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Playing language

October 4, 2010

With so many wires, as it were, making up the average brain, it’s no wonder that they seem to cross every so often. Some readers may have, or at least know of, a condition called synaesthesia, wherein – as I understand it, at least – different classes of sensory impression are cross-associated; as, for example, a particular sound might be inextricably associated with a particular colour.

I used to hang out on a forum attached to a website dedicated to names, which had a lot of synaesthetic members who would quite often include this sort of cross-sense impression in their discussions of various names’ aesthetics. It wasn’t uncommon to ask for opinions of a name and for someone to say “Ooh, yes, that’s a lovely purplish colour.” The short, flat A-sound (/æ/, for IPA readers) seemed to be quite often associated with red. Someone else heard trilled Rs as green. And so on.

That degree of synaesthesia seems to be relatively rare, and stronger versions – smelling colours, hearing smells* – rarer still. But some kinds of cross-sense correspondences seem to be nearly universal: the association of deep musical tones with dark colours, for example, and of the inverse, of whiteness with high-pitched and/or painful sounds (as ‘white noise’).

I think that something similar to the synaesthetic response, the inexplicable but rooted conviction that something and some other thing are related in some way because they just are, lies behind that most inexplicable of human senses: the ability to say of two materially very similar things that this one looks right and that one doesn’t. It’s telling that when people are trying to articulate this with reference to one sense they tend to draw on metaphors from others: you might describe the composition of a picture or the proportions of a building – both visual qualities – as harmonious, for example, which is a property of music.

What has me thinking today is that different people have an It Looks Right instinct for so many, and so wildly different, things. Some seem to be pretty common: millions of people go to the hospital with two or three names for their incipient child and make the final pick based on which one is Right. But others clearly aren’t, like the mysterious talent for distinguishing good wine from bad, or the strange knack some people have for figuring out which item Goes or Doesn’t Go with that particular outfit. Doubtless people can think of more.

Me, I get it with language. Not individual constructions – there are actually rules about those, you don’t generally have to rely on something just looking right – but whole languages. Some of them are just more aesthetically pleasing than others, and it’s usually a pain trying to pin down exactly why. But it’s something to do with the aesthetics of a system, something that includes considerations of simplicity and functionality and simple prettiness but isn’t solely based on any one of those.

Language is like a game.

A game, at its core, requires two classes of things: a set of equipment, and a set of rules. The game itself consists of manipulating the equipment in accordance with the rules, in order to achieve some end and/or victory condition also defined by the rules. That’s the fundamental principle, as it were – the common core of every game from rugby to rummy and backgammon to badminton. A good game is one where the process of playing, of finding clever and innovative things, newer and better things, to do with its equipment and within its rules, is worth doing for its own sake. Whether or not you win. Whether or not you can win.

A living language is a game. Its words are its pieces, its grammar is its rulebook, and a verbal utterance is a move within that game. There’s no specific end condition to a game of language; it’s more like ice-skating or showjumping, where you show off your mad skillz and a panel of judges assess it collaboratively. (And at the Literary Olympics, I am about to lose style points for dropping Internet-speak into an otherwise Standard English sentence.) A book is a routine, a performance, an exhibition.

Mostly, what we consume as entertainment are instances of games. It’s not the concept ‘football’ to which people are attracted, but the thrill of seeing it played and savouring old, completed games. Same with chess. Same with pretty much every spectator sport and quite a lot that aren’t. But a well-put-together game can be an aesthetically pleasing object in its own right – when the set-up just makes sense, just Looks Right. Connoisseurs of boardgames (closely followed by videogames) probably talk about this the most – about mechanics, about balance, about the structure of the game itself as opposed to what comes out of it.

To take an example or two, draughts is a beautifully made game. It’s amazing how much nuance there can be in something with basically only three rules (checkers move like this, kings move like that, a checker becomes a king like so). It’s pleasing, it’s Right, in the way that something beautifully streamlined and minimalist is, but without being dull.

At the other extreme, there’s a card game called Race for the Galaxy to which I am hopelessly addicted, which has a deck of 218 cards as of its third expansion and more rules than you can shake a stick at. It’s utterly unstreamlined: for pretty much every rule there’s a card that can be played as an exception. It was Right in its original form, then became uneven and Wrong in its first and second expansions, and now they finally seem to have rebalanced it and it’s Right again, in the big garish sprawly complicated way that, I don’t know, London is Right.

I have the same sort of reactions to languages. In my teens, I flirted briefly with learning Esperanto, but gave it up, because it was dull – a pretty set of playing pieces with a too-formulaic ruleset, is how I think about it now. Since then, as an adult, I’ve had the chance to learn languages by (as it were) reading the rules (which is also how I approach board- and videogames, incidentally) and I am enjoying myself immensely.

Latin, Old English and Old Norse are all brilliant, brain-stretching fun. In all three I adore the way the case system lets you express the relations between words with minimalist precision. I love the stacks of Latin tenses that let you express complex verbs (e.g. ‘they were being surrounded’) in single words (circumveniebantur). I like the way that Anglo-Saxon strong verbs change their vowels from tense to tense rather than adding an ending. I like the bizarre Old Norse system of adding the definite article to the end of words. These are good languages, good games; they work.

English, on this framework, is more like something like D&D: a huge, sprawling collection of resources and rules that the player is encouraged to go and do awesome stuff with, and where bending the rules until they go twang is – in the right company – part of the fun.

I don’t pretend to have an objective opinion on the merits, balance and aesthetic value of English-as-system; I’m not entirely sure I could. It’s been too familiar for too long. I have no idea if, from the outside, it seems well-balanced, or seems Right – but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play.


* There are evocative descriptions, though I obviously don’t know how accurate, of this type of synaesthesia in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. The character Angua, a werewolf, is synaesthetic in her wolf form and hears and sees smells – elderly cheese, for example, is “a surprisingly tinkly bright blue”.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2010 4:52 pm

    It’s often the languages that seem most fun which end up being infuriating though. To use an example that I know of, though don’t know too much of the actual detail (most of this is stuff Uke-Nagashi has explained to me), the way names work in Japanese is both fun and utterly baffling.

    Most people write their names in kanji – the ideogrammatic alphabet descended from Chinese – and there are often so many ways of reading the characters that there is no way of knowing how to pronounce a name from reading it. There’s plenty of opportunity for puns and the like; an example that immediately comes to mind is the main character of the manga Death Note, whose name is written “月”. As an ordinary word, this would be pronounced “Tsuki”, meaning “moon”,* but instead he pronounces it “Raito” – the Japanese transliteration of the English “light” (TV Tropes has a long list of other examples). Great fun, but since a lot of publications neglect to give pronunciations for names, reading them out loud or translating/transliterating them can be impossible.

    I’d imagine the massive mess of pronunciations available in English must be only slightly less infuriating, until you learn them all by rote. The fact that Featherstonehaugh can be boiled down to “Fanshaw” is entertaining enough, but it’s a more or arbitrary pronunciation, and if you first come across it when your mum rings to ask whether she’d left her tickets to a Cholmondeleys and Featherstonehaughs show, it does rather get in the way of effective communication.

    I guess it comes down to what you say about rules. If the rules of a game are too restrictive, it’s not fun. But if they’re too loose – if there are so many alternative rules that more or less anything can be legal – then there’s no real game there.

    * Other pronunciations people have used for that character apparently include Yui, Yue, Runa, Aporo, Akari, Arute, Madoka, Meguru, Mitsuke, Hikaru and the delightful Mu-n.

  2. Seamus permalink
    October 12, 2010 3:25 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot lately, no doubt partly because I have been teaching English and now spend more time thinking about grammar than I have ever done before, even during the composition of grammar essays for first-year English Language or revision of the tenses for French Writing at GCSE. You have to know so, much, grammar when you teach foreign students. It’s unbelievable.

    Anyhow, I ended up puzzling over the oft-observed phenomenon that a few hours reading Shakespeare can make you speak blank-verse sentences inadvertently. I can see how it would make composing blank verse easier, but the accidental iambs perplex me nevertheless. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s precisely this sense of rightness that you talk about that provokes this reaction: after hours of looking for the pentametric rhythm in someone else’s words, the part of your brain that selects between the different ways of saying what you’re trying to say is in a condition to choose “Shall we begin the game, or wait for Steve?” over “Shall we get started, or would it be better to wait till Steve gets here?”

    My Spanish is still at an elementary level, but there are already some pleasing aspects of it that I’ve noticed. For example: English abounds in synonyms with different conotations — one of my favourite aspects of English. Spanish, on the other hand, deals not in synonyms but in subtle distinctions, so that there are very frequently two Spanish verbs to translate different aspects of a single English verb, eg:
    saber (“to know”, as one knows what a gerund is) vs. conocer (“to know”, as one knows one’s friends or home town)
    ser (“to be”, as of a characteristic) vs. estar (“to be”, as of any state that could be considered temporary, including the location of a city and the state of matrimony — and in a Catholic country too!)
    entender (“to understand”, eg no entiendo lo que dices, “I don’t understand what you’re saying”) vs. comprender (“to understand”, eg no comprendo la música atonal, “I don’t understand atonal music”)

  3. October 12, 2010 11:20 pm

    @atomicspin: The Japanese naming system makes my head spin. I like the concept – I like the idea that there can be such room for puns and wordplay and visual play – but the complexities produced by its execution just seem painful. I guess it’s mostly a function of being a native speaker of a language with only one alphabet, but the very idea of a word’s pronunciation being unguessable from its spelling is completely and utterly alien. English has its moments (Dalziel? Wut?) but at least everyone acknowledges that the oddities are just that, odd.

    @Seamus: That’s fascinating. I was aware of the ser/estar pair, but not of the others; those are fine distinctions indeed. Just to clarify, I assume that last one distinguishes “I am confused, please rephrase” from “I just don’t get it”? I don’t think it helps (though it does reinforce your point that these are *very* subtle shades) that the two senses of ‘understand’ in English overlap somewhat . . .

    I assume that saber/conocer parallel savoir/connaitre? I remember running into those at GCSE and being hard put to figure out when it was appropriate to say “Je sais” and when “Je connais”.

    Another one of those came up in Old English Reading Group earlier – OE has two verbs, wesan and béon, that both translate “to be”. I’m still not entirely sure of the difference; there definitely is one, but it’s hard to pin down.

  4. Seamus permalink
    October 13, 2010 8:49 pm

    Entender and conocer are the least clearly-distinguished of those three pairs, and are semi-interchangeable even in Spanish, but you’ve got the idea with what you say. Perhaps another way to put it would be that I don’t entiendothe poems of Vicent Andrés Estellés because they’re written in Catalan, but I don’t comprendo the poems of Hart Crane because they’re obscure and allusive.

    Savoir/connaître are indeed cognates for saber/conocer. Speaking of French, I’ve realised that Spanish actually doubles up on être et avoir, the twin masters to which all other French verbs are thralls (and incidentally, the title of a rather wonderful documentary film). For être, of course, there is ser/estar, but stranger still, avoir finds itself split into tener (“to have”) and haber
    (“to have done something in the perfect tense”, eg “¿Habes acabado?”, “Have you finished?”)

    On the subject of French, I had an occasion to use some the other day, and found that my French has become influenced by my daily use of Spanish: for example, I now extensively use the rather uncommon verb paraître, “to appear”, because it is cognate to the Spanish verb parecer, which is forever being used in the construction Me parece… (“It seems to me…”). Even my mother tongue is not exempt: I’m now more likely to say “It doesn’t function” than “It doesn’t work”, because my Spanish neural pathways are saying “no funciona”.

  5. Seamus permalink
    October 13, 2010 8:50 pm

    Mierda — could you close that bracket for me at the end of paragraph 2? Muchas gracias.

  6. October 13, 2010 9:49 pm

    Got that for you.

    The language bleed-through sounds like what Douglas Hofstadter talks about in Le Ton Beau de Marot – at one point he recounts inadvertently saying in Italian that he’s being attacked by cows, because his mind is still in French mode, and goes from mouche to mucca rather than mosca.

    Personally, I’m dreading the mental confusion that will surely ensue once term kicks off properly: I’ll be studying three languages and attending reading groups in two more (assuming this mooted Old Irish group gets off the ground). I suspect that by about Christmas I won’t actually be able to speak English any more.

  7. Seamus permalink
    October 13, 2010 10:09 pm


    You should multi-Beckett!

    Write a story in, like, four foreign languages, one for each major character or something, and then translate them back into English. It’ll be fascinating.

  8. Seamus permalink
    October 13, 2010 10:14 pm

    PS. Your challenge, should you choose &c., is to understand this using only your natural sense for Romance languages:

    Aparté de mí un pensamiento tan poco caballeroso. Myra siempre se ha comportado honestamente conmigo. — Theodore Sturgeon, Taxidermia loca, trans. M. Giménez

  9. October 13, 2010 11:33 pm

    Eh, I think it’d fall a bit flat, seeing as even when I write in Latin or whatever I’m still thinking in English. (Although! I did write a whole poem in Latin the other day as set-dressing for my NaNovel. Pursuivant to the discussion in this post, I eventually decided just to use Latin and bank on nobody who reads it being able to spot the inevitable mistakes.)

    Um … “It appeared to me [to be] a thought (an idea?) a bit (rather?) chivalric? knightly? Myra had always been honest with me.”

  10. Seamus permalink
    October 16, 2010 11:05 am

    Ooh, close. Well done on recognising conmigo as a contraction (is it a contraction if you still say the whole thing?) of con migo. In fact, the first sentence translates as “Away from me (/get behind me) a thought so little gentlemanly (/so poor in gentlemanliness)”.

  11. October 16, 2010 1:39 pm

    Ah, so aperte is cognate with ‘apart’ rather than ‘appear’. Makes sense. And poco is the negative sense of ‘a little bit’ rather than the neutral one …

    Re conmigo: Latin does that as well, sticking cum ‘with’ (quiet at the back there) onto the relevant pronoun. Though, interestingly enough, on the other end: mecum is ‘with me’ and so on. Hence Dominus vobiscum, ‘God [be] with you’.

  12. Seamus permalink
    October 17, 2010 11:07 am

    That’s interesting: though I cannot quite suppress the urge to titter. Poco is an odd word, but the key to its negative meaning here is the word tan (so, as, to such an extent), making it “so little”: to be un poco caballeroso would be to be a little bit gallant. Incidentally, the tam of también is a transformed tan, so también is literally “as well”.

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