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.

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

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

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

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

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

But repetition in poetry goes beyond rhythm and rhyme.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why is such parallelism so rife in language?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

The Inbetweener: Scots-English Code-switching and the Genius of Robert Burns

ImageRobert Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in a village in the Scottish county of Ayrshire. He died, 37 years later, one of the most celebrated poets Britain has ever produced.

Burns was famously the ‘Ploughman Poet’ – a farmer’s son, a drinker, a lover. It was an image he himself cultivated: he was someone who had his hands in the earth, and his nose in a jar. He was, in his own words, a ‘simple Bard, rough at the rustic plough’.

Key to this identity was Burns’ mother tongue. Burns grew up speaking Scots a language which, although derived from Anglo-Saxon, had diverged significantly from the English spoken in the south (Johnston, 2007). In Scots, many words with the same root are markedly different, phonologically, to the English equivalent: ‘hoose’ for ‘house’ and ‘kirk’ for ‘church’, for example. There are also many lexical differences: ‘bairn’ in Scots, for example, means ‘child’. In syntax and morphology, there are many differences too. Present participles and gerunds, for example, tend to be marked in Scots with ‘-in’ rather than ‘-ing’.

Scots is clearly the defining language of Burns’ poetry. Here’s the opening stanza from his famous early work, ‘To a Mouse’:

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

Though Burns liked to present himself as a ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ – hewn from the earth, and inspired by whisky and the Gods – this is only half the story. For Burns, like the 20th Century’s greatest bard, was also a learned man. He was well educated, possibly not much worse than much of the Scottish gentry. He read extensively form an early age, and his poems feature references to figures from the Greek lyrical poets to Adam Smith. Burns was well acquainted with the English poets of the era. He was also probably a rather moderate drinker for the age (Smith, 2007).

Burns moved to Edinburgh when he was 27. Here, in the capital, the language of the educated classes was Scottish Standard English – a dialect emerging since the Union as a compromise between Scots and the English of the south (Johnston, 2007). This was the language of formality, polite conversation, and high society. It was also one in which Burns was equally adept. 

Burns seems to have been both attracted and repelled by his new social circle. In reality he was, an inbetweener – not quite at home in rural Scotland, not quite at home amongst Edinburgh’s literati. According to University of Glasgow’s Jeremy Smith, Burns’ complex identity was manifest in much of his writing. Even in his personal correspondence, Burns could choose to write in either Scots or English, depending on which ‘Robert Burns’ he wanted to portray. Sometimes he wrote in a mixture of the two; just like many modern speakers of Scots, he could code-switch freely.

Burns used this ability to alternate between the two languages to great effect in his later poetry (Smith, 2007). Smith cites the example of ‘Tam O’Shanter’, Burns’ last major poem and possibly his finest (see here for a recent modern translation):.

When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neebors, neebors meet,
As market-days are wearing late,
An’ folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

The final couplet of the poem’s first stanza, unlike the lines that precede it, are in English (‘warm’ and ‘storm’ would not have rhymed in Scots). As Smith (2007) points out, the shift from Scots to English, and corresponding change in rhythm, also marks a transition from narrative to figurative language (p. 83).

As Burns himself admitted, his knowledge of Scots and Scottish Standard English provided him with copia verborum (an ‘abundance of words’). It gave him the language he needed – Scots, English, or a mixture – for every context and situation.

Like Shakespeare writing for the Globe’s groundlings and its seated royalty, although he was himself neither of them, Burns could speak to both the upper and lower classes.  Burns was neither ploughman, nor gentry; he was something more. His genius lay in exploiting all the linguistic possibilities his identity – as an inbetweener – offered him.

References

Johnston, P. A. (2007). Scottish English and Scots. In David Britain (ed.) Language in the British Isles (pp. 105-121). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, J. J. (2007) Copia Verborum: The Linguistic Choices of Robert Burns. The Review of English Studies, 58, 73-88.