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”.