Every Word Is A Bird We Teach To Sing by Daniel Tammet

every word.jpgTitle: Every Word Is A Bird We Teach To Sing

Author: Daniel Tammet

Genre: Essays. Non-Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 29th August, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages:275

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: A mind-expanding, deeply humane tour of language(s) – and those who speak, study, and invent them – by the bestselling author of BORN ON A BLUE DAY and THINKING IN NUMBERS.

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 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.

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In a series of essays. Daniel Tammet tells a story of language, of what language means to different people, and how his high functioning autistic savant syndrome and early childhood epilepsy shaped his understanding of language. To Daniel, in these early years, words were numbers, that evolved into images, in a way that only he could understand, and from there, he journeyed across the world, experiencing how other languages dealt with names, with sign language and lip reading, and the differing ways the Deaf community viewed themselves and experienced the world and their culture, and how language can define us, define our place in society and the world. Daniel’s essays explore why certain names are banned in Iceland, and the talking clocks of the Nahua. His focus on languages and how they evolved and sit alongside each other is often compared to British English, usually pointing out subtle differences in how they work, and offering explanations for the uninitiated in other forms of language an understanding of these differences. The essays investigate the power of language and how our use of the language or languages we know admit us to certain aspects of the world and our culture, or exclude us, or at least, limit our understanding, and may require us to have some help – through out his journey, Daniel had help from people who spoke and used languages he was unfamiliar with, but his keen interest in how language worked helped him to come to understandings and ultimately, write this book of essays.

The patterns and the music that words make are how we teach words to sing, how each word, as one essay ends, is a bird we teach to sing. The beauty of Daniel’s books lies in his interest in language, not only how it works for him and operates for him, but how it operates, works and makes meaning for others and their language. It is the mysteries of language that appeal to Daniel, and as a reader, they appeal to me to. The way one author writes, for example, is unique from every other author, and every individual experiences language differently. It could be visual, either sign language or seeing the shape of a word – something that as a writer I can relate to as sometimes the image of a word appears before the actual word itself, although in my case, this depends on the word, and not every word has an image, sound, colour or number attached to it as it might with others, who experience language through synaesthesia – which will manifest differently for those with that language experience.

Daniel has some interesting experiences with language and linguistics across the world, including the differentiation between deaf with a small d and Deaf – the former indicates, in Daniel’s work, those who are deaf but do not fully associate with Deaf culture, whereas Deaf is said to be more about the community and the essay this is in discusses sign language, cochlear implants and how children who grow up in mostly hearing families adapt and learn language differently to children who learn to sign early on. Daniel balances these, I felt, in a way that anyone can understand as he does with his other essays, and shows the importance of language to the hearing and non-hearing communities, and how different people identify within subcultures and communities as well as the larger, wider communities they are a part of.

Presented in short essays rather than a lengthy narrative style, I read these essays in order, but they are not interconnected, other than through the theme of language and linguistics, and could possibly be read out of order or consecutively – either will, I think, allow the reader to appreciate the book and experience it in a way that works for them, which connects to the theme of language and the operation of language through the world and its various countries and communities, and the theme of communication in written, spoken and visual forms that differ from person to person as well.

Interweaving his journey of reading and his experiences with the facts gave a human face to the story – Daniel’s written expression is lovely, and easy to understand. It is not complex, but there are levels of complexity. He has written for a broad audience and I hope future readers can gain as much as I have from this collection of essays.

This was a very interesting book; an exploration into language and its mysteries is always interesting and provides a deeper understanding of language for us. It allows a wider world of language to be opened up and explored, and understood, where previously, we may not have understood beyond our own linguistic experiences. This book would be of interest to anyone with an interest in language, and linguistic students, and will hopefully be something useful to students of linguistics to broaden their understanding of how language operates in the world beyond what they know.

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The Word Detective by John Simpson

 

 

Title: The Word Detective: A Life in Words from Serendipity to Selfieworddetective

Author: John Simpson

Genre: Non-fiction

Publisher: Little Brown/Hachette

Published: 11th October 2016

Format: paperback

Pages: 366

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Language is always changing. No one knows where it is going but the best way to future-cast is to look at the past. John Simpson animates for us a tradition of researching and editing, showing us both the technical lexicography needed to understand a word, and the careful poetry needed to construct its definition. He challenges both the idea that dictionaries are definitive, and the notion that language is falling apart. With a sense of humour, an ability to laugh at bureaucracy and an inclination to question the status quo, John Simpson gives life to the colourful characters at the OED and to the English language itself. He splices his stories with entertaining and erudite diversions into the history and origin of words such as ‘kangaroo’, ‘hot-dog’, ‘pommie’, ‘bicycle’, not ignoring those swearwords often classed as ‘Anglo-Saxon’! The book will speak to anyone who uses a dictionary, ‘word people’, history lovers, students and parents.

 

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Words are what make us human. They create societies, cultures and nations, and in turn, are also created by societies, cultures and nations. Within each of these groups, sub-groups emerge that develop their own linguistic patterns and dialects, their own words that signify membership to these groups, and that can perhaps exclude those who are not part of these groups. As humans, we are all part of different groups and sub-groups that have shared and non-shared words and language that help us identify with people we have things in common with.

As language can unite and divide us in many ways, understanding each other was a lot harder before the advent of dictionaries. One person using a word may have used it to the exclusion of others, and been smug in the knowledge that only a select few will understand. The advent of a dictionary that all could access has changed things.

Since its humble beginnings in Victorian Times, the Oxford English dictionary has endeavoured to include as many words and their origins as possible. Over the years it has evolved, and it perhaps saw a fair amount of evolution during John Simpson’s thirty-seven years there, from 1976, where he started as a reader, helping compile words to investigate and include, to his time as chief editor, when the dictionary began to enter the digital age, first being compiled on CD ROMS, and eventually, though slowly, moving towards the Internet.

The Word Detective is John Simpson’s journey with the dictionary over the years and the developments, from working out possible new words, to establishing partnerships with the US, Australia and New Zealand, and tracing origins of words from those nations for inclusion, to talks with European counterparts about finding ways to protect European languages and allow cross-cultural and international communication at the same time. Through his journey with words, John also delves into a few personal anecdotes about his family that he links to his love of language and words, and what this meant for his second daughter, who never learnt to talk. John’s high regard for words shines through, and while he marvels at some words and developments, he laments the struggle with some words of finding an origin, and the administrative side wanting to save money.

In his role as a lexicographer, John also describes the process he implemented to recruit new lexicographers, stating that a love of words would simply not be enough. His efforts to move with the times, but also keep traditional methods of working alongside the new ones made for an interesting read. How does someone who has seen so much change, and often in rapid succession over the final years of their tenure, decide how to proceed? In keeping the old and the new, John gave his team the opportunity to learn both methods, where they could use one or the other, use them together or even have a back-up with the manual system should there be a temporary technological glitch – something anyone working with computers must keep in mind.

There were a few amusing anecdotes in relation to some words and phrases. One such phrase was couch potato. Around 2000, this word was put forth for inclusion. When this happened, there was a small demonstration by the British Potato Council. They were protesting the inclusion of the phrase in the dictionary because it was derogatory to the poor potatoes who could not stand up for themselves. As John tells it, the argument was peaceful and civilised, and the whole issue died down after the company received the publicity it was after. With the inclusion of the couch potato entry, the OED settled back down into their lexicographical den.

Reading this story was intriguing and eye-opening. It opened up the world of lexicography and dictionary compilation to the reader, and made me realise that the dictionary did not just appear out of nowhere, that there has been decades, centuries even, of hard work going into compiling words – relevant and irrelevant, used and unused into a book or online resource for everyone to use when necessary. A fascinating read, especially if you are interested in the development of language.