“Je ne veux pas pain”: Interlanguage as Poetry

Slide1Sorry of my English….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Borrow words (and the concepts they represent)

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

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

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

  1. Borrow proper names

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

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

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

  1. Use existing words for completely unrelated concepts and things

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

  1. Extend the meaning of existing words

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

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

  1. Extend the function of existing words

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

  1. Play with a word’s component sounds

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

  1. Build new words from parts of old ones

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

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

  1. Combine words in new ways

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

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

  1. Use any combination of the above

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

  1. Create a new word from scratch

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

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

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

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

Why Have Languages Lost Their Mojo?

languageshowliveOn Sunday, I went along to Language Show Live – Europe’s leading exhibition and trade show for language learners, teachers, professionals and enthusiasts.

When I arrived at the conference centre, I saw that The Chocolate Show was also taking place in the conference centre next door. While it might have been a confectioner’s heaven there, inside the Language Show, it was death by language. Competing for the attention of Show goers, there were: free taster sessions on Portuguese, Mandarin and British Sign Language; belly dancers and other cultural performances; demonstrations of the latest tablet technology for language pedagogy; seminars on TEFL; public and charitable organisations for the promotion of language learning doing exactly that; various companies, small and large, hawking Spanish lessons in Seville and Cantonese lessons in Hong Kongs; and, others selling sticky labels, bilingual literature, periodic table-like “maps” of different languages, and all manner of other innovations – all of which, a bit like the latest fad diet, would surely revolutionise language learning forever.

In the programme, a workshop and panel discussion titled “Why have languages lost their mojo?” caught my eye. To a passionate advocate for foreign language learning, such a discussion is like a debate on immigration to a Daily Mail reader. It gets the blood flowing.

Fresh coffee in hand, I headed upstairs to Conference Room 2. The discussion was co-hosted by Ian Andersen, Director General for Interpretation at the European Commission, and Bernadette Holmes, advisor to successive UK governments on language policy and Campaign Director of Speak To The Future, which promotes the learning and use of foreign languages. Andersen, who turned out to be a rather ruthless facilitator, ushered me to a table near the front. There I met Sophie, a freelance French teacher, and Judit, a language teacher-turned-financier who had decided to re-join a profession she missed terribly.

The first discussion question was “Why are you here?”. A language teacher from Newham, one of London’s most multicultural boroughs, put his hand up to bemoan the recent removal funding for foreign language literature in local schools. Next to me, Sophie spoke passionately about the level of support for foreign language learning in state schools, compared to private schools, meaning learning French was becoming the preserve of the wealthy. A young man called Sam, who had recently returned from teaching English in South East Asia, said he felt “bad” about his – and many of his fellow Britons’ – inability to speak any language other than English. It was clear that we were all passionate advocates for language learning. This was a conversation among the converted.

Holmes then introduced the rest of the discussion with a brief overview of the state of language learning in the UK. There had been a steady decline in foreign language over the last 20 years, she said, with a particularly sharp decline over the past decade. Government policy has been a mixed bag. Since 2002, legislation has made language learning at primary school level compulsory, but it had also removed the requirement to learn languages above the age of 14. But there was still some reason for optimism. The current Minister for Schools, she said, is a proponent for language learning. Although German, for example, has declined dramatically at undergraduate level, it is becoming increasingly popular with students of non-language subjects (such as engineering) as adjuncts to their degrees.

The next question, “Why isn’t everyone in Britain learning a foreign language?”, really got us talking. There were a myriad of suggestions. Language learning is not seen as an economic advantage, someone said. English is ubiquitous, said another, which means English speakers are at best complacent (and at worst “arrogant”) when it comes to learning languages. Even if you are learning a foreign language, because so many people want to learn English, it’s hard as a native English speaker to find an opportunity to practice. In Britain, it’s not seen as “the norm” to speak a foreign language, so it’s not seen as unusual not too. The school system doesn’t support language learning. And so on – all of which seemed true enough to me. It doesn’t help that language learning is not easy, I added, especially as an adult.

The last question we were asked was more challenging: “What can I do to help make language learning more attractive?”. Many of the teachers in the room spoke about how they could improve their lessons, for example by introducing aspects of foreign art and culture, to help motivate their students and make language learning feel more relevant. The teacher from East London said we should be encouraging all of our students to spend some time abroad, and make language learning part of “the adventure”. As well as making the “macro” economic case for language learning, someone else made the point that we should be making the individual case too: that is, trying to communicate our own personal stories of how languages have positively benefited our lives.

That is, as Holmes concluded at the end of the workshop, we need more “individual champions”. We need language activists who will go out and make the case for language learning in whatever small way they can.

So here goes.

“I Am China” by Xiaolu Guo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or why she leaves certain taboo expressions in Pinyin:

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

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

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

Just what is it about language?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Takes Two…: 10 Ways Learning to Salsa is Like Learning Spanish, or Mandarin, or Swahili

“Dance” by Henri Matisse, The Hermitage, St Petersburg [photograph by the author]

“Dance” by Henri Matisse, The Hermitage, St Petersburg [photograph by the author]

In a few short weeks the autumn clouds will roll in, the days will shorten, and it will be dancing season again. Across the Atlantic, 14 September will mark the return of ABC’s Dancing With The Stars. A week before that, here in the UK, the new season of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing will see a fresh line-up of celebrities hoping to waltz, tango and salsa their way to victory.

As a big fan of Strictly, I recently decided to get off the couch and try to learn to dance myself. As well as getting some much needed exercise, I hoped it would give me a better understanding of dancing’s technical jargon (just what is a “chasse” anyway?) as well as some appreciation of what this year’s line-up of celebrities will soon be going through. I chose Lindy Hop in particular and, after a couple of months of classes, I’m pleased to say I can just about string together a whole song’s worth of basic moves. Although I can’t yet swing dance like former Strictly champion Chris Hollins, I like to think I’m no John Sergeant either.

But what has dancing got to do with a blog about language? Well, as a linguist, I’m discovering that learning to dance is similar – in many ways – to learning to speak a foreign language.

First of all, mastering your first few dance steps is easy and fun, a bit like learning your first “bonjour” or “ni hao”. But, there soon comes a point when the novelty wears off and things start getting difficult. The moment when the instructor tells you have to move your hands and legs at the same time in different directions is just like the moment when your language teacher tells you there are more irregular verbs in German than regular ones, or that there’s no fool-proof way of guessing which nouns in Spanish take which genders. Yet, despite the challenges, you still carry on. Because there’s something inspiring about watching an ex-England cricketer learn to dance the Paso Doble, just as there is something inspiring about watching an ex-England rugby star give an entire television interview in fluent French.

And there are more fundamental similarities too in the sense that dances are like languages, and dancing is a bit like speaking. Clearly, a Tuck Turn doesn’t have referential meaning in the same way that the words “tuck” and “turn” do. But dancing is certainly a form of social interaction and human communication, just like speaking is. And, although linguists like Noam Chomsky would have a field day explaining to you why dance doesn’t have a “grammar” in the same way that natural language does, it does have similarities in the sense that an endless number of different dances are produced by individuals combining a limited number of recognisable moves in highly creative and productive ways.

One evening, while grappling with the footwork of the Charleston Hand-to-Hand, I started to think about all the other similarities between learning to dance and learning a foreign language. And, in the end, I could easily think of more than a dozen ways that learning to dance is just like learning to ask someone in Mandarin: “are you dancing?”

So, in celebration of this year’s festival of sequins and lycra – and of the joys of language learning – here are 10 ways in which learning to waltz is just like learning Welsh – or Spanish, or Japanese, or Swahili:

  1. Learning a new dance or language entails learning about another culture. Just as languages are intimately associated with the people, and the culture of the people, that speak them so too are different dances. Learning to flamenco dance, for example, will teach you a lot about the history, culture and traditions of Southern Spain. Learning to break dance will teach you a lot about the urban culture of 1980s New York.
  2. When you get really good, you can alternate between different dance styles like you can switch between languages. Dancers fluent in more than one style will often combine elements of both (like jive and quick step, or rumba and tango) in the same routine – just as fluent bilinguals will often code-switch between two languages when they speak to each other. Dances (like languages) evolve when people combine together elements of other dances (languages). In 1930s Harlem, for example, dancers fused together elements of Tap and Charleston and created the Lindy Hop.
  3. You can only get so far on your own. It takes two to tango, just like it takes two to have a conversation. Dancing, like talking, is a social activity and you can’t really learn to do either on your own. It’s embarrassing at first to dance with someone you don’t know very well, especially when you know they can dance much better than you can – just like it can feel awkward to try out your beginner’s French on a sophisticated Parisian. But it’s worth it in the end.
  4. You will make the occasional faux pas (literally so, when it comes to dancing). Saying someone has a nice bottom (“beau cul”) in French when you really just want to thank them (“merci beaucoup”) is quite a bit like unwittingly standing on your dance-partner’s toes. But they will usually forgive you.
  5. You need to learn the unwritten rules of interaction. Just like there are unwritten rules of conversation, which dictate who says what and when, convention dictates that when dancing in pairs there is a leader (usually, but not necessarily these days, a male) and a follower. Moreover, there are social rules about dancing with a stranger, just like there are universal rules of politeness in conversation. For instance: always try to make eye contact with your partner, and try not to kick them in the shins.
  6. You can fake fluency, but it will only get you so far. In the film Chinese Puzzle, French actress Audrey Tatou recites a classical Chinese poem with impressively perfect tones – but she’s not a Mandarin speaker. Likewise, there’s a difference between learning a dance routine and learning a dance. The difference is that when you can speak a language fluently, or have really mastered a dance, you have the ability to be productive. You can take the basic elements (the moves or words) of that language or dance style, and put them together in an endless number of different ways – that’s when you can really express yourself.
  7. You will inevitably develop your own style. Just like there are an infinite number of ways to speak a language and still be understood (for instance, what accent you have, the particular lexical choices you make, and so on), there are an infinite number of ways to dance the same dance. Everyone naturally develops their own individual dance style, which dictates what sorts of moves you like to do, how far apart you like to put your feet, how high you tend to jump, how much you smile, and so on. Just like your idiolect – your own personal way of speaking a language – your dance style will likely say something about your personality, where you are from, where you learned to dance, and so on.
  8. Learning one dance, or language, will make it easier to learn another. Once you’ve mastered Salsa, it will be much easier to learn the Tango, just like it will be easier to learn Spanish once you’ve learned French. Not only will you have better balance, musicality and fitness, as well as a good understanding of the social rules of dancing, you will generally have refined your own personal learning style. For example, you will know if you prefer to count out loud when you are learning new moves, or say the names of the moves out loud as you do them – just like you will know if you prefer to learn a language by reading and writing it, or by speaking it.
  9. It’s like scaling a mountain. As Strictly’s head judge Len Goodman puts it, learning to dance – like learning a foreign language – is quite a bit like scaling a mountain. When you’re standing at the bottom you can’t believe you’ll ever make it. But, once you get to the top, the view will be amazing.
  10. It will do you good. There’s some evidence to suggest that dancing has cognitive benefits, especially in old age – just like scientists have found that being bilingual can delay the onset of cognitive dementia. So, if you want to live a long and happy life, and can’t decide whether you’re going to learn to dance or learn a new language, then there’s a very simple solution: do both!

Tape Recordings of Cody: Why Jack Kerouac Was a Sociolinguist

IMG_5952As biographer Joyce Johnson points out, Jack Kerouac was many things.

As well as being the beatnik author of On The Road, Kerouac was also a conservative, Catholic Republican. He was a college football star as much as he was a Thomas Wolfe reading poet. He was a Joual speaking French-Canadian who became the all-American novelist, and he was a middle class, white kid from Lowell, Massachusetts who identified strongly with African American culture and jazz music. And, alongside his friend Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac was certainly one of the great literary innovators of the twentieth century.

But I’d like to suggest another side to Jack Kerouac’s multi-faceted identity. I’m going to claim that Jack Kerouac was also a linguist – in particular, a sociolinguist.

As the label suggests, sociolinguists – like William Labov – strive to understand the relationship between language and society. Like all linguists, sociolinguists are interested in the structural features of language (at the level of syntax, morphology, phonology and prosody). And, unlike some linguists, they are also interested in the structure and organisation of these features within everyday conversations and passages of text (at the level of “discourse”). However, what sociolinguists are particularly interested in is how these aspects of language relate to the different people – and groups of people – that make up society. Through pioneering research in the department stores of New York City in the 1960s, for example, Labov showed that whether or not a person there pronounces the “r” sound in words like “fourth” and “floor” is a good indicator of socioeconomic class.

The link between language and identity – in terms of social class, nationality, ethnic background, gender, profession, and so on – remains a very active field of research to this day. In general, sociolinguists are interested in the question: how do we use language (and languages) to construct and negotiate the various aspects of our identities? For example, if I pronounce “bath” to rhyme with “maths” (rather than “Brienne of Tarth”) then I am clearly telling fellow Brits that I am not from the South of England. If I say “lexeme” (instead of “word”) I’m identifying myself as a linguist. And so on.

As you might expect of a writer, Kerouac was certainly interested in language. In the summer of 1949 he began filling one of his notebooks with “private philologies”, noting the derivations of various words and exploring what could be suggested, beyond their meanings, by the way they sounded. In his diaries, Kerouac often reflects on his French-Canadianness, musing that his real identity – his true self – was the Joual speaking boy from Lowell who never made an appearance in public. The relationship between bilingualism and identity remains a very active area of research in applied linguistics (Googling the two words “bilingualism” and “identity”, for example, returns about 500,000 search results).

And Kerouac was very much interested in people too (especially, as the famous quote goes, the “mad ones”). In 1946, when he was introduced to Neal Cassady – the car stealing, Proust-reading, “mad to live” hero of On The Road – Kerouac found, as well as a great friend, the subject for his greatest art. Kerouac even devotes one of his novels, Visions of Cody, in its entirety to a “character study” of Neal (“Cody Pomeray” in the novel).

But Kerouac doesn’t just write about Neal. What is remarkable for a work of literature – even for an experimental one like Visions of Cody – is that Kerouac also recorded his subject speaking. Just like any good sociolinguist, using a portable tape recorder, Kerouac recorded entire conversations between himself, Neal and their friends doing what they normally did – sitting around, talking, listening to jazz records, and smoking “tea”. Kerouac then transcribed the conversations directly into the novel.

And he did so in a remarkably systematic way: Italics are used to indicate stress (“It was my idea”); capitals are used to indicate even greater stress (“YOU know”). In punctuating the dialogue, Kerouac rarely uses full stops, obviously aware that human speech seldom fits into well formed sentences. Instead, he marks pauses of various lengths by hyphens, commas or ellipses (“…”). He also uses italics and parentheses to provide contextual information or paralinguistic details. It may not quite hit the industry standard that conversation analysts use when transcribing speech (and it might not be “impeccably accurate in syntax punctuation” as Ginsberg suggests in his foreword to Visions) but it’s pretty good: if not the work of a trained linguist, it’s the work of someone with a keen ear for “real” language.

Here’s a good example of Kerouac’s transcription from a section called “The Party”, where Jack and his friends are goofing around, listening to music (my highlighting in bold font):

PAT. That ‘Leave Us Leap’, Gene Krupa’s ‘Leave Us Leap’, (‘Them There Eyes’ begins on phonograph) Boy it’s got, oh man,     you got – piano passage in it that’s terrific… Everything, everything in the thing is good. Did you – did you hear that ‘Charmaine’ by Billie – Billie –
JACK. I can’t remember ‘Leave Us Leap’
PAT. ‘Leave us Leap?’ Oh man it’s sensational
JACK. Ray Eldridge on it?
PAT. – one of the best numbers I ever heard. Doesn’t tell you. Must be
JACK. Well he had quite a band, sure
PAT. (as Cody talks far un background saying: I saw…) But man that ‘Leave Us Leap’, it’s just … it’s almost like ‘I Want to Be Happy’ with Glenn Miller, you know? Sounds like there’s a tension… (as Jack sings ‘I Want To Be Happy’ in harmony with ‘Them There Eyes’) No… ten times as fast as that
JACK. That’s fast enough… that’s the tune
PAT. That’s what it said on the label but you’d never know (Jack laughs) The tension and the drive all the way through
JACK. (bemused at phonograph) Ooh… well play the Dizzy
PAT. (still reading cookbook) Huh?
JIMMY. (playing with the toy telephone) Can you tell me why the manufacturer forgot to put a hole in the part where you hear through?
PAT. So it’s so you can call your wife
JIMMY. Ah… I was –
CODY. (laughing) So you can call your wife

You might argue that the transcription doesn’t make for great literature (and you probably wouldn’t be alone in thinking that). But it does make for interesting research. By carefully analysing the dialogue line-by-line, word-by-word, a sociolinguist might start to look at what (and how) identities – such as “American”, “friend”, “jazz aficionado”, “heterosexual male” – are constructed and negotiated as the conversations progress.

For example, Pat’s use of “boy” and “man” in the first few turns of the dialogue mark him out – most broadly – as an American (rather than, say, an Englishman). In referring to Jack with these terms of address, and through the use of a generally informal register (for example, “numbers” for songs), Pat seems to be indexing friendship and familiarity with Jack and the others. Throughout the dialogue, Jack and Pat use a variety of specialist terms (such as “the drive”, “piano passage” and “Ray Eldridge”) to mark their statuses as jazz aficionados. Clearly only a cool Jazz cat like Jack would ask someone to play “the Dizzy” (Gillespie record). Finally, at the end of the passage, Pat makes a joke which – because it relies on a sexist stereotype of the verbose wife – arguably marks him out as a heterosexual male and one of the “boys”. In laughing at the joke, Cody aligns to the same group identity. For any sociolinguist, the sort of data that Kerouac painstakingly transcribed is gold dust.

As well as doing an excellent job of transcribing his conversations with Neal Cassady, Kerouac was also well aware of two key methodological concerns for any sociolinguist.

First of all, he was aware of the observer’s paradox. As formulated by Labov, the paradox states that whenever you try to observe people talking naturally, what you observe is always going to be (at least partly) affected by the subjects’ awareness that they are at that moment being observed. One way around the paradox is to record people in secret but, since that would be highly unethical, it’s a no-no for modern sociolinguists. Kerouac’s approach was more blunt, and only marginally more ethical: he got Neal so high on marijuana that he was no longer aware he was being recorded.

Secondly, Kerouac (or at least his publishers) were well aware of the issues of attributing the data to particular individuals. As with modern sociolinguistic studies, the names of the subjects were all changed to keep the people concerned anonymous: Kerouac himself becomes “Jack Duluoz”; Neal Cassady becomes “Cody Pomeray”, and so on.

So, there you have it. In terms of his deep interest in people and identity, his natural instinct for language, and his pioneering methods of data collection, I hope I’ve shown that – on top of being a great novelist – Jack Kerouac was also a pioneering sociolinguist.

And, as Allen Ginsberg wrote in the foreword to Visions of Cody, great art “lies in the sacrementalization of everyday reality, the God-worship in the present conversation”. While that’s clearly the concern of great writers like Kerouac, I hope I’ve also shown, that’s the realm of linguists too.