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Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing
Encounters with the Mysteries and Meanings of Language
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Is vocabulary destiny? Why do clocks “talk” to the Nahua people of Mexico? Will A.I. researchers ever produce true human-machine dialogue? In this mesmerizing collection of essays, Daniel Tammet answers these and many other questions about the intricacy and profound power of language.
In Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing, Tammet goes back in time to London to explore the numeric language of his autistic childhood; in Iceland, he learns why the name Blær became a court case; in Canada, he meets one of the world’s most accomplished lip readers. He chats with chatbots; contrives an “e”-less essay on lipograms; studies the grammar of the telephone; contemplates the significance of disappearing dialects; and corresponds with native Esperanto speakers – in their mother tongue.
A joyous romp through the world of words, letters, stories, and meanings, Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing explores the way communication shapes reality. From the art of translation to the lyricism of sign language, these essays display the stunning range of Tammet’s literary and polyglot talents.
FINDING MY VOICE
Though English was the language of my parents, the language in which I was raised and schooled, I have never felt I belonged to it. I learned my mother tongue self-consciously, quite often confusedly, as if my mother were a foreigner to me, and her sole language my second. Always, in some corner of my child mind, a running translation was struggling to keep up. To say this word or that word in other words. To recompose the words of a sentence like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Years before doctors informed me of my high-functioning autism and the disconnect it causes between man and language, I had to figure out the world as best I could. I was a misfit. The world was made up of words. But I thought and felt and sometimes dreamed in a private language of numbers.
In my mind each number had a shape—complete with color and texture and occasionally motion (a neurological phenomenon that scientists call synesthesia)—and each shape a meaning. The meaning could be pictographic: eighty-nine, for instance, was dark blue, the color of a sky threatening storm; a beaded texture; and a fluttering, whirling, downward motion I understood as "snow" or, more broadly, "winter." I remember, one winter, seeing snow fall outside my bedroom window for the first time. I was seven. The snow, pure white and thick-flaked, piled many inches high upon the ground, transforming the gray concrete of the neighborhood into a virgin, opalescent tundra. "Snow," I gasped to my parents. "Eighty-nine," I thought. The thought had hardly crossed my mind when I had another: nine hundred and seventy-nine. The view from my window resembled nine hundred and seventy-nine—the shimmer and beauty of eleven expanding, literally multiplying eighty-nine's wintry swirl. I felt moved. My parents' firstborn, I had been delivered at the end of a particularly cold and snowy January in 1979. The coincidence did not escape me. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, there were private meanings writ large.
Was it from that moment—the sudden sense that my meanings corresponded to the wider world—that I first had the urge to communicate? Until that moment, I had never felt the need to open up to another person: not to my parents or siblings, let alone to any of the other children at my school. Now, suddenly, a feeling lived in me, for which I had neither name nor number (it was a little like the sadness of six, but different). I eventually learned the feeling was what we call loneliness. I had no friends. But how could I make myself understood to children from whom I felt so estranged? We spoke differently, thought differently. The other children hadn't the faintest idea (how could they?) that the relationship between eighty-nine and nine hundred and seventy-nine was like the relationship between, say, diamond and adamant. And with what words might I have explained that eleven and forty-nine, my mental logograms, rhymed? A visual rhyme. I would have liked nothing better than to share with my classmates some of my poems made of numbers:
Sixty-one two two two two eleven
One hundred and thirty-one forty-nine
But I kept the poems to myself. The children at school intimidated me. In the playground every mouth was a shout, a snort, an insult. And the more the children roared, the more they laughed and joked in my direction, the less I dared approach them and attempt to strike up a conversation. Besides, I did not know what a conversation sounded like.
I renounced the idea of making friends. I had to admit that I wasn't ready. I retreated into myself, into the certainties of my numerical language. Alone with my thoughts in the relative calm and quiet of my bedroom, I dwelled on my number shapes, on their grammar. One hundred and eighty-one, a prime number, was a tall shiny symmetrical shape like a spoon. When I doubled it—modified its shape with that of two, which was a sort of "doing" number—it equated to a verb. So that three hundred and sixty-two had the meaning of "to eat" or "to consume" (more literally, "to move a spoon"). It was the mental picture that always announced that I was hungry. Other pictures that rose up in me could morph in a similar way, depending on the action they described and whether it was external or internal to me: thirteen (a rhythmic descending motion) if a raindrop on the windowpane caught my gaze, twenty-six if I tired and sensed myself drifting off to sleep.
My understanding of language as something visual carried over to my relationship with books once I became a library-goer and regularly tugged large, slender, brightly colored covers down from the shelves. Even before I could make out the words, I fell under the spell of The Adventures of Tintin. The boy with the blond quiff and his little sidekick dog, Snowy. Speech in bubbles; emotions in bold characters and exclamation marks; the story smoothly unfolding from picture to altered picture. Each frame was fit to pore over, so finely and minutely detailed: a mini-story in itself. Stories within stories, like numbers within numbers: I was mesmerized.
The same understanding, the same excitement, also helped me learn to read. This was my luck, since reading had not initially come easily to me. Except for the occasional word of comfort the night after a nightmare, my parents never read me bedtime stories, and because the antiepileptic medicine I was prescribed at a young age made me drowsy in class, I was never precocious. I have memories of constantly falling pages behind the other children, of intense bouts of concentration in order to catch up. My delight in the shapes of the words in my schoolbooks, their visual impression on me, made the difference. One of the books, I remember, contained an illustration of a black-cloaked witch, all sharp angles, astride her broom. To my six-year-old imagination, the letter W was a pair of witches' hats, side by side and hanging upside down, as from a nail.
Back in those days, the mid-eighties, it was possible for a teacher to give her young charge a repurposed tobacco tin (mine was dark-green and gold) in which new words, written in clear letters on small rectangular cards, were to be brought home for learning. From that time on I kept a list of words according to their shape and texture: words round as a three (gobble, cupboard, cabbage); pointy as a four (jacket, wife, quick); shimmering as a five (kingdom, shoemaker, surrounded). One day, intent on my reading, I happened on lollipop and a shock of joy coursed through me. I read it as 1011ipop. One thousand and eleven, divisible by three, was a fittingly round number shape, and I thought it the most beautiful thing I had yet read: half number and half word.
I grew; my vocabulary grew. Curt sentences in my schoolbooks' prim typeset; lessons the teacher chalked up on the blackboard; breathless adjectives on crinkly flyers that intruded via the letterbox; pixelated headlines in the pages of Ceefax ("See Facts"), the BBC's teletext service. All these and many more besides I could read and write, and spell backward as well as forward, but not always pronounce. Only rarely did words reach me airborne, via a radio or a stranger's mouth. (I watched television for the pictures—I was forever lowering the sound.) If I surprised my father talking to the milkman at the door, or my mother sharing gossip with a neighbor over the garden fence, I would try to listen in—and abruptly tune out. As sounds and social currency, words could not yet hold me. Instead, I lavished my attention on arranging and rearranging them into sentences, playing with them as I played with the number shapes in my head, measuring the visual effect of, for instance, interlacing round three-y words with pointy four-y ones, or of placing several five-y words, all agleam, in a row.
A classmate called Babak was the first person to whom I showed my sentences. He was his parents' image. They were thin, gentle people who had fled the Ayatollah's Iran several years before for the anonymity of a London suburb; they had recently enrolled their son at my school. Babak was reassuringly unlike the other children, with his thick black hair and crisp English and a head both for words and numbers. In his backyard one warm weekend, sitting opposite me on the grass, he looked up from the Scrabble board to read the crumpled sheet of lined notepaper I was nervously holding out to him.
"Interesting. Is it a poem?"
I sat still, my head down, staring at a spot between the numbered tiles. I could feel his inquisitive brown eyes on me. Finally, I shrugged and said, "I don't know."
"Doesn't matter. It's interesting."
This was also the opinion of my headmaster. How exactly my writing reached him remains, to this day, something of a mystery to me. I was ten. The class had been reading H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds; and, in a state of high excitement induced by the graphic prose, I had been rushing home every day after class to the solitude of my bedroom to write—cautiously, to begin with, then compulsively. Of this story, my first sustained piece of writing, my mind has retained only fragments: winding descriptions of labyrinthine tunnels; outlines of sleek spaceships that blot out the sky; laser guns spending laser bullets, turning the air electric. No dialogue. The story inhabited me, overpowered me. It quickly exceeded every line of every page of every pad of notepaper in the house. So that the first my teacher heard of it was the afternoon, after class, when I blushed crimson and asked whether I might help myself to a roll of the school's computer printout paper. I could, but in exchange I had to confide in her the purpose. The following week, softly, she asked me how the story was coming along. She wanted to see it. I went away and brought back, with difficulty, the many pages filled with my tiny, neat hand to her desk. She said to leave them with her. I hesitated, then agreed. Did she, upon reading the story, decide to urge it upon the headmaster? Or did the headmaster, visiting the teacher or simply passing by, happen on it? However it came to him, one morning during the school assembly, breaking from his usual headmaster patter, he announced that he was going to read an extract from my story to the hall. I hadn't expected that. Not without so much as a word of warning from my teacher! I had never seen the headmaster read aloud a pupil's work. I couldn't bring myself to listen along with the other students. Out of nerves and embarrassment, I put my palms to my ears—it was one of my habits—and fixed my eyes on the whorls of dust on the floor. But after the assembly, children who had never so much as given me the time of day came up and greeted me smilingly, tapping me on the shoulders, saying "Great story" or words to that effect. The headmaster would have awarded my story a prize, he made a point of telling me later in his office, if only he had had such a prize to give. His encouragement was a fine enough substitute, which I treasured. So I was crestfallen when I had to move on to high school soon afterward and, in lieu of deploying my imagination to compose new stories, was made to regurgitate umpteen examination-friendly facts. The talent peeping out from under my shyness and social bewilderment I would have to nourish more or less on my own, I realized, foraging for whatever extracurricular sustenance I might find.
It was among the bookcases of the municipal library that I spent most of my adolescence, as fluent by then in the deciphering of texts as I remained inept in conversation. These years of reading, I see now, were a way of apprenticing myself with voices of wisdom, the multitudinous accents of human experience, listening sedulously to each with my bespectacled eyes. Growing in empathy book by book, from puberty onward I increasingly set aside the illustrated encyclopedias and dictionaries in favor of history books, biographies, and memoirs. I pushed myself to go further still, intellectually and emotionally, into the fatter novels of Adult Fiction.
I was afraid of this kind of fiction. Afraid of feeling lost in the intricacies of a social language I had not mastered (and feared I never might). Afraid that the experience would shake whatever small self-confidence I had. A good part of the fault for this lay on my high school English classes and their "required reading." If Shakespeare—his outlandish characters and strange diction (which we read in a side-by-side translation to contemporary English)—had fascinated me, Dickens had seemed interminable and Hardy's Jude the Obscure very obscure indeed.
But in the municipal library I had the freedom of the shelves. I could browse at my ease. The works I looked at were not the thematic or didactic stories told by wordy, know-it-all narrators that examiners use for their set questions. They were shorter novels by living writers: artfully concise personal reflections on modern life (ranging from the 1950s to the year just past) written by and for a socioeconomic class that was not my own. But for all that, they were approachable. Partly I went to them for the past readers' marginalia—for the crabbed, scribbled words of agreement or annoyance or wonder, which imparted unintended clues to the meaning of a particular sentence or paragraph. Also for the creases and thumbprints and coffee stains on the pages, reminders that books are also social objects—gateways between our internal and external worlds. And partly for the characters' dialogue, their verbal back-and-forth clearly set out and punctuated, integral to the story. So this is how people talk, I would think, as I read. This is what conversation looks like.
And some nights, I dreamed I watched the dialogic patterns converted into my number shapes:
"Twelve seventy one nine two hundred and fifty-seven."
"Two hundred and fifty-seven?"
When I was nearing matriculation from high school, Frau Corkhill, who had been my German teacher for several years, began inviting me over to her house for late-afternoon lessons in conversation—more in English than German.
I sorely needed such practice. Outside of the family, where so much can be meant and understood without even needing to utter a word, I was able to say little that didn't come out sounding clunky, off-topic, or plain odd. For templates I relied mostly on the dialogues I had studied in the library novels; but such schemas, however many I studied, however well performed, would only ever, I came to realize, get me so far. I was almost a young man: the urge to communicate had begun to take on a new charge. One day, in history class, the sight of a new boy brought my thumping heart into my throat, and my attraction compelled me to try to converse with him. I talked and talked, happy to be anxious, but what had looked so good and persuasive on the page of a novel fell flat in my strangled voice, which was unpracticed and monotonous. The courage I'd mustered vanished into mortification. More than mortification. Seven hundred and fifty-seven (a shape which I can only compare to a ginger root): an acute feeling—arising from immense desire to communicate, aligned with a commensurate incapacity to do so—for which English has no precise equivalent.
Frau Corkhill was a short and stout and red-haired woman, at retirement age or thereabouts, and the object of much sniggering from some of the pupil population for her various eccentricities. She ate raw garlic cloves by the bulbful. She wore flower print dresses and fluorescent socks. She merely smiled a bright red lipstick smile and gazed up wistfully at the ceiling when any other teacher would have bawled an undisciplined student out of the room. Such behavior was, in my view, neither here nor there. She doted on me. She was like a grandmother to me. She seemed to intuit the invisible difficulties against which I had fought all through my childhood. I remember the day she gave me her telephone number, an attractive medley of fours and sevens, shortly before I was to change classes. The first three digits after the area code became my nickname for her. Before long, I called and accepted her invitation to the house. Every week for the next year, I rode the red double-decker the twenty or so minutes to her door.
These lessons-slash-discussions with Frau Corkhill were the highlight of my week. She was a woman of infinite patience, a professional at making light of others' mistakes, at correcting by example rather than by admonishment. Her home was a space in which I could talk and exchange without fear of being taken for a conversational klutz. We sat in the living room next to a bay window overlooking the rose garden, on high-backed chairs at a table dressed in a frilly white cloth, a tray and china tea set in its center, like a scene out of a library novel.
We talked about the school, about whatever was in the news. Sometimes we changed language, English to German and back again. Frau Corkhill's English was unique, her accent part German and part Geordie (Corkhill, her married name, is a common surname in northern England). Strange to think, I had not noticed people's accents before. Strange to remember my surprise when a classmate informed me that my pronunciation of th was off (my Cockney father's fault). I had not known to notice.
But now, talking with Frau Corkhill, I understood how many Englishes must exist. Hers, mine: two among countless others.
In writing the story of my formative years in the words I had back in 2005 (I was twenty-six), with feeling but without confidence or high finish, I found my voice. The international success of Born on a Blue Day began a conversation with readers from around the world. Where some British and American critics saw only a one-off "disability genre" memoir, the account of a "numbers wiz," German and Spanish and Brazilian and Japanese readers saw something else, and sent letters urging me to continue writing. Many referred to a closing chapter in which I recounted a public reading I had given at the Museum of the History of Science, in Oxford, in 2004. The subject of my reading was not a book, not the work of any published name, but a number: pi. Over the three preceding wintry months, like an actor analyzing his script, I had rehearsed the number from home, assimilating its unstinting digits by the hundreds of hundreds, until I knew the first 22,514, a European record's worth, by heart. On the fourteenth of March, I narrated this most beautiful of epic poems, an Odyssey or an Iliad composed of numbers, in a performance spanning five hours, to the hall. For the first time in my life I spoke aloud in my numerical language (albeit, necessarily, in English words), at length, passionately, fluently. And if, in the early minutes of my recitation, I worried that the small crowd of curious listeners might comprehend about as much as if I were performing in Chinese, shake their heads, turn their backs on me and leave, all my fears quickly evaporated. As I gathered momentum, acquired rhythm, I sensed the men and women lean forward, alert and rapt. With each pronounced digit their concentration redoubled and silenced competing thoughts. Meditative smiles broadened faces. Some in the audience were even moved to tears. In those numbers I had found the words to express my deepest emotions. In my person, through my breath and body, the numbers spoke to the motley attendees on that bright March morning and afternoon.
The numbers also spoke through the printed page to my far-flung readers, came alive in their minds, regardless of the translation that conveyed them. My lifelong struggle to find my voice, my obsession with language, appeared to them, as it did to me, like a vocation.
I'd written a book and had it published. But it remained unclear whether a young man on the autistic spectrum could have other books in him. No tradition of autistic writing existed (indeed, some thought autistic author a contradiction in terms). I had no models (though, later, I made the discovery that Lewis Carroll—possibly—and Les Murray, the Australian poet and Nobel Prize candidate, to name only two, shared my condition), no material. I was on my own.
But then another reader's letter arrived. It was in French, a language I had studied in high school, from a young Frenchman named Jérôme, who would, in time, become my husband. Through months of thoughtful and playful correspondence, Jérôme and I fell in love. For him, for his country and language, I chose willingly to leave the country and the language I had never felt were mine. We moved to Avignon, then north to Paris, settling among the bistros and bouquinistes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Before Jérôme, I had largely given up on literature. Novels and I had long since parted company. Now, though, in our apartment, surrounded by our books (Jérôme owned many books), we sat together at a brown teak table and, taking turns, read aloud from the French translation of Dostoyevsky's L'Idiot. My voice when I read, as when I had recited the number pi, seemed at once intimate and distant: another voice in mine, enlarging and enriching it. And, as with pi, I understood and became enthralled.
Reading a Russian work in French, I was not invaded by the feeling of foreignness that the pages of English novels had roused in me. On the contrary, I felt at home. I could, at last, read unencumbered by my self-consciousness, solely for the pleasure of learning new words and discovering new worlds. I could read for the sake of reading.
Dostoyevsky's reputation, a powerful intermediary between his work and modern readers, would once have daunted and kept me away. But Dostoyevsky's language proved to be picture perfect. A case in point is the character General Ivolgin, the smell of whose cigar provokes a haughty English lady traveling with her lapdog in the same compartment to pluck the cigar from between his fingers and toss it out the train. Yet the general just sits there, seemingly unfazed by the lady's behavior. Quick as a flash and ever so smoothly, he leans over and chucks her little dog out after his cigar. I remember my voice, in the telling, interrupted by my own shocked laughter, and how my merriment communicated itself to Jérôme and had him in stitches.
It wasn't only Dostoyevsky who could so affect us. In the following months we laughed and gasped over Isaac Babel's short stories. Kawabata's Le Grondement de la Montagne (The Sound of the Mountain)—the tale of an old man's ailing memory—brought tears to my voice. The visual music of Paroles by Jacques Prévert reverberated in my head long after I closed its covers.
Then, one day, as if removing the stabilizers from a child's bicycle, Jérôme ceased to accompany my literary reading. I did not wobble. And, after devouring both tomes of Tolstoy's Guerre et Paix, I tried the Russian master's Anna Karenina in English, and the heroine's passions, Levin's and Kitty's foibles, Vronsky's contradictions all affected me so greatly that I clean forgot the apprehension of my former reading life. Something had worked itself in my head. All literature, I finally realized with a jolt, amounted to an act of translation: a condensing, a sifting, a realignment of the author's thought-world into words. The reassuring corollary—reassuring to a novice writer like myself, just starting out: the translatorese of bad prose could be avoided, provided the words were faithful to the mental pictures the author saw. I had more than one book in me. And each of my subsequent books—a survey of popular neuroscience, a collection of essays inspired by mathematical ideas, a translation/adaptation into French of Les Murray's poetry—was different. Each taught me what my limits weren't. I could do this. And this. And this as well. All the time that I was writing, I was also studying in my after-hours with the UK's distance learning higher education institution, the Open University. In 2016, at the age of thirty-seven, I graduated with a first-class honors bachelor of arts degree in the humanities. I published my first novel that same spring in France.
I have not yet written my last English sentence, despite ten years spent on the continent and despite the increasing distillation of my words from French. That choice, renewed here, is an homage to my British parents and teachers. A recognition, too, of the debt I owe to a language commodious enough even for a voice like mine. English made a foreigner of me, but also a writer. It has become the faithful chronicler of my metamorphosis.
THE LANGUAGE TEACHER
Everything I know about teaching a foreign language, I learned in Lithuania.
It was 1998. I was nineteen, unready for university, full of wanderlust and good intentions. I enrolled in a government-run volunteer program that sent young men and women overseas. I could have been sent to Poland to nanny little Mateuszes and Weronikas or to a clinic in Russia short of file finders or to wash dishes in a hotel who knows where in the Czech Republic or to the British embassy in Slovenia, whose front desk needed manning.
Instead I was dispatched to Lithuania, to the city of Kaunas. I couldn't speak a word of Lithuanian. My innocence of the language didn't seem to matter, though. A young Englishman with passable French and German (Lithuanian bore no relation to either) was apparently sufficient for instructing the job-seeking inhabitants eager to learn English.
I remember taking the airplane from London to the capital city of Vilnius. The thrill of takeoff. To feel airborne! No one in my family had ever flown before. "Head in the clouds," my father had sometimes said of me. And now his words, once a mere expression, had come literally true.
The nations of the former Soviet Union were shown to us in Western newscasts as uniformly gray, dilapidated, Russified. But the Lithuania I arrived in, only a few years after Moscow's tanks had slunk away, had reason for optimism. The population was youngish, new shiny buildings were sprouting up here and there, and, despite fifty years of foreign occupation, Lithuanian habits and customs had lived on.
It took time to adjust. Little shocks of unfamiliarity had to be absorbed. October in London was autumnal; in Kaunas, the cold reminded me of a British winter. Snow was already in the offing. And then there was the funny money, the litas, in which my volunteer stipends were paid. But strangest, in those first days, was the language, so unlike the sounds and rhythms of any other language I had heard. An old man in my apartment block stops me in the stairwell to tell me something keen and musical—what is it? Children in the street sing a song—what is it about? Unintelligible, too, were the headlines and captions the inky newspapers carried. They looked like a secret code. How I wished to work out the cipher!
- "A fascinating journey through language and some of its many varied forms and uses."—Booklist (starred review)
- "Like Oliver Sacks' compendium of rare neurological anomalies, Tammet's intriguing cases of linguistic idiosyncrasies expand our notions on what it means to be human. He gives insight ranging from cultural perception and social dominance, to the features of Esperanto as a universal language. Most fascinating is Tammet's own astonishing linguistic mind, in which a single word evokes fully textured experiences -- an innate ability that would dazzle any storyteller in love with words and their deepest meanings."—Amy Tan
"[An] insightful collection of 15 essays that explore language and its underappreciated nuances... Tammet is generous in his acceptance of many different forms and styles of communication. His essays will be eye-openers for anyone who takes the meaning of words on the printed page for granted."
- "Tammet's voice -- witty, thoughtful and erudite -- pulls readers along. His enthusiasm for language makes such niche topics as Icelandic baby names and the intricacies of L'Academie Francaise fascinating and accessible."—Shelf Awareness
"A cerebral jaunt though spoken, printed, championed and neglected words....Through Tammet's beautifully written explanations of the way his mind comprehends words (many words -- the author speaks 11 languages), readers may discover trapdoors flinging open in their own brains, revealing head-cocking perspectives on how to get one's point across."
- "Tammet takes us on a series of thought-provoking journeys as he probes the depth and intricacies of how language profoundly affects behavior at every social and political level. Through these memoir-like essays, Tammet demonstrates his eclectic approach to an exploration of the richness of language and its profound effect on his own life and those about whom he writes... this whirlwind narrative mirrors the author's polyglot talents... Those interested in language, words, meaning, and sociolinguistics will find this slim volume to be a transforming read. General readers will also find this highly readable work engaging."—Library Journal
- Praise for Thinking in Numbers
—Sarah McCraw Crow, Bookpage
- On Sale
- Oct 16, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little Brown Spark