authors who grew up speaking languages other than English, but who ended up writing classic works of the English language. Perhaps most famously, Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in English, his second language after Polish. Nigerian novelists Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Okara wrote in English, albeit in an English that was deliberately tailored to their own, unique African identities. And I’ve written recently about contemporary author Xiaolu Guo, named one of Britain’s Best Young Novelists by Grant Magazine, who began writing in English because she couldn’t find translators to translate her novels from Chinese.

Then, there are native speakers of English, who wrote in English, but who learned other languages either at school or while living abroad – and whose experience in these languages had obvious influences on their work. Perhaps most prominently, William Shakespeare would have spent most of his time at grammar school in Stratford-Upon-Avon wrestling with the six noun cases of Latin. Shakespeare wrote whole passages of his plays in French, and was rare among Elizabethan playwrights to do so. Ernest Hemingway was born in Illinois, but spent most of his life outside of the US, living in Paris and Cuba and elsewhere. His writing is littered with Italian, French and Spanish. In The Old Man And The Sea, for example, the novella which earned him the Nobel Prize for literature, Hemingway alludes to the Cuban setting:

“But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky […].”

Another example is Cormac McCarthy, who was born in Rhode Island, but who lived for a while in Ibiza. His classic Blood Meridian is similarly sprinkled with Spanish words and Spanish dialogue. In fact, the list of famous English-language authors that spent significant amounts of time living in non English-speaking countries is remarkably long. James Joyce wrote mostly about Dublin, but lived for most of his life outside of Ireland – in Trieste, Zurich, and in Paris, where Ulysses was first published. George Orwell famously went Down And Out In Paris And London, and wrote about his experiences. Capturer of post-war, kitchen-sink life (and fellow Nottingham-lad) Alan Sillitoe lived for six years in France and Spain, writing Saturday Night, Sunday Morning in Majorca. And, another famous writer from Nottingham, D H Lawrence, spent most of his life in voluntary exile, in Europe and elsewhere.

Then, there are authors who have looked to dead languages to spice up their fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, was famously a scholar of Anglo-Saxon. Sticking to the world of fantasy and science-fiction, Frank Herbert borrowed heavily from a variety of languages, including French and Arabic, to find the new words he needed for his Dune universe. And George R. R. Martin may not be a linguist himself, but he still shows a remarkable sensitivity to multilingualism in his world of Dragons and White Walkers.

Of course, this list doesn’t include authors writing in languages other than English. For example, Alexander Pushkin was the Russian language’s first great poet, but he grew up speaking French with his parents, like most Russian aristocrats of the time, and only learned Russian vernacular from servants. Marcel Proust spoke English, even if not fluently. In A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, for example, he makes code-switching to English a particular affectation of Odette, Swann’s lover and later wife.

And, of course, this is a pretty Western-centric selection. However, if you were to look at the bookshelves of China, or India, or South America, I’m sure you would find a similar story – or possibly an even greater prominence of bilingual authors.

What I’ve presented so far is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is a link between bilingualism and linguistic creativity – in crude terms, that speaking more than one language, does indeed make you a better writer.

But, of course, such evidence is hardly scientific. It hardly points to a measurable, quantifiable correlation between bilingualism and linguistic creativity.

And, even as anecdotal evidence, presenting a list of famous bilingual authors is problematic in other ways too. What I could have done instead, to try and argue the opposite case, is to present a list of famous authors who are certifiable monolingual. But finding anyone, even in ostensibly monolingual countries like the US and the UK, who doesn’t have some degree of proficiency in a foreign language like French or Spanish is actually pretty difficult. That’s important because, with the list above, I’m not making any distinction between people who have grown up with two different languages, those that learned a second language at school, and those that have lived with a second language abroad. All, of course, reflect slightly different flavours of being “bilingual” and – inseparable from this – different levels of individual experience with more than one culture. You could certainly ask, if it exists at all, where does the “bilingual effect” on creativity start and end?

Importantly, even if there is a correlation between linguistic creativity and bilingualism, that doesn’t prove any kind of direct causation – that being bilingual causes people to be more creative writers.

For example, for the authors who learned languages later in life, what’s to say that the thing that drove them to move abroad and learn foreign languages wasn’t the same thing that drove them to write fiction – that is, some deeper love of language? What’s to say the two things aren’t just facets of the same phenomenon that inspires me to write this blog, for example, or that Amy Tan wrote about in her essay Mother Tongue?:

“I am a writer. And by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language – the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade.”

But even if the causation is not clear, the correlation is interesting enough. And it turns out there is scientific evidence, from research in psychology and linguistics, to suggest that there really is a positive correlation between bilingualism and creativity.

And that’s going to be the subject of the next part of this blog.

Proust Was A Neuroscientist… And Also A Linguist

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Proust was interested in where words come from

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

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

3. Proust understood how language changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. And he knew what happens when connections go missing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Forget Hemingway: This Is How A Linguist Would Write Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You are all her dear boys,’ Catherine said. ‘She prefers the dear boys. Listen to it rain.’
‘It’s raining hard.’
‘And you’ll always love me, won’t you?’
‘Yes.’
‘And the rain won’t make a difference?’
‘No.’
‘That’s good. Because I’m afraid of the rain.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spars:   I wish with all my heart sir that you may be in all respects very happy
Bound: well ↓ma’am (.) I am obliged to you (0.6) I hope I shall be
Spars:   DO you sir? (.) But naturally you do (.) >of course you do<
(1.2)
((Spars resumes work))
Spars:   ((coughs twice)) (1.3) ((coughs))
(0.5)
Bound: well ma’am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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