50 Shades of Grey, 44 Shades of Blue, and “Narrow Lane”: The Colourful World of Paint Names

Paint BlogThe languages of the world used to be a pretty drab. As linguist Guy Deutscher explains in his book Through The Language Glass, our ancestors – somehow – managed to make do with barely any words for the colours. The Ancient Greeks, for example, didn’t even have a word for blue. In his epic poetry, Homer instead refers to the “wine dark” sea and “wine-looking” oxen. In the evolution of languages across the globe, the development of our various colour lexicons have followed a similar path. Black and white tend to come first, then red, then yellow. Then comes green, and finally blue.

But, of course, the development hasn’t stopped there. As the societies we live in have become more complex, successive generations have demanded more and more names for the various hues, tints, shades and mixtures around them. The linguistic labels needed have come from a variety of sources. Taupe, for example, comes from the French for mole. Orange comes from the name of the fruit. Sienna, umber and magenta are all derived from place names.

As a result – from amber and cyan to silver and teal – the English language is now a very colourful one indeed. It contains enough colour words, surely, to keep ten Turners happy.

Not, it seems, if you are selling emulsion.

If you’ve ever visited a reasonably sized home improvement store (and, like me, come out confused, exhausted and clutching a pot of magnolia) you’ll know exactly what I mean. On the shelves you will find a seemingly endless array of colours, covering every inch of the colour spectrum, from Apple Blossom to Whipped Cream.

Dulux (one of the world’s largest paint manufacturers), for example, lists a mind-boggling 565 different paint varieties on their website. Although we’ve come a long way from Homer and the Ancient Greeks, there definitely aren’t 565 colour words in the English dictionary. It’s clear that Dulux’s branding department is home to some pretty creative people – and not just with different shades of paint, but with language too.

So how do you go about inventing that many names for shades of emulsion? Being the linguist that I am, I thought I’d do a quick corpus analysis of Dulux’s range to investigate. Here’s what I found out:

  • Only 14 of the names comprise a single word, such as Conker, Butterdish and Black (reassuringly, there is just plain old black), and only one of them comprises three (Pure Brilliant White). Since combinations (of words as much as of paints) are at the heart of creativity, it’s perhaps not surprising that rest of the names are all made up of two words.
  • In terms of their syntax, just over half of the two-word combinations (316) are formed of an adjective and a (head) noun, such as Perfect Praline and Mystic Mauve. Most of the others (225) are compound nouns, like Flame Frenzy, Orchid Opera, Bongo Jazz, formed by two nouns placed side by side.
  • It’s perhaps not surprising that many (97) of the head nouns are colour words themselves. Within Dulux’s range there are 44 shades of “blue”, 25 shades of “purple”, and 26 shades of “green”. Somewhat disappointingly, however, there are only 9 shades of “grey”. Many of the colours are modified by place names, for example, Oxford Blue and Pamplona Purple.
  • But that still means that 80% of the paint varieties don’t have dictionary colours as a head noun. It would obviously be difficult to sell 565 variations of Rich Black, Salsa Red, and so on.
  • Assigning some basic semantic categories (like “flora”, “fauna”, and so on) to each of the component words, it’s interesting to see what other concepts and physical objects Dulux’s branding department have generally tried to conjure up for us. After lexicalised colour words, the next most common category is “flora”. 75 of the paint varieties refer to trees, plants and fruit of all kind, from Olive Grove to Heather Bloom. There are also a few (15) varieties of fauna, from humble Field Mouse to Proud Peacock. Why bother leaving the house when you can bring the great outdoors to your feature wall?
  • The next most common category (56 paint varieties) is “food”. Rock Candy, Nougat Slice, Melon Sorbet and Whipped Cream, for example, are surely the stuff of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Another 16 paint colours relate to drinks, some more tempting than others. Anyone for a Sincere Brew?
  • Also well represented are the basic elements. There are 53 paint names relating to the category “earth”, 41 in the category “water”, 16 in the category “air”, and 6 in the category “fire”. In the latter, how about Warm Graphite, Marbled Sands, and even Creative Coal? Relating to “water”, Delicate Seashell and Teal Ripple, anyone?
  • As you might expect there are some poetic images in there, conjuring up some deliberately wistful moods (indeed, there is even a Wistful Mauve). How about Lost Lake, Undiscovered Forest and Porcelain Solitude in your living room?
  • But as well as the poetic, there’s also the down right ludicrous – from Intrepid Cave and Sapphire Salute, to Narrow Lane and Overtly Olive.
  • Talking about poetry, there are certainly quite a few rhetorical figures among the names. Around a fifth (107) – such as African Adventure, Blue Breeze and Curious Crimson – involve alliteration.
  • And finally, four of them (Russian Rouge, Blush Noisette, Blue Belle, Citron Sunrise) involve code-switching to French – no doubt to add a certain Gallic je ne sais quoi.

Whether or not it’s possible to tell the difference between Classic Black, Rich Black and (just plain old) Black, coming up with 565 different names for paint is certainly creative work, linguistically speaking.

Dulux, I raise my paint roller to you!

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“I feel it in my fingers…”: Linguistic repetition really is all around

IMG_5940Seasons come and go, and come back again. History repeats itself. The verses might be different, but the chorus is the same…

Repetition is rife, even in language. Every critic knows that much of what will be said, will already have been said before – probably many times over. But even the staunchest critic might be surprised at just how rife linguistic repetition really is.

Repetition, of course, is a key feature of poetry. Alliteration, assonance and rhyme are the repetition of particular phonemes (consonants and vowels) across a passage of text. Rhythm in poetry, or discourse in general, is the repetition of stress (of pitch, syllable length or volume) and the repetition of a particular time interval. In Berowne’s monologue from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, for example, the triplet rhythm and terminal rhyme (rather aptly) create sweet, heavenly music:

“For valour, is not love a Hercules,
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?”

But repetition in poetry goes beyond rhythm and rhyme.

Linguistic anthropologist James Fox describes linguistic parallelism as “the common tendency to resort to pairing words and phrases to provide emphasis, authority or significance to an expression of ideas” (Fox, 2014). First described in 1753 by Robert Lowth, a Bishop and Oxford Professor with a penchant for Hebrew poetry, “parallelism” refers most broadly to the repetition of phonemes, words, phrases, syntactic structures or semantic concepts across (at least two) lines of texts.

It is a particularly common feature of biblical language, for example. Take Psalm 54:

“O God, save me by your name,
and vindicate me by your might.”

And in Footnote to Howl, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (like some screaming Walt Whitman) echoes, and deliberately subverts, such religious parallelism:

Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse! Holy the jazzbands marijuana hipsters peace peyote pipes & drums!”

Researchers have found parallelism has been found to be a common feature of poetic, religious and ceremonial language across the world – from Mandarin to the Finno-Ugric family – as well as across the ages (the first recorded example is a cuneiform tablet dating back to 1750 BC). It is so ubiquitous that prominent Russian linguist Roman Jakobson spent much of his career studying it.

But parallelism is not constrained to poetical texts. For the great political speakers, repetition is a powerful rhetorical device – and Winston Churchill, for example, knew it:

We shall fight in France.
We shall fight on the seas and oceans.
We shall fight with growing confidence, and growing strength in the air!”

Repetition and parallelism can be found in the pop music charts too too. For example, there’s a reason the first line of The Troggs’ classic Love is All Around (made famous by Wet, Wet, Wet in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral) is so memorable:

I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes.”

And it’s there in prose too, albeit of the more poetic kind. In Jack Kerouac’s debut novel, The Town and the City, repetition is a key device Kerouac uses to sketch a scene or convey affect. In a key transitional moment in the story, young Peter Martin is sat on the porch of the home that his family are having to sell following his father’s bankruptcy. The repetition of words (“farewell”), syntactic constructions (“he knew…”), and ideas (“serenade”, “lullaby”, “song”) all evoke a particularly bittersweet mood:

Now everyone was asleep, and he was alone listening to the serenade of his dark old trees, the lullaby of his boyhood trees, and he knew he didn’t want to leave now, he knew he would never come back, it was the farewell song of his trees bending near him, farewell, farewell […]”

Even in this, Kerouac’s most traditionally narrative-driven novel, there are clear indications of the “spontaneous prose poetry” to come in On the Road:

“[…] because the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”

But why is such parallelism so rife in language?

In part, it is surely because the repetition of words and phrases can be involuntary or at least sub-conscious. In psycholinguistics, “priming” refers to the process by which the recall of particular words or concepts (like “cat”) from semantic memory is facilitated by exposure to related words and concepts (like “whiskers”). Even syntactic priming is possible. If I let you read a sentence in the passive tense and then ask you to describe a picture of a boy kicking a football, you are more likely to say “the ball was kicked by the boy” (rather than “the boy kicked the ball”).

In Kerouac’s case, then, the extensive parallelism could be a result of his jazz-inspired writing methods, promoting free semantic and lexical associations – as well as his minimal self-editing afterwards (Johnson, 2012).

Linguist Deborah Tannen, best known famous for her work on language and gender, has also studied linguistic repetition. She points out that, perhaps more fundamentally than in poetry, repetition is also a prominent feature of ordinary and everyday conversation.

This dialogue, for example, is taken from a 2015 episode of the The Late, Late Show with James Corden. The host is interviewing former and current heroes of zeitgeist TV, David Duchovny and Kit Harrison. He has just asked about Harrison’s first name when Duchovny interrupts:

D: Is a, is a Kit in England? Is that, is this [points to Harrison’s groin] not a “Kit”? Is this a “Kit”?
C: You mean this? [also points to Harrison’s groin]
D: Yes. Is that, is that aKit”?
C: Is that a “Kit”?
D: Yes
C: Just specific to his one, or all of our “Kits”?
D: No, not Kit’sKit”. Not Kit’s
C: Is mine a Kit”?
H: Is that what you call it?
D: Don’t you call it that?
C: No, I always think of Nightrider with a “Kit”, I don’t think of. I don’t think. I don’t think of what I call “the truth” [laughter]
D: So you’re saying the truth is in there? [points to Corden’s groin]
C: The truth is in there [points to his own groin]. And the truth will set you free. But you know what [points at Harrison]. You can’t handle the truth [laughs].
H: I can’t handle the truth. I can’t handle the truth.

Knob-jokes aside, the prominence of repetition in the dialogue – of words (“Kit”) and phrases (“can’t handle the truth”) – is clear.

Tannen suggests that – conscious or otherwise – there are four main functions of repetition in discourse (Tannen, 1987). First of all, she argues, repetition facilitates the production of speech by reducing the cognitive effort required for a given utterance. Secondly, and just as importantly, it aids our own comprehension of other people’s utterances. Thirdly, it produces a sense of connection between the turns of the conversation (or the lines of the poem). That is, it builds a sort of linguistic cohesion, at the same time adding emphasis or aesthetic quality.

Finally, she argues, repetition functions on an interactional or social level, tying the participants to the conversation (or the reader to the poem), as well as the speakers to each other (the poet to the reader). It’s no coincidence that in the dialogue there is a clear sense that rapport is being built between Corden and his two interviewees as the conversation progresses. As well as the locker-room humour, it’s clear that linguistic repetition is a major part of that.

So, although The Troggs claimed that “love is all around”, it’s clear from some of their most successful lyrics that they also knew for certain what poets and linguists have know for centuries: In biblical texts, Shakespeare’s plays, Ginsberg’s poetry and Kerouac’s prose – even on late night chat shows – linguistic repetition really is all around.

References

Fox, J. J. (2014). Explorations in Semantic Parallelism. Canberra: ANU Press.
Johnson, J. (2012). The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. New York: Viking.
Tannen, D. (1987). Repetition in Conversation: Toward a Poetics of Talk. Language, 63(3), 574-605.

How to Win the Game of Tongues: Breaking the Unwritten Rules of Conversation

'And Ygritte Says' by Alexeil April. Used under Creative Commons license (http://alexielapril.deviantart.com/art/and-Ygritte-says-306166334)

‘And Ygritte Says’ by Alexeil April (http://alexielapril.deviantart.com/art/and-Ygritte-says-306166334). Used under Creative Commons license.

Every day, when I leave my office for lunch, I run a gauntlet of people collecting for charity.

‘Hi,’ one said to me just last week, trying to hold my gaze with a suspiciously large smile. ‘What’s your name?’

For a moment, I contemplated the strangeness of her approach (opening the conversation by asking my name), and then the hunger in my stomach. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m in a rush’.

As I got away, I wondered why I had said ‘sorry’? After all, what on earth did I have to be sorry about?

Maybe I apologised because I’m British and I have had this kind of defensive politeness drilled into me from an early age. After all, I hadn’t given the charity collector what she wanted – and these are just the sort of people to hand out left hooks when they don’t get their own way.

But, there’s a simpler, and more fundamental, explanation. In this view, I said ‘sorry’ because I had deliberately ignored my interlocutor’s question. In doing so, I had broken one of the fundamental rules of conversation – that, if someone asks you a question, you respond. And, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only guilty partner: the charity collector had also broken a fundamental rule of conversation by asking my name outright.

Let me explain.

In the 1970s, the American sociologist Harvey Sacks and two colleagues, Emanuel Schlegloff and Gail Jefferson, began to look at things that might seem taken for granted whenever a conversation happens. They began to delve into the common patterns and features of mundane, everyday conversations. To probe these patterns, Sacks and his co-workers developed a new research method called ‘conversation analysis’, which many linguists and sociologists still use today.

Through their work, Sacks and his colleagues were able to ascertain a number of fundamental ‘rules’ of verbal interaction that you won’t see written down anywhere (outside of conversation analysts’ books and journal papers, that is). Nonetheless, these are rules that we all know, and have known, from an early age – even if we don’t know we know them. They are the ‘ground rules’ of speaking, if you like, without which all verbal interaction would rapidly descend into chaos. And they are rules we use every day.

Firstly, it’s clear that any give conversation is made up of turns: I speak, then you speak, then I speak, and so on. One of the first rules of conversation is that, any given turn can be made up of a number of smaller components – the building blocks of conversation – which conversation analysts call ‘turn construction units’. These can be anything from a simple ‘eh?’, to words, phrases, and whole sentences – or even multiple sentences strung together. Valid turns include: ‘Hello’, ‘My cat has died’ and ‘Have you seen my book? I’ve been looking for it everywhere’. What don’t count as a turns, however, are incomplete sentences like ‘Have you seen my’ and ‘I’ve been looking for’.

The rule is important because, if we have an understanding of what counts as a valid turn, we can anticipate when someone else is going to finish speaking. As a result, to maximise conversational efficiency, we can time our turn to begin almost the instant our interlocutor finishes theirs.

Take this example from HBO’s Game of Thrones, where Brienne of Tarth is talking to the squire Podrick:. Notice how Podrick’s first two turns (2 & 4) come immediately after Brienne’s:

  1. Brienne: I think we can treat ourselves to a feather bed for the night [pause] and a hot meal not cooked by you.
  2. Podrick: Couldn’t agree more, my lady.
  3. Brienne: Don’t start expecting silk underclothes [pause]. You’re not working for your former lord any longer.
  4. Podrick: Yes, my lady.
  5. Brienne: Don’t get drunk!
  6. Podrick: [pause] No, my lady.

In particular, notice how Podrick delivers his ‘Yes, my lady’ just as soon as Brienne finishes her sentence. It’s a neat trick, and one that we all carry out, many times each day.

Another fundamental rule is that interlocutors’ turns – as in the conversation between Brienne and Podrick – can be arranged naturally into pairs, the third most basic unit of any conversation. Sacks and colleagues identify a variety of different types of such ‘turn pairs’ that occur frequently in conversation. They range from question-answer (‘How are you? Good, thanks!’) to goodbye-goodbye (‘S’ya later! Bye!’). This, for example, is what a greeting-greeting turn pair looks like Game of Thrones style.

The importance of this rule is that, whenever anyone gives the first part of an identifiable turn pair (such as a greeting or a question), society expects someone to respond accordingly – and to do so rapidly. For example, have you ever noticed on radio phone-ins how odd it is when the time-pressed host says ‘goodbye’ to an interviewee then cuts them off before they have had chance to respond? It feels unnatural, somehow. The silence of the missing turn is almost audible. As linguists Mark Dingemanse and Nick Enfield have written, ‘so deeply ingrained is our expectation of a rapid reply that any hitch in the flow of conversation is subject to interpretation’ (think of a politician stalling for time when a difficult question comes up).

Furthermore, researchers have found that many of these rules are universal to cultures and societies across the world. They are essentially the same whether you are speaking Dutch, English or Japanese – and probably even Dothraki.

But the rules of conversation, just like any rules, are made to be broken. Any fan of Game of Thrones will know that the competition for the Iron Throne is as much a battle of tongues as a clash of swords. It’s clear that whoever ends up ruling the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros will have earned their status through some hard fought conversations. And the best players know that, if you want to win the game of tongues, sometimes you’ve got to cheat.

At Oberyn’s first meeting of the Small Council, for example, Mace Tyrell shows he’s not afraid to break one of the basic rules of conversation (that the second speaker’s turn should come after the first speaker’s) by interrupting before Oberyn’s turn before it is finished:

  1. Oberyn: So, does this mean I am master of something now? Coins, ships…
  2. Mace: Lord Tywin and I have already determined that I should be the master of ships.

And, in the very first scene of the series, King Robert shows his royal credentials by violating another. When Ned greets him politely, in place of an expected greeting, Robert comes back with an insult:

  1. Ned: Your Grace.
  2. Robert: [pause] You’ve got fat.

Whenever a second turn in a pair is one which is not expected to follow the first (like when an insult follows a greeting) conversation analysts refer to this ‘dispreference’. Usually, when this happens, the response tends to be marked somehow, often by a pause but also sometimes – like when I refused to tell a complete stranger my name – by an apology: ‘sorry!’.

There are other rules too – and many more ways to break them. And conversation analysis is a powerful way to look at how individuals obey and exploit these rules, strategically, in conversation.

To finish, here’s a characteristically delicious bit of dialogue from Game of Thrones in which Daenerys is trying to secure financial support from the Spice King of Qarth. There’s plenty of rule breaking going on here, especially in the form of interruptions. What’s just as interesting is how the order of speakers within the turn pairs is reversed (from the Spice King interrogating Dany to Dany questioning the Spice King), as the power ebbs back and forth:

  1. Dany: I’m not asking you for the Kingdoms. I’m asking you for ships. I need to cross the Narrow Sea.
  2. Spice King: I need my ships as well. I use them, you see, to bring spices from one port to anoth…
  3. Dany: Whatever you grant me now will be repaid three times over when I retake the Iron Throne
  4. Spice King: Retake? [pause] Did you once sit on the Iron Throne?
  5. Dany: My father sat there, before he was murdered
  6. […]
  7. Spice King: Forgive me, little princess, but I cannot make an investment based on wishes and dreams. Now if you’ll pardon me…
  8. Dany: Do you know Illyrio Mopatis, Magister of Pentos?

Dany may not be successful in this fundraising attempt – but based on this performance, you can’t help but suspect she’ll be successful in the end.

So to summarise, if those are the rules, how can you win the Game of Tongues? The answer is simple: Get creative. Break them.

Fifty Shades of ’Fifty Shades of…’

Slide1The film adaptation of a certain best-selling erotic novel is shortly to hit the screens in the UK. Whatever you think of the subject matter, or the quality of the prose, it’s clear Fifty Shades of Grey has at least one thing going for it: a catchy and versatile title.

Much like the slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, ‘Fifty Shades of…’ lends itself to an endless number of adaptations, variations and parodies (or ‘creative linguistic variation’ as Artificial Intelligence research Tony Veale calls it), from ‘Fifty Shades of Dre’ to ‘Fifty Shades of Grape’.

And that’s surely no bad thing.

To illustrate just how creative writers, advertisers and bloggers have been with ‘Fifty Shades of…’, I used an online corpus search engine to crawl the web looking for examples. Here are the results: in no particular order, fifty of the seventy-five or so examples that I found – if you will, fifty shades ofFifty Shades of…’.

The list includes the replacement of ‘Grey’ with other colours (‘Green’, ‘Pink’), with proper names (‘Miley’ as in Cyrus), with rhymes (‘Spay’, ‘They’), and even with food-stuffs (how about cookbook ‘Fifty Shades of Kale’?). Notable mentions go to ‘Fifty Shades of Bacon’ (apparently, and somewhat intriguingly, an ‘erotic cookbook’) and ‘Fifty Shades of Gravy’ (whatever that is). Of course, there will be many other examples out there, and plays on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ aren’t restricted to replacing the final word (for instance, who can resist the garden-based parody ‘Fifty Sheds of Grey’?). If you know of any better ones, do stick them down below.

So, without further ado, here they are.

Enjoy!

  1. Fifty Shades of Green
  2. Fifty Shades of Buscemi
  3. Fifty Shades of Dre
  4. Fifty Shades of Kale (a recipe book)
  5. Fifty shades of Brown (on race and politics)    
  6. Fifty Shades of Green (a whole foods market)
  7. Fifty Shades of Beige (about set design)
  8. Fifty Shades of Graying Workers (on the elderly labour market)
  9. Fifty Shades of Men (an advert for ‘male revue catering’)     
  10. Fifty Shades of Grape (wine sellers)
  11. Fifty Shades of Dubstep (compilation CD)
  12. Fifty Shades of Chocolate (a book)
  13. Fifty Shades of Matt Gray (sunglasses)
  14. Fifty Shades of Van
  15. Fifty Shades of Rust (a book)
  16. Fifty Shades of Cacao (health tips)
  17. Fifty Shades of Grace (a guide to Christian living)
  18. Fifty Shades Of Chocolate
  19. Fifty Shades of Miley (Miley Cyrus, who else?)
  20. Fifty Shades Of Lego
  21. Fifty Shades of Spay (apparently, February is ‘spay and neuter month’)
  22. Fifty Shades Of White With A Touch Of Red
  23. Fifty Shades of Deadly
  24. Fifty Shades of Putin
  25. Fifty Shades of Ink
  26. Fifty Shades of Glow
  27. Fifty Shades of Pain
  28. Fifty Shades of Rust
  29. Fifty Shades of Johnjay!
  30. Fifty Shades of Ray
  31. Fifty Shades of Me
  32. Fifty Shades of Silver
  33. Fifty Shades of Grain
  34. Fifty Shades of Beer
  35. Fifty Shades of F*cked Up
  36. Fifty Shades of Saffron
  37. Fifty Shades of Racism
  38. Fifty shades of Pink
  39. Fifty Shades of Gravy
  40. Fifty Shades of They
  41. Fifty Shades of Bacon (an ‘erotic cookbook’)
  42. Fifty Shades of Geek
  43. Fifty Shades of Gay
  44. Fifty Shades of EWWWW!!!
  45. Fifty Shades of Funny
  46. Fifty Shades of Gary
  47. Fifty Shades of Black
  48. Fifty Shades of Jigglypuff
  49. Fifty Shades of Finance (‘financial erotica’)
  50. Fifty Shades of Milk Tray

 

From the smallest ‘Drop’ to the ‘All-There-Is’: The beauty of science writing without the jargon

IMG_5032How can you communicate cutting edge scientific ideas about the origins of the universe without, actually, using the word ‘universe’? Or ‘particle’? Or ‘planet’? This week, at an event held in London, I had the pleasure to listen to someone who has done exactly that.

Dr Roberto Trotta is an astrophysicist from Imperial College, London. In his new book The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is Dr Trotta uses only the 1000 most common words in the English language, as taken from the British National Corpus, to describe some of the biggest ideas in science.

With this constraint, whereas everyday words are allowed, words like ‘energy’, ‘telescope’, ‘particle’ and ‘gravity’ are not. As a result, the ‘universe’ becomes the ‘All-There-is’. Researchers are ‘student-people’. Telescopes are ‘Big-Seers’. Earth is ‘Home-World’ and the Milky Way is the ‘White Road’. Atoms and particles are ‘Drops’. In his prose, complicated physical processes which occur during the Big Bang are rendered intimate human acts:

‘As space continued to grow bigger and bigger, it cooled down. During the next three minutes, when the left-over matter drops met another drop they liked, they kissed each other and stuck together. Most matter drops did not find any other drop to kiss so they stayed alone. We call them the single Drops.’

In the simplest of language, the book seeks to explain the deepest workings of the cosmos and the origins of our universe. In total, Trotta uses around 707 of the ‘ten-hundred’ most common English words, although he does sprinkle them with another 19 proper names (of scientists like Einstein, Hubble and Newton). With this limited lexical palette, his writing accentuates a childlike wonder, heightening the deep emotional connection we have with the mystery of our existence. Grand notions like the ‘Milky Way’ become simple metaphors (‘White Road’). Others, like ‘universe’ and ‘Earth’ are redefined, simply and poetically, in their most fundamental terms (‘All-There-Is’ and ‘Home-World’).

For me, the most exciting part of his writing is the latter: the necessitated creation of complex concepts from simpler ones by compounding everyday words (‘Student-people’, ‘Home-World’, and so on). As I have blogged about before, there’s something beautiful about such simple acts of creativity (creation?). Perhaps this is because they put us somewhere close to the creator (her- or) himself.

The 1000-words premise that Trotta uses may not be entirely new but the book has been – rightly in my view – praised for what it achieves in conveying the near impossible-to-convey. Trotta said during his talk that, as a science communicator, the challenge for him was how to speak to people’s hearts as well as their heads. In just 85 short pages, he does a pretty good job. So if you’re looking for a stocking-filler this Christmas, for anyone you know with a sense of wonder, I’d highly recommend The Edge of the Sky.

Tolkien, Fiction Writing and the (Implicit) Act of Translation

TolkienAs translator David Bellos points out in his excellent Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, translation of literature is no easy task. Take this passage from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

‘It was one of those regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby […] and now you’d hear the thunder go off with an awful crash and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs, where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.’

As well as getting as close as possible to the basic (‘referential’) meaning of the text, there are poetic aspects of rhythm and rhyme (‘rumbling, grumbling, tumbling’) that the translator might try to somehow recreate in the target language. There is metaphor and simile, and invented words like ‘spider-webby’, which might not transfer easily from English to another language. And there’s the specific cultural reference to rolling wooden barrels down cellar stairs, which would seem an odd choice of simile for audiences in, say, Morocco.

And how about the dialogue that follows:

‘Jim, this is nice,’ I says. ‘I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here. Pass me along another hunk of fish and some hot cornbread’.

‘Well, you wouldn’t a ben here, ‘f it hadn’t a ben for Jim. You’d a ben down dah in de woods widout any dinner […]’

When it comes to the speech of Huck and Jim, and all the other characters, there is also the prickly question for the translator of how to render the (very meaningful) differences in dialect and style. In fact, how could anyone hope to translate the dialogue of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without risk of offending Twain himself, when he writes in the preface: ‘The shadings [of the dialects] have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work, but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech’?

But even though they might not be aware of it – and even though they are not ‘translating’ in the literal sense – these challenges are also faced by novelist themselves, writing fiction in their own language.

Admittedly, if an English speaking author is telling a story set close to their own time and in an English speaking setting (as Mark Twain was), then there’s unlikely to be any translation involved. Assuming it will be reasonably comprehensible to the average English speaking reader – even if, for instance, the protagonists in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting might sometimes stretch that assumption – the author simply has to do their best to render their characters’ (imagined) language in a way that captures their nationality, place of birth, class, and so on.

But if the context or setting for that story becomes too far removed from the writer’s here and now, they will soon have to face the same challenge the translator faces. For a novelist writing in English, the question is: what is the best way to represent the language of that (spatially or temporally removed) context in a language that will be readable and comprehensible to a modern English-speaking audience?

In the temporal dimension, language change is the principle problem. For instance, what if the story is set in Medieval England, like Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth? In the imaginary world of the story, about the building of a cathedral in the twelfth century, the characters will all speak various dialects of Middle English. But in writing the novel for (and making it sellable to) a modern British audience, Follett has no choice but to render this speech in modern English – albeit with a few choice archaisms (such as Tom Builder’s ill-fated wife being ‘with child’).

And perhaps less evidently, because of the unstoppable evolution of language, a similar issue arises for authors writing about an imagined future – dystopian or otherwise – as Stan Carey has recently pointed out in his blog. All we can be sure about the English of 1000 years from now is that it will be very different to the English of today.

Likewise, the challenge arises when events unfold somewhere else in the spatial dimension. Where the narrative unfolds in a foreign country, where another language is spoken, the author most make certain choices about how to represent that language to an audience who might not be familiar with the language in question.

Take, for example, French author Jules Verne writing about upper class British gentleman Phileas Fogg in Le Tour Du Monde En 80 Jours. In the imagined world of the novel, his characters speak a Victorian version of English. The first problem the author-translator faces is how to get across a sense of ‘foreignness’ (Englishness in Jules Verne’s case) in the French prose.

Verne, however, had a few solutions up his manche. For instance, when Fogg meets Passepartout for the first time he asks, ‘Vous êtes Francais et vous vous nommez John?’ (‘So you’re French and your name is John?’). Of course, his reliable new manservant is French, so his name is really ‘Jean’. With one carefully placed word, Verne captures Fogg’s true nationality in an otherwise Gallic sentence.

Lastly, of course, there are those story-tellers whose imagination takes them far further along the dimensions of both time and space, into whole new worlds entirely: that is, the writers of science-fiction and fantasy.

Today, one of the most celebrated of these is George R. R. Martin, author of the series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire. In creating the lands of ‘Westeros’, ‘Essos’ and beyond – and in keeping with their geographical, ethnic and cultural complexity – Martin also needed to create an entirely new linguistic world to map on top of them. Handily for us, the Common Tongue of Westeros is represented by an English we understand, with all of its more fine-grained dialectal and stylistic variations represented by similar variations in English.

But whether Martin, Verne and Follett considered themselves translators – or even considered that writing direct from their imagination could seen as ‘translation’ – is a different matter. It’s fair to say that this (implicit) act of translation is seldom made explicit by writers or novelists – albeit with a few notable exceptions.

In The Old Man And The Sea, the novella which earned him the Nobel Prize for literature, Ernest Hemingway alludes to the Cuban setting by scattering occasional Spanish words throughout the English prose. On the first page, he writes:

‘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 […].’

But what makes Hemingway different to other authors is the fact that – at one particular point in the prose – he actually acknowledges that he is ‘translating’ the words of his ageing protagonist as he types:

‘“Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood. […]’

Hemingway was something of a linguist having lived and worked in many countries, including Italy, Spain and Cuba. As a result of his multilingualism, perhaps he was more aware than most of the process of transferring meaning between different languages. Or perhaps, by making the act of translation explicit, he simply wanted to make the story more real. That is, he wanted the reader to feel that he wasn’t just writing from his imagination. Instead, he was translating from Spanish the true story of an old fisherman fighting for the biggest catch of his life.

But if Hemingway alludes briefly to his role as translator, there is one author that goes far further. Perhaps it’s not surprising that this writer was also himself a linguist.

As well as an author, J. R. R. Tolkien was an academic philologist – an expert in medieval languages. C. S. Lewis said of Tolkien’s work in writing The Hobbit and the epic Lord Of The Rings: ‘No imaginary world has been projected which is at once multifarious and so true to its inner laws.’ Perhaps this is most apparent in the mind-boggling complexity of the languages Tolkien devised for his fictional Middle Earth.

In a preface to The Hobbit, Tolkien briefly introduces the languages of the world he has created. ‘This is a story of long ago,’ he says. ‘At that time the languages and letters were quite different from ours of today. English is used to represent the languages.’ But in The Lord Of The Rings, he goes far further. He includes an entire Appendix to Book III about the ‘Languages and Peoples of the Third Age’. In it, there are lengthy descriptions of ‘the Westron’ (or the Mannish ‘Common Speech’), as well as the ‘Elderin’ languages ‘Quenya’ (the ‘Latin’ of the Elven languages) and ‘Sindarin’, and even the ‘Black Speech’ of the Orcs. The phonemic systems or these languages are described in great detail, as are their roots and origins in earlier languages. Tolkien the linguist also describes the way language contact, between speakers of these different languages, has led to language change – for example, how the Westron has been ‘enriched and softened under Elvish influence’– just as it does in the languages closer to home.

Later, and at some length, he even discusses the dialectal and stylistic variations between speakers of the Westron. According to Tolkien, the Hobbits mostly speak ‘a more rustic dialect’ and – with the exception of the odd one or two with knowledge of ‘book-language’ – in a less formal style. In The Hobbit, very soon into his adventure, Bilbo Baggins comes across three trolls whose language is ‘not drawing-room fashion at all’ (‘Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton tomorrer’). Later on, he comes across Gollum who has possibly the most famously idiosyncratic idiolect of all: ‘Praps ye sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciouss. It like riddles, praps it does, does it?’

The second part of the Appendix to The Lord Of The Rings is even more striking. Titled ‘On Translation’, Tolkien gives a thorough and detailed account of how he has rendered the languages of Middle Earth for his readers and how, in doing so, the Common Speech has ‘inevitably been turned into modern English’. Tolkien explicitly makes the point that – from the very first page – he is translating the words of his characters, except for a few names of places and people, into English. At the same time, he acknowledges those very same challenges that all translators have in representing the source language in the target language of their readership: the subtle variations in accent, dialect, register and style, code-switches to third languages, and so on. He even makes a point, which David Bellos also makes, that in the act of translation differences in dialect and style are inevitably smoothed out (into what Bellos calls ‘Tranglish’).

Perhaps most striking of all is Tolkien’s central conceit that, in writing The Lord Of The Rings, he is in fact translating from a manuscript called ‘The Red Book’. Tolkien says he is ‘presenting the matter of the Red Book, as a history for the people of today to read’. Perhaps, as with Hemingway, Tolkien wanted to create a tangible origin for his writing, that wasn’t simply his fertile imagination: that is, to make the ‘story’ closer to a ‘history’. Perhaps he was setting out a defence of his work against serious academic colleagues who might deride his stories of dwarves and dragons as frivolous. Or perhaps, as a linguist who greatly enjoyed the intellectual and artistic challenge of translating old Norse Anglo Saxon texts, he couldn’t help himself from consciously bringing that same process to the process of writing fiction.

Either way, it’s clear that for Tolkien the act of creating a fictional world, and all the fantastic stories that went with it, was inseparable from the act of translation. One thing is certain: without authors like Tolkien (and Hemingway and Martin) who are prepared to ‘translate’ for us stories from other times and other places – knowingly or otherwise – our own world would be a far poorer place.

Many thanks to John Cowan for giving me the initial idea for this piece in the comments he made to an earlier blog post.

When do you have the right to play with someone else’s language?

IMG_4924Recently, I was in an Oslo bar visiting a friend. A Norwegian colleague of his was talking – in impressively fluent English – about the local nightlife, generously suggesting some bars we should visit while we were in town. As he mentioned one in particular, he paused for a second trying to find the word to describe it.

‘It’s quite…um…rock-y,’ he said.

He suddenly became uncharacteristically self-conscious, almost embarrassed, and laughed apologetically. His girlfriend – also Norwegian and with a similar mastery of English – joined in, mocking him for using (inventing) a word that he didn’t think existed.

‘I mean they play a lot of rock music there,’ he said.

For me, their reaction was striking. Of course, I understood exactly what he meant. He wasn’t referring to the state of the floors in the place (later I found out that they were a little bit sticky, but not uneven), nor to any film starring Sylvester Stallone. Although the Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn’t include ‘has a rock music vibe’ as a definition, the intended meaning of ‘rocky’ was entirely clear to me.

More importantly, he had only done what English speakers do all the time: That performance was a bit ‘bit-y’. That chicken was a bit ‘turkey-y’. Just last week I saw written on the side of my high-street Americano: ‘Our house espresso is always bold and intense with a chocolatey, caramel-y undertone.’

My friend’s colleague might not have applied a grammatical rule that features in Gwynne’s Grammar. But it’s still one that is a perfectly legitimate part of English. (Actually, it’s a highly productive example of derivational morphology, which I’ve blogged about before). On the spur of the moment, he had been creative with English, just like many English speakers would.

But I suspect the problem was this: as a Norwegian, speaking to an Englishman, he didn’t feel he had the right.

Creative play with words, sentences and phonemes – or language play as linguist David Crystal calls it – is ubiquitous. It might be most well known as something poets do, but language play is not something that is limited to literature and the arts. You only have to look at the tabloid headlines, watch an episode of Strictly Come Dancing, or even spend a night down the pub to find countless examples of everyday linguistic creativity. The use of metaphor and simile (‘she’s as quiet as a mouse’), hyperbole (‘that burger is enormous!’), intertextual references and rehashed clichés (‘keep calm and have a beer’), non-standard vocabulary (‘I’m going to take my automobile for a spin), invented words (‘caramel-y’), and code-switching to other languages (‘mais oui, mais oui Rodney!’) are all part of what linguist Ronald Carter calls ‘the art of common talk’.

In conversation, people might use creative language with an element of performance – to show off, hold other people’s attention, or to make people laugh. Or, they might use creative language more subconsciously, to simply get as close as possible to the meaning they want to convey. This is what my friend’s colleague was doing when he used the word ‘rock-y’. It’s just that, as a non-native English speaker, he wasn’t sure he had the right.

So, when do you have the right to play with a language? Do you have to be a native speaker?

Maybe I have a lack of respect, but I’ve always taken great pleasure in butchering other people’s languages. In my early days of learning Mandarin, I was able to make my Chinese-Canadian partner giggle with joy by calling a ‘sock’ (‘wàzi’), a ‘foot-packet’ (‘jiǎobāo’). It was an entirely invented get-around, and I knew it wasn’t correct. But I also knew it would make me sound silly and childish, as well as gently poke fun at the wonderfully endless number of such compound nouns in Chinese – and that was entirely the point.

Some experts say that playing with language like this can even be beneficial. In his book Language Play, Language Learning, linguist Guy Cook points out the important role, often overlooked by teachers, that language play can have when it comes to learning foreign languages.

On one hand, language play can provide a fun way to draw attention to specific features of a language, in exactly the same way that nursery rhymes and nonsense words (‘Hickory, dickory, dock’) do for children learning their first language. I remember vividly the first time I heard a Swiss 4 year-old at a swimming pool say the charmingly-silly phrasecaca boudin’ (‘poo-poo sausage’). Thanks to him, although I’ve still never eaten one, I’ve never forgotten what a ‘boudin’ is.

On the other hand, language play can also give to students some sense of ownership of that language – as something they can use to whatever ends they need it for.

Picasso once said, ‘the chief enemy of creativity is good sense’. So, perhaps sensible people know better than to play with other people’s language. The rest of us language learners, however, should just carry on having fun.