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.

Finding Dylan In “Translation”


Bob Dylan in 1963

I’ve busked a few Bob Dylan numbers in my time. I’m one of those people who ruin the end of parties by bringing out their acoustic guitar. In my twenties, I used to play regularly at folk clubs and open mic nights. One of my favourites is “Boots Of Spanish Leather”. And I do a mean “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – or at least I think I do.

It’s not just Dylan songs. I have an anachronistic love of singer-songwriters from the 1960s and early 70s, so I like singing songs by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen too. And, until about five years ago, I would always sing them with a North American accent – the same sort of approximate, hybrid North American accent that most British artists resort to when they sing.

On “Tangled Up In Blue”, for example, I would go to town trying to imitate both the standard and less standard features of Bob Dylan’s idiosyncratic accent (“Finno-Hebraic Minnesotan, by way of Greenwich Village”, according to journalist Graeme Wood). I would g-drop right from the opening line (“Early one mornin’…”). I would drop the yod from “Lord knows I’ve paid some dues”. I’d elongate most of stressed monopthongs, like the “e” vowel in “offered meee a pipe”. I would reduce the /aɪ/ dipthongs in “I” and “my” to “ah” and “mah”. I’d reduce the unstressed “of” (for example) in “I seen a lot uh women” to a schwa. And so on.

It wasn’t until someone asked me once why I was singing in an American accent that I started to question it. I realised it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was automatic. I was trying to recreate “Mr Tambourine Man” as perfectly as I could – note for note, word for word. So, in some ways, it made sense to copy every phoneme too.

Then, I got a bit more into folk music. I started to listen to English folk musicians like Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy. They, like almost everyone on the folk scene, sing unashamedly in their own accents. It’s actually something of an unwritten rule among folk singers (often attributed to 20th century folk revivalist Ewan MacColl) that you only sing songs in a language or dialect that you speak.

Later, I studied linguistics. I found out that accent, and dialect more generally, is just one part of what sociolinguists refer to as “style” – the part of language, which is not about “what you say” but rather “how you say it”. Sociolinguists posit that our linguistic style is intrinsically linked to our social identity. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, it’s almost impossible to say anything to anybody without them making some kind of judgement about who you are – where you are from, where you were educated, what you do for a living, and so on. And, just like we can code-switch between languages, within our personal repertoire, we can style-switch depending on whom we are talking to, and what sort of identity we want to project.

It made me realise the obvious – that when I sing in an American accent, I’m not being myself. I’m taking on someone else’s identity. I’m being the one thing that the folk singers of the 1960s were aiming to avoid: inauthenticity. I’m being a fake.

It took a long time to unlearn the habit, a bit like a golfer having to change their swing. But these days, I only sing covers of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon in my own accent – a sort of generic South-East England British Standard English with the odd Nottingham vowel thrown in.

However, when the guitar comes out, I’m still left with a problem when it comes to Bob Dylan. The reason is that Dylan didn’t just sing in dialect, he wrote in it. His songs are not only full of phonological markers of his Woody Guthrie-influenced Midwestern dialect. His identity is marked both lexically and grammatically in the lyrics.

Take “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” for example. Across the four verses, there are particular forms of address (“honey”, “baby” and “gal”) that I would never use. There are archaic forms of goodbye (“fare thee well” and “so long”) and North American terms like “rooster”. There’s the addition of the prefix “a-” to present participles, which somehow makes me think of Mark Twain, concurrent with the frequent g-dropping (“a-thinkin’ and a-wanderin’”). There’s the contraction “I ain’t”, which isn’t part of my dialect (I’d say “I’m not”). There are bare adverbs (“you treated me unkind”), and grammatical constructions (“it ain’t no use to”), that don’t exist in British Standard English. There’s the North American use of simple past where British English would use the past perfect, and some nonstandard conjugations (“the light I never knowed”). In fact, probably the only stylistic feature in the entire song, which I would also use in speech, is the contraction of “kind of” to “kinda”.

Because of all the wonderful lexical and grammatical stylistic features, it turns out, there are very few Bob Dylan songs that I can sing without putting on someone else’s identity.

There’s only one solution. It’s the same thing you would do if you wanted to sing something written. You have to rewrite the lyrics in your own dialect. You have to attempt some sort of “translation”.

Of course, that’s not a trivial thing to do. Change just one word of a song, or one syntactic construction, and you can screw up the rhyming pattern or scansion. More fundamentally, you are faced with the same challenge all translators are faced with when changing one language for another: finding a replacement word or phrase (say, for “gal” or “it ain’t no use”) that doesn’t completely wash out any sense of identity entirely.

But, with a bit of effort, you can do it. Here’s how I now sing the first verse of “Don’t Think Twice”:

There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
If you don’t know by now
There’s no point sitting, wondering why, love
It doesn’t matter anyhow
When your alarm clock rings and it’s a brand new day
Look out your bedroom window, and I’ll be gone away
You’re the reason that I just can’t stay
Don’t think twice, it’s OK

I’m definitely not saying it’s as good as the original. But it’s still recognisably the work of the Nobel Laureate – and I can sing it while remaining true to my own suburban, English identity.

Of course, hardcore Dylan fans will be screaming, “heresy!” But I would argue the opposite. Fans think of Bob Dylan as a true authentic: someone who never compromised, who was always true to his own, idiosyncratic self. I like to think, by “translating” Dylan so as not to compromise my own authenticity – I’m actually giving Dylan the respect he deserves.


This excellent book by David Pichaske includes an in depth discussion of Bob Dylan’s dialect. There are a couple of interesting papers in the journal Oral Tradition on translating Dylan into French and Spanish.

Image in the public demain downloaded here.

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


Agatha Christie in the 1970s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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.

Proust Was A Neuroscientist… And Also A Linguist

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Proust was interested in where words come from

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

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

3. Proust understood how language changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. And he knew what happens when connections go missing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Forget Hemingway: This Is How A Linguist Would Write Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You are all her dear boys,’ Catherine said. ‘She prefers the dear boys. Listen to it rain.’
‘It’s raining hard.’
‘And you’ll always love me, won’t you?’
‘And the rain won’t make a difference?’
‘That’s good. Because I’m afraid of the rain.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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