Milking The Cow, Amoebic Dysentery & Other Metaphors For Creative Writing

metaphors-for-creativityOne of my Christmas presents this year was Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life by American novelist Anne Lamott. It’s a book for aspiring writers and novelists – aren’t we all? – and it’s full of advice and inspiration about the writing business. It’s also honest, spiritual, and consistently funny. Lamott writes a bit like Charles Bukowski spliced with Alice Walker.

What really struck me about the book is the range of metaphors Lamott uses to describe the creative writing process. The title itself comes from a memory she has of her brother, in tears, momentarily defeated by a high school assignment he has to write about birds. She recalls her father putting his arms around him and telling him to “just take it bird by bird”: a metaphor she says is helpful in approaching a novel –one paragraph or one chapter at a time.

Early on, for example, Lamott writes about writing as a form of magic or divinity:

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve thought there was something noble and mysterious about writing, about the people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers.”

Later, she compares setting down the plot to driving a car at night and only being able to see as far as the headlights. Elsewhere, she describes bringing the plot to a climax as if composing a symphony:

“The climax is that major event, usually towards the end, that brings together all the tunes you have been playing so far into a major chord, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed […]”

Somewhere in the middle, she describes writing dialogue as an act of translation:

“You’re translating the sound or rhythm of what a character says into words. You’re putting down on paper your sense of how the characters speak.”

At one point, she compares creativity – the generation of novel and striking ideas – to holding a lantern in the dark while her unconscious (which she imagines as a “kid”) digs for treasure:

“I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn’t know even know what the kid is digging for half the time – but she knows gold she she sees it.”

Then, she compares the act of writing – of arranging those ideas on paper – to knitting or embroidery:

“What we have in our head are fragments and thoughts we’ve heard and memorized, and we take our little ragbag and reach into it and throw some stuff down […]”

And to painting:

“I talked earlier about the artist who is trying to capture something in one corner of his canvas and keeps discovering that what he has painted is not what he had in mind.”

And also gardening:

“What happens instead is that you’ve gone over and over something so many times, and you’ve weeded and pruned and re-written […]”

All of her metaphors for writing are memorably evocative. I particularly liked the analogy of milking a cow: “the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it”. And perhaps the most striking of all is the one she uses to describe getting over writer’s block:

“[…] it was like catching amoebic dysentery. I was just sitting there minding my own business, and the next minute I rushed to my desk with an urgency I had not believed possible.”

But what’s interesting for me is the way Lamott is using metaphor – as an artist rather than a scientist – to explore the very real cognitive processes of linguistic creativity.

As she herself says in the book: “metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known”. It’s true that we don’t yet fully understand the complex linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics involved in the creation of language, let alone creative language. If we did, we wouldn’t need authors. We’d be able to design a computer programme to write the next Booker Prize winner. The Nobel Prize for literature would have already been awarded to Microsoft or Google.

Instead, linguistic creativity remains a fascinating subject for research (and novelists, at least a handful of them, can still make a living). While the metaphors Lamott uses to describe the process of writing – or at least how she herself perceives that process – perhaps don’t explain how linguistic creativity works, they do provide places for scientists to start looking.

For example, why might a writer experience the emotional need to write such that finishing a novel feels like being milked? Is the lantern holder really different to the kid digging, and what does that say about the structure of the brain? And why might creativity sometimes feel like running to the lavatory?…

They’re all great questions, of course. Indeed, they are exactly what this blog is about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Je ne veux pas pain”: Interlanguage as Poetry

Slide1Sorry of my English….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

'And Ygritte Says' by Alexeil April. Used under Creative Commons license (

‘And Ygritte Says’ by Alexeil April ( 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.