Talky Tuesday: Listen up!

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.

Just look at the two opening stanzas of Lewis Carroll’s brilliant Jabberwocky. Most of the words aren’t real words, and yet the thing still makes sense in its own way:

’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

Language is a virus

Languages are living, breathing things that can affect the way you perceive the world — but the language you’re reading right now is probably one of the most resilient in existence.

The title of this post comes from a famous quote by William S. Burroughs, although he was more focused on the malignant and destructive aspect of words. I’d update it to “Language is viral,” although saying “update” is deceptive. Although the term really only seems to have entered mass consciousness within the last couple of years, it’s actually old enough to vote, having entered the lexicon in 1999 in its modern sense.

The reason that a language will affect the way you perceive the world is because we, as humans, don’t have any other way to think. So what we are able to express is limited by the way our language can express it.

Paul Anthony Jones has a fascinating article at Mental Floss detailing some languages that lack certain features we take for granted, although two of them stand out as examples of how linguistic features can actually be unlimiting

One is in an aboriginal language that, except for describing handedness, does not use words for relative position. That is, instead of saying “the book is on your left,” or “the door is behind you,” they will say things in terms of cardinal direction: “The book is to the west,” and “The door is to the south.”

Not surprisingly, the end result of this is that speakers of the language have a built-in compass. They always know which direction is where because they have to in order to communicate.

Even more fascinating is the language of the Matsés people of South America, which has what you could call evidentiary grammar. That is, the verb tenses indicate exactly how you know what you’re saying — as an eyewitness, something you heard secondhand, something you’re just guessing at, and so on. And the result of that one is that speakers of this language are always absolutely honest about their motives.

That almost makes English seem quaint, doesn’t it? But here’s the special feature of English that a lot of other languages lack: It’s pretty close to unbreakable. That’s kind of ironic, considering that we have the term “broken English” in our language, but you really have to work at it if you want to say something in English that is completely unintelligible. One of the most famous recent examples of English that did break is “Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?”

This is probably untranslatable, but if you think you know what it means, leave me a comment below. Ironically, this statement has actually taken on its own meaning since it first appeared eight years ago, and is now generally understood to mean, “What you said just made no sense.”

And so the language evolves.

I tend to be a purist when it comes to grammar. However, I also love neologisms, and just how adaptable English is. I have no problems with the verbing of nouns — which I just did in that sentence. This isn’t unique to English, either. In Spanish, it’s quite common for one word with slight variations of ending to be a verb, noun, adjective, or adverb.

Don’t forget, too, that the most infamous word in English, which starts with “F,” can actually be any part of speech with the sole exception of a conjunction, but it works very well in tmesis. You can thank me later for that new word!

Side note, here’s another new word I just learned: gallimaufry. I’m not sure whether it was the inspiration for the name Gallifrey from Doctor Who,” but it means a hodgepodge or confused medley.

But back to the point. Here is a good collection of beautifully broken English. And as mangled as these are, chances are good that if you’re a native speaker of English, you can figure out exactly what the writers intended in most of them.

Of course, English is a playground for neologisms, or newly-coined words. It’s how Shakespeare created the modern language in the first place, and it would behoove you to google a list of words he created — oh, look! Google, a modern neologism! And it’s still happening. Check out this list of fourteen words that didn’t exist nearly twenty-five years ago.

Don’t forget Lewis Carroll, who invented the concept of portmanteau words, which, like a real portmanteau, which is a suitcase that opens into two equal parts, are two words stuck together, and which still exist to this day. Ever heard of “Bennifer?” Welp that’s a portmanteau.

You’re welcome. And if you want to really go down the rabbit-hole (another Carrollian expression!) here’s a whole list of portmanteau words.

If you want to write, get creative. You can stretch English a lot without breaking it, and some of the best and most inventive expressions are made up on the spot. Try your hand at it, and share your best below!