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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tape Recordings of Cody: Why Jack Kerouac Was a Sociolinguist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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

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

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

But repetition in poetry goes beyond rhythm and rhyme.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why is such parallelism so rife in language?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how about the dialogue that follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s quite…um…rock-y,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘either…or’ politics of language

IMG_3389Cognitive science has shown us that, like it or not, we have the tendency to see the world in terms of opposites. Things are either hot or cold, black or white. People are either young or old, fat or thin. In terms of their identity, they are either one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’.

It’s not surprising, then, that so much of political debate is framed in terms of ‘either… or’. The Government should be clamping down on benefit fraud. Or it should be curbing bankers’ bonuses. When Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician’ she was cleverly creating a binary distinction between having conviction, and seeking agreement. In this rhetoric, any politician that sought consensus was weak, whereas she of course was strong.

Importantly, the same binary distinctions are also prevalent in political (as well as everyday) discussions of language. Children should speak ‘proper’ English in the classroom; or, children should have the right to speak their own dialect at school. Immigrants should learn to speak English; or, everyone should have the right to access public services in their own language.

Here’s one example. In the UK, there have been a number of recent reports of schools banning pupils from speaking their local dialect in the classroom. Here, the reasons for such interventions are often framed in terms of ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ language. In one report, a head teacher from Birmingham complained of increasing numbers of pupils coming through nursery with little or no ‘proper English’. Most people would agree there is a need for children to speak Standard English to access the wider job market. It follows that children should be made to speak Standard English – not the dialect which they have grown up speaking at home.

Elsewhere, there have been reports of growing numbers of school children who do not speak any English when they arrive at primary school. In February 2014, The Daily Mail reported that English will soon become a second language in one in 9 schools in the UK. The growth is driven by immigration, in particular from Eastern Europe. As such it is a highly political issue. In the words of one think tank, ‘Educating children who do not speak English as their mother tongue […] puts a huge financial strain on schools’. Clearly, kids who speak Romanian or Somali or Gujarati – and not English – as a first language are a burden on the taxpayer.

Further afield, reports of ‘last speakers’ dying – taking with them entire languages – are relatively frequent. As academics and language activists have pointed out, when a language dies, so much more is lost too: a culture, an entire world view, and quite possibly a vast body of local knowledge. Of the 7000 or so languages spoken around the world, a significant number of them are under threat from extinction. In USA, for example, of the more than 300 Native American languages originally spoken, fewer than 200 remain; as many as 70 of these languages could become extinct within the next decade.

One of the major driving forces for language death is the growth of a global economy – so, for many, it is unavoidable. Parents don’t want to speak the language of the minority to their children, the state doesn’t want to teach it, and teenagers don’t want to learn it. Because, if young people are to access the best jobs and the best opportunities, they will need to speak English not Washo, Russian not Tuvan, Mandarin not Kanakanavu.

All of these issues of language policy and planning might seem intractable. But perhaps they are not. Perhaps the answer is not a regional dialect or a standard dialect. Perhaps the answer is not Russian or Tuvan.

Although we might be programmed to see the world in terms of opposites, let’s pretend for a moment that the answer is not one language or another. Instead, let’s pretend it is both languages.

Growing up in Britain and speaking English, you could be forgiven for thinking that speaking more than one language – bilingualism – is the exception, rather than the rule. Commentators, educators and business leaders have long bemoaned the deficit in language skills in the UK with, for example, the number of people studying languages at university at an all time low. The British Academy’s 2013 ‘State of the Nation’ report on the demand and supply of language skills in the UK concluded that: ‘There is a strong evidence that the UK is suffering from a growing deficit in foreign language skills at a time when globally the demand for language skills is expanding’.

As such, it may not be at all obvious that speaking two languages could be the answer to anything. But further from home bilingualism (or multilingualism, defined simply as speaking more than one language) is actually more common than you might think.

In Switzerland, for example, speaking more than one language is a fact of life. With four official languages the State Government, and much of local Government, simply couldn’t function without widespread bilingualism. And in the Philippines, as well as national languages Filipino and English, at least another 100 languages are spoken. Bilingualism is so prevalent, that it’s not uncommon for Filipinos to happily code-switch between both Filipino and English – as is the case for many bilingual communities around the globe. Worldwide, something like 1 in 3 people routinely use two or more languages for work, family life and leisure (Li, 2007).

In fact, bilingualism turns up pretty much everywhere – even in the UK. In Wales and Scotland, for example, significant numbers of people speak Welsh or Gaelic as a first language, as well as English. TV drama Hinterland, for example, recently broke ground by being filmed in both Welsh and English language versions, using the same actors. Even among native English speakers, there are people who buck the (monolingual) trend. Current England manager Roy Hodgson, for example, has managed football teams in 5 different languages – arguably with the least success managing his current side in his mother tongue.

As the media has been quick to report, immigration to the UK is driving rapid growth in multilingualism. As a result, London has become one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the world. Today, over 300 languages are spoken across the city. Over a third of children in London will speak English at school, but a language other than English at home (Gibson, 2007). Interestingly, this gives rise to the paradox – also common to USA and Australia – of both second language deficiency and extreme multilingualism.

And, if you extend the concept to those people that can speak more than one dialect of English, then many more people could be considered bilingual. It’s not uncommon to know more than one dialect of a language and use each of them selectively in different contexts. One of them might be the local (say West Country) dialect we grew up speaking and still use with our family; the other might be the Standard British English we use when we speak to our boss.

There’s also a growing body of scientific evidence to show the cognitive benefits of speaking a second language. Bilingual people, for example, are found to be better at filtering out irrelevant information in ‘conflict tasks’. Some studies have found that bilingual people perform better in creative problem solving tasks. Recently, researchers have shown that babies brought up hearing more than one language have a greater thirst for novel images, indicative of a high IQ in later life. Bilingualism may even hold back the onset of dementia in later life. And brain scans have shown that learning another language can, quite literally, make the brain grow. And there are social benefits too. Learning languages opens up the possibility of understanding entirely new cultures, and new ways of life. Just as some languages hold words for concepts that don’t exist in other languages, learning multiple tongues can offer perspectives on the world that aren’t available in a single language.

Slide1So, what about the banning of ‘incorrect’ English in school? Few people would disagree that speaking a standard language is a necessity for accessing the wider job market. But many people would also argue that to dismiss regional dialects as inferior (‘incorrect’ or ‘improper’) is surely problematic – not least because it can damage the confidence of vulnerable young people. The answer, of course, is that children should be encouraged to value their own dialect – and their ability to speak it – as well as the Standard English they will need in wider society.

And what about the problem of ever increasing numbers of school children in UK who arrive at primary school not speaking English? The answer is that they should be taught to speak English at school and – at the same time – they, their teachers and wider society should value their ability to speak a second language. As others have pointed out, at a time when the UK’s language skills are sorely lacking, these bilingual children will be a rich resource for the future. We should drop the negative spin, and focus on the positive.

And finally, what about the problem of indigenous communities abandoning their native language to speak the language of the majority? As linguist K. David Harrison points out in his book The Last Speakers, the answer is the same:

‘It’s certainly fair to ask: “Aren’t kids better off shedding a small local language and becoming globally conversant citizens?” In response, wouldn’t an even better scenario be kids who increase their brainpower by being bilingual and enjoy the benefits of both a close-knit ethic community and a sense of national or global participation?’

In all three cases, the answer is bilingualism. We should move away from debates about language, and any policies that follow, which are based on ‘either…or’. Instead we should be talking about language only in terms of ‘and’.

Politically, this will still require a huge paradigm shift – especially in countries where policies of monolingualism (like Napoleon’s ‘One nation, one language’) have been firmly entrenched for centuries. But such policies are near-sighted at best. In his book, I think Harrison sums it up nicely when he says:

‘[…] we live in a society that curiously undervalues bilingualism. Millions of school children spend countless hours drilling the verb forms of Spanish, while just a classroom away, millions of other children who speak Spanish with their parents at home and could be fully bilingual are shamed for having a slight accent and intimidated into giving up their Spanish. “English only” is one of the most intellectually ruinous notions ever perpetuated upon American society, and one of the most historically naïve. We have always been a multilingual society, even before we became a nation.’

In the USA, as elsewhere, policies of monolingualism are not the answer. They could actually be part of the problem.

So, do you want to maintain the intellectual wealth contained within local languages and dialects, at the same time as acknowledging the need for national standards and lingua francas? Do you want your students to be proud of their heritage, but have the skills and confidence to compete for jobs nationally? Do you want to have employees that will make you more sales worldwide, and help you beat your competitors in the global marketplace? And do you want to increase your creativity, hold off dementia, and literally grow your brain?

The answer is simple. The answer is bilingualism: Value it, support it, celebrate it.

 

References

Gibson, M. (2007). Multilingualism. In D. Britain (Ed.), Language in the British Isles (pp. 257-275). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Li, W. (Ed.). (2007). The Bilingualism Reader (2nd ed.). Oxford: Routledge.

A Game of Tongues: Why George R. R. Martin is a Linguist After All

One of the great achievements of any work of fantasy or science fiction is the creation of an entirely new world – think of the Star Wars universe or Lord of the Rings’ Middle-Earth. Although many new worlds have been created by fantasy authors over the years, only a few can match the complex, beguiling and deadly world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

Of course, no new world would be complete without its own language or languages. Martin is quick to point out that he is no linguist himself. When creating the lands of Westeros and Essos, and all its linguistic complexities, Martin couldn’t rely on classical training as a philologist as J. R. R. Tolkien could. So, although he invented a few words and phrases of Dothraki for the original Game of Thrones novel, he had to hand over to professional language-creators to devise a Dothraki language proper for HBO’s TV series.

But even if George R. R. Martin didn’t hammer out the phonology, case systems and vocabulary of Dothraki or High Valyrian, in creating the linguistic context for his fantasy series, I want to show that he did an excellent job in matching the mind-boggling complexity of real languages. In celebration of the final episode of season 4, here are twenty ways in which – linguistically speaking – Game of Thrones is much more sophisticated than you might think:

1. There are plenty of languages in the known world…

Myrish, Braavosi, Dothraki… OK, so although there might not be the linguistic diversity of our own planet (we have something like 6000 languages), its clear that the Common Tongue of Westeros is not the only one in town.

First of all there’s Dothraki, spoken by the fearsome horse-riders of Essos. In Vaes Dothrak, ‘Khal’ is the title of the ruler, a word which gives rise to the derived forms ‘khalasar’ (for the Khal’s army) and ‘Khaleesi’ (his bride). Then, there’s Valyrian with its ‘liquid accents’, spoken in the free cities of Essos. Elsewhere, there’s the ‘sing-song’ tongue of the unfortunate Lhazareen. Last, but not least, there’s the Common Tongue of the Seven Kingdoms – which, fortunately for us, is surprisingly similar to British or North American Standard English.

2. …And some of the languages are related to each other

In Game of Thrones, Valyrian actually refers to a group of languages, including a number of ‘bastard’ forms, all derived from High Valyrian. He may not be a linguist, but Martin was well aware that, in our own ‘known world’, all but a few languages can be neatly grouped together into language families – groups of languages with a shared pedigree. In this respect, Valyrian is similar to the Romance languages where French, Italian and Spanish, and so on, are all derived from Latin.

3. With so many languages, a good translator is worth hanging on to

Translator Missandei does an outstanding job of mediating between surly slave-owner Krasnys and would-be-Queen Daenerys when she approaches him about buying an army of slaves. When Krasnys exclaims in his Astapori Valyrian, ‘Her Dothraki smell of shit… but may be useful as pig feed,’ Missandei translates this, prudently, as: ‘The Dothraki you have are not worth what they cost to feed’. Small wonder Dany sees fit to offer Missandei a job herself.

4. Different languages have concepts that others don’t

Languages, everywhere, reflect the culture of their speakers – and in Martin’s world it’s no different. In Dothraki, there is no word for throne, for example, a concept which doesn’t exist among the horse-riders of Essos. In the original Game of Thrones novel, Khal Drogo eventually gets tired of Dany talking about the ‘iron chair’ of Westeros. North of the Wall, we find out from Ygritte that the Wildlings don’t have a word in their dialect for ‘windmill’. And it may be something that Ladies in the south like to do but, as Ygritte is quick to point out, ‘swooning’ is simply not in her lexicon.

5. Each language has many dialects

Not surprisingly, given the size of Westeros, there are many dialects of the Common Tongue. Although most ‘high-born’ characters speak in a language which is not discernible from Standard English, Martin litters his prose with various low-born characters speaking in non-Standard forms. As well as phonological differences (accents), this includes grammatical variations between speakers too. For example, Will, of the Night’s watch, uses the past tense form of verbs as the past participle: ‘They couldn’t have froze.’ Mycah, the ill-fated butcher’s boy, uses double negatives which you wouldn’t find in the King’s Common Tongue. He tells Prince Joffrey, when caught sword-fighting with Arya: ‘It’s not no sword, it’s only a stick’. Then there’s Shagga, the mountain clansman, whose own idiolect doesn’t seem to include a first person singular pronoun (‘I’). He tells Tyrion: ‘Shagga will go with the boyman, and if the boyman lies, Shagga will chop of his manhood…’

As well as variation in language depending on the social status of the speaker (what linguist William Labov calls ‘social stratification’), there is also plenty of geographical variation, giving rise to regional dialects. Pyp, Jon Snow’s well-travelled comrade in the Night’s Watch, brags to everyone that he can tell what you are and where you were born ‘just from the sound of your voice.’

6. Some people are good at mimicking the dialects of others

Just like amongst us humans, some people of the known world are better at accents than others. Pyp, we’re told, has a ‘hundred different voices’. When he’s telling his stories, he can shift his accent to play all the parts needed: ‘a king one moment and a swineherd the next.’ But he’s not the only one. In this scene from the TV series, for example, Lady Olenna shows she can do an impressive northern accent.

7. There are particular ways of speaking, tied to particular situations

Just as in real tongues, within the languages of Game of Thrones, there are multiple forms (different ‘registers’ and ‘styles’) that speakers use depending on who they are speaking to, what they are speaking about, where they are, and so on. For example, common among high-born speakers of the Common Tongue is the use of very particular ceremonial language. At the execution of a deserter from the Night’s Watch, Ned Stark declares: ‘In the name of Robert of the House of Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, by the word of Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, I do sentence you to die.’

Which is not the sort of language you would use when ordering a plate of lemon cakes.

8. Some people are better linguists than others

There are definitely some talented linguists in A Game of Thrones. The Captain who brings Catelyn to King’s Landing, Moreo Tumitis, speaks the Common Tongue ‘fluently, with only a hint of the slightest hint of a Tyroshi accent.’ Arya’s Braavosi sword-master is almost as good. He speaks the Common tongue with a few non-native features (‘I am thinking that when we reach this Winterfell of yours…’). Then of course there’s Dany’s translator, Missandei, who can speak 19 different languages – surely making her one of the most gifted linguists in the ‘known world’.

Other characters are a bit more ‘human’ when it comes to learning languages. When we first meet horse-lord Khal Drogo he can speak only a few words of Valyrian, and only one word of the Common Tongue (‘no’). Although he does eventually learn some more of Dany’s mother tongue, he speaks with ‘an accent so thick and barbarous’ that only Dany can understand him.

But, of course, it’s Dany who takes the prize for effort in attempting to learn the language of her husband, under the wing of her handmaid Jhiqui. ‘Khalakka dothrae mr’anha!’ she exclaims in her best Dothraki (‘A prince rides inside me!’), before ceremonially downing a raw horse’s heart.

9. Some people can’t speak a first language

There are some people in A Game of Thrones who can’t even speak one language. Pity poor Hodor, the giant stable boy from Winterfell, who can only utter one word. ‘Hodor. Hodor. Hodor. Hodor…’

Perhaps, Hodor is inspired by ‘Tan’, a real life patient in 19th Century Paris who suffered from the first recorded instance of Broca’s aphasia – a speech disorder caused by damage to the frontal lobe of the brain. Tan was given the name as this was the only word he could utter.

10. You can exploit the fact that others don’t speak your language

Dany’s truculent brother, Viserys, loves to audibly trash talk the Dothraki in the Common Tongue, knowing full well they don’t understand him. (‘The savages lack the wit to understand the speech of civilised men,’ he says.) It comes back to haunt him, however. Because he can’t speak Dothraki, he doesn’t realise he’s about to receive a crown of molten gold until it’s too late…

11. If you’re bilingual, you have a choice of which language to speak

If you are bilingual in Game of Thrones, and you know that the person you are speaking to speaks the same two languages as you, you have three possibilities: you can speak one language or the other, or you can code-switch between the two. For example, when the Red Priestess Melisandre meets Thoros of Myr in the forests of Westeros, they greet each other in Valyrian, before Thoros suggests switching to the Common Tongue so his men can understand, before later switching back to Valyrian…

12. Code-switching can be a powerful (linguistic) weapon

There are many reasons why individuals might switch languages like this – and they might not always be benevolent. As linguists studying bilingual interaction have pointed out, negotiating which language is used in a given a conversation, sometimes mean negotiating which of the speakers holds the power. In the royals courts of Westeros and Essos, it’s no different.

In Astapor, for example, when Dany negotiates with Krasnys for his army of slaves the conversation is first held in both Valyrian and the Common Tongue, mediated by translator Missandei. Neither party wants to give an inch of ground by speaking in their interlocutors’ mother tongue. However, things change suddenly when Dany offers up one of her dragons in exchange. Suddenly Krasnys is willing to barter with Dany directly. ‘T’ree dragon’, he says, in his pidgin Common Tongue. In the Game of Thrones, it’s a small victory for Dany, who now knows she’s really got him interested…

But the most powerful instance of code-switching is surely what happens next. When Dany finally reveals, to the surprise of everyone, that she can speak fluent Valyrian, Krasnys knows that she has been playing him all along. When she orders her dragon to burn him alive, he also knows it’s too late. Dany has been playing the game of tongues all along.

13. Style-switching is another good weapon in the game of tongues

But even if you are not bilingual, you can still switch between the various registers and styles of your own language to gain the upper hand. In A Game of Thrones, Tyrion is one of the masters of this. When the jailer at the Eyrie shoves a plate of boiled beans in his direction and asks bluntly ‘you want eat’, its an affront to his ego. Tyrion tries to grasp some of it back, humorously switching to a very polite and formal style: ‘A leg of lamb would be pleasant,’ he says. ‘Perhaps a dish of peas and onions, some fresh baked with butter, and a flagon of mulled wine to wash it down. Or beer, if that’s easier. I try not to be overly particular…’

14. But, if all else fails, you can always swear

Sometimes, only a taboo word will do. After all his more linguistically-sophisticated efforts get him no closer to freedom, Tyrion calls his jailer a ‘fucking son of a pox-ridden ass’.

15. Sometimes you can say one thing and mean something entirely different

What is said semantically might not always been the same as what is meant pragmatically. Or, to leave fancy linguistic terminology aside, sarcasm is alive and well in Westeros. In A Game of Thrones, when Littlefinger is escorting Ned around the Red Keep, Ned points out that they aren’t going in the directions of his chambers. No, says Littlefinger. ‘I’m leading you to the dungeons to slit your throat and seal your corpse up behind a wall.’ And when Tyrion is told he will be riding to the top of the Eyrie on a goat, he replies ‘I can scarcely wait’.

16. You should choose your words carefully if you don’t want to be (im)polite

As society dictates, the citizens of Westeros and Essos employ polite forms of language, particularly when they are talking to their equals and their superiors. Politeness and deference is manifest in forms of address (such as ‘my lord’, ‘m’lady’ and ‘Your Grace’), mitigating phrases (‘with respect’), pleas (‘begging your grace’), statements of flattery (‘what a pleasure’), and so on.

And wherever polite language is expected, its absence sends a powerful message. For example, when Dany meets an envoy from Yunkai, the conversation treads a deliciously fine line between politeness and bare-faced aggression.

17. Sometimes you can play with language just for fun

In our world, people have been playing with language for as long as its been around – often just for fun. In Game of Thrones, it’s much the same. When Shae, the prostitute who Tyrion ends up falling for, introduces herself to him, she shows that she’s more than a match for Tyrion’s verbal wit. ‘I am Tyrion, of House Lannister,’ he says. ‘Men call me the Imp.’ In response, Shae deftly plays with the ambiguity of the verb ‘to call’. ‘My mother named me Shae,’ she says. ‘Men call me…. often.’

18. You should know how to use your tongue…

Martin makes it clear that you can get a long way in A Game of Thrones armed with only a sharp tongue. As such, Tyrion – the character with perhaps the sharpest tongue of anyone – can’t understand how his squire, Podrick Payne, can be so quiet. He’s so vexed, he asks Podrick to stick out his tongue and show it to him. ‘Definitely a tongue,’ he says. ‘Someday you must learn to use it…’

19. …But you should still be careful what you say

But sometimes a sharp tongue will only get you so far. In A Game of Thrones, Tyrion’s hired sell-sword and bodyguard, Bronn, warns him: ‘You have a bold tongue, little man. One day someone is like to cut it out and make you eat it.’ The point is you can have the fastest tongue in the world, but it’s not necessarily going to stop someone sticking you with the pointy end of a sword.

20. Conversations are battles to be won or lost

What all this means – and what Martin so deftly captures in the world he creates – is that conversation is a game. Linguists know that, like any game, conversations have fixed rules about who speaks when (‘turn taking’), what is said and what is not said, and so on. Like any game, conversations can be at once about cooperation and about competition, about adversaries and about allies. They are about a negotiation of power.

So, the Game of Thrones is not just fought on the battle field. It is not just a matter of steel and fire. Across Westeros, and the rest of the ‘known world’, it is fought and won in countless conversations. What you say, and how you say it, is no small thing – it can be a matter of life or death. To paraphrase a master of the art: ‘When you play the game of tongues, you either win or you die’.