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.

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

Agatha2

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.

 

 

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.

“I Am China” by Xiaolu Guo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or why she leaves certain taboo expressions in Pinyin:

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

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

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

Just what is it about language?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Fifty Shades of ’Fifty Shades of…’

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

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

And that’s surely no bad thing.

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

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

So, without further ado, here they are.

Enjoy!

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