Words are wonderful things in any language because they can communicate so much. Even more so, at least as far as English is concerned, the words themselves don’t have to make much sense and yet can still convey so much.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
Now, why does it make such sense? Mainly because here Carroll is mostly just playing with the nouns and verbs. He mostly leaves the other parts of speech alone. This tells us a lot about how English works, because if I said, “Did those mamleplompers from the widget fiskers over in Nimblebleck caravel up the shashandy yet, or do I need to frelgoik the yerpers in the warehouse,” wouldn’t it sound like it made some sort of sense, and you only didn’t get it because you didn’t know the jargon yet?
Real world example: “So if we go with the birthday rule, you can update your supplement next May, but there’s nothing we can do about your Part D until open enrollment, and as for your spouse, since they’ve already qualified for Part A but had prior coverage, it comes down to whether they fall under IEP or ICEP, which all depends on when Part B became effective.”
In that case, all of the words are English, but that probably made not a lick of sense to most of you and, six months ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me either. Yes, jargon is a foreign language as well, and English (and all other languages) has many jargons.
But the fuckery can go a lot further than Carroll ever took it, and if we jump into the 20th century, we meet James Joyce, who wrote an entire novel, Finnegans Wake, using multi-lingual puns to create a language that almost did and didn’t make sense. And yet, somehow (to those of us who’ve braved it) it does somehow communicate meaning. The trick, I think, is to read it out loud, which turns it into an hallucinogenic experience. That’s right. Reading this book will make you trip balls.
Here’s just a taste from the first chapter:
Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.
Really, read it out loud a few times, and it will start to make sense. Trust me.
Another author who played with language in a different way was William S. Burroughs (one of my influences), but rather than making up words, he instead broke up narrative coherence through a rather brute-force physical technique called the cut-up technique. This literally involved cutting pages apart and then sticking them back together in random order.
It’s not prevalent in his early works beyond the galleys for Naked Lunch being sent to the printer separately and then put together and published in the order they were returned, which wasn’t the order they were written in. But in his later works in the 60s, he published his Nova Trilogy, three books created using this method. This article has an excerpt from the second book in the trilogy, The Ticket that Exploded.
The next one to play with language was Samuel Beckett, and while I don’t think he used the cut-up method, he did manage to create endless staircases of words that always seemed to be going somewhere but then which would hit a landing and start over. In his case, there weren’t really any cut-ups and all of the words and sentences made sense, but the ultimate effect was always a frustrating trek that dragged us along without taking us anywhere.
Well, at least not anywhere in terms of story, but good Beckett moments like this done with commitment by a talented actor can get us to exactly what he was aiming at. A great example of his style is the famous speech by Lucky in Waiting for Godot. He’s a character who is mostly mute for the entire show, led around by a noose around his neck, but when he gets his moment, well… you can watch for yourself.
Of course, the key to each of these authors is to actually listen to what they have written, and I see people constantly not do that. In fact, most people I know dis Joyce, Burroughs, and Beckett because they’ve tried to read or see their stuff and just didn’t get it. Meanwhile, they love Carroll as long as it’s Alice, but go beyond that and their eyes roll back faster than an odometer on a sleazy used car lot — especially when he was writing about math.
And that is a shame. Because, really, none of them are that hard to understand if you just take the time to read it, experience it, and ignore the literal while letting everything else wash over you. And, ultimately, Joyce’s intent was to recreate the experience of a dream, which only ever makes sense to the dreamer, because the cast and metaphors and everything else only have meaning to them, screw you Freud.
Honestly, I think that the main reason that all of these works by all of these authors are not appreciated is because the public takes half a second to try to understand, then throws up the, “Nope, sorry. Hard. Bye!” flag, and that’s it.
And, honestly, that is one of the biggest failings of society. It’s certainly one of the things that makes me cull my friends if they don’t have it. Mainly… be at least a bit curious about the world around you, and try to learn one or two new things. Or more. But, most important of all, your reaction to a new thing or bit of information should never, ever be, “Oh, no. That is way too hard for my little brain to learn.”
Instead, it should be… “Oh, cool. Opportunity.” Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t. If you do get it, maybe you won’t be into it, or maybe you will — but you won’t ever know if your first response is “No.”
Image: John Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock, 1871