Feature article appeared in Hermenaut.com, February 14, 2001






FEATURE 2/14/1

Words and Feathers

by Matthew Battles

All things are words in some strange tongue, in thrall
To Someone, Something, who both day and night
Proceeds in endless gibberish to write
The history of the world . . .

—Jorge Luis Borges, "Compass" (trans. by Richard Wilbur)

The alchemical spirit of Rube Goldberg often holds sway over the business of language. In translation especially, we can approach language's enormous simplicities only through insane fabrications. In gnosticism and in the kabbala, this entrancing insanity turns translation into a mystical procedure. Walter Benjamin felt that the truest translations were those which pushed the translator's own language towards the strangeness of the original, bringing it to the edge of a ruined, pre-Babel urSprache. But do languages share the same potential—does each one have a common border with the rest? Or does every language make up a world of games and thoughts which exists apart from other tongues? And if each language is irreperably separate from all others, then aren't the words of each individual speaker alien as well? In what follows, I'll describe three works that are deranged by such questions.

Pueriles Confabulatiunculae: Or Childrens Dialogues, Little Conferences, or talkings together, or little speeches together, or Dialogues fit for children by John Brinsley
(Printed by H.L. for Thomas Man, 1617)

Brinsley was a schoolmaster and education reformer who promoted the use of dialogue in teaching Latin grammar to English schoolchildren. But the modern canon of such hypothetical conversations—asking for directions, sharing a cigarette, ordering a meal—had not evolved in Brinsley's time; most of the dialogues in Pueriles confabulatiunculae take place in a hypothetical, brutal grammar school, while others take place in equally nasty home settings. The various situations are all quite mundane, in strict contrast to the deranged idiom in which they are spoken. Brinsley and Shakespeare are contemporaries, but they do not share a language.

Two copies of the book exist today; its Latin companion has not survived. But the English volume alone makes a complete picture of the world of Brinsley's English: like a bullying impresario of the Word, Brinsley browbeats his English to ape the Latin. He surely felt that his native tongue lacked a certain majesty, an abstract elegance, a givenness that was the unique patrimony of Latin. We can say that his English dialogues introject the Latin; thus do they derange the language. For Brinsley's English, you will see, is anything but majestic.

The page layout of Pueriles is extremely busy and complex; Brinsley places what he deems more florid or problematic word-choices in a marginal column running alongside the text of the dialogues themselves. I've placed those alternate offerings in angle brackets and run them into the text. In the following dialogue, Godfrede (the Master) implores his student Hermane to help him prepare a punishment for his truant classmates. The master's students are entirely absent from school—all but Hermane, the monitor, a real teacher's pet:

G. I see very many to be away, hoe monitor look about .
H. Master it is so.
G. See that you have the names of all who are now away, set downe.
H. In a little booke?
G. Yea in a little paper, which you may give me into my hands.
H. [i will doe it.] It shall be done.
G. In the meane while you shal provide, that I have rods prepared me. [that i have little bundles [or bunches] of limber rods be prepared for me.] If I live today, [if i be lafe,] I will make that you come together more diligently. [it become together of you more studiously.]
H. I wish you to bee secure concerning rods. [i command you to be secure as much as belongeth rods.]
G. You say well.

Brinsley's words suffer from a kind of verbal vertigo, seeking purchase on the brink of the canyon yawning between Latin and English. Terrified by the choices language forces, Brinsley refuses to make them. The alternatives spread out like syrup on a cold plate: "I command you to be secure asmuch as belongeth to rods." The language here is paranoid—painfully aware of its ugly stepsisterhood in relation to the Latin ideal. With Brinsley, language is always swirling back on itself, always afraid of crossing the threshold of uncertainty—and the result is a radical ambivalence.

This paranoia acts itself out in Brinsley's hesitatancy. Any hint of synonymy or ambiguity stops the flow of language, backs it up, and clots it. Brinsley offers choices within his choices; even the most pedestrian alternatives, such as "bundles" for "bunches," are up for grabs. Likewise, the situations of the dialogues never resolve; instead, they tend to spiral in on themselves in circularities: mothers berate their sons for sleeping in, but never manage to get them out of bed, and the discipline of the teachers is thwarted by parodoxical excuses ("But [my] father commanded [me] at home... Will you not, that we obey our parents?"). This swirling paranoia is signalled from the very start; in the title of the book itself, the author is stupefied into synonymy: "Childrens Dialogues, Little Conferences, or talkings together, or little speeches together, or Dialogues fit for children."

The New Guide of the Conversation in Portugese and English by Pedro Carolino. Introduction by Mark Twain
(Osgood and Co. 1883)

Writing in the Wicked Pavilion on 8.18.00, Luc Sante described a strange little book called English as She is Spoke, noting especially its connection to Mark Twain. Grateful for the citation, I wasted no time in tracking down the text in the library stacks. Twain, it turns out, wrote an enthusiastic preface, in which he hailed the New Guide as an immortal classic—not surprising when we consider Twain's attention to dialogue and his finely-tuned ear for the absurd. Twain surely also saw in the New Guide the kind of vulgar tones and rough genius that he thought most righteously offensive to the sensibility of the Brahmin literary elite he both courted and undermined with his work.

In his own preface, author Carolino avers that among English textbooks, "[a] choice of familiar dialogues, clean of gallicisms, and despoiled phrases, it was missing yet to studious portugese and brazilian Youth." He set out, then, to produce one; for all the absurdity of the resulting book, we have no reason to doubt its authenticity. Carolino might even have used Pueriles confabultiunculae as an exemplar, his work is so similar to Brinsley's—only he didn't understand a word of English. Undeterred, he seems to have produced his English textbook by triangulating it with a Portugese-French phrase book and a French-English Dictionary.

Carolino's book contains vocabulary and lists of proverbs and "idiotisms"; it abounds in dialogues, too. Here's a typical exchange:

A. Will you and take a walk with me?
B. It is very hot.
A. Wait for that the warm be out.
B. Where shall we go?
A. Go to the public garden.
B. How will you that we may go it? in the coach, or on foot?
A. On foot, that it is good for the health.
B. Go through that meadow. Who the country is beautiful! Who the trees are thick!
A. That side is pretty well for me to study.
B. Look the walk that it present a good perspective.
A. Sit down us to the shade.
B. Take the bloom's perfume.
A. Make a nosegay.
B. Do you know these ladies who come from our side?
A. It seems to me who they look where to sit down noe's.
B. Leave them this bench.
A. Go the country's side.
B. It seems me that the corn does push alredy.
A. You hear the bird's gurgling?
B. Which pleasure! Which charm!
A. The field has by me a thousand charms.

The language here has an incantatory flavor. Its theological stance, which points to the Personality at work in Nature, is obvious enough in the ejaculation, "Who the country is beautiful! Who the trees are thick!" This religious existentialism is furthered by the perhaps-unintentional reference to Genesis in the query, "Do you know these ladies who come from our side?" The dialogue ends on a note of cheery abundance that would have made John Brinsley wince. "Which pleasure! Which charm!" the second speaker exclaims. But why choose? "The field has by me a thousand charms," his interlocutor explains.

Brinsley's and Carolino's books are startlingly alike. Both authors have the zeal of the missionary: Brinsley goes on about the "promise" he has made to offer his translations, is "afraid to leave any part of [this] promise unperformed," and signs his afterword "thine, still labouring for the common good." And Carolino, too, seems infected with a sense of linguistic public service. As he puts it in his dedication, "We expect then, who the little book (for the care what we wrote him, and for her typographical correction) that may be worth the acceptation of studious persons, and especially of the Youth at which we dedicate him particularly." Both authors sense the unity of the languages which underlies their equally real incommensurability, an antimony which deranges the learner (and Brinsley notes how easily schoolchildren may "learn barbarism in our own tong... while they seek to get the Latine"). It is in this recognition that their projects share a prophetic fervor; they need to shout out the news about the derangement of language. They share this sense of didacticism with our third author, a latter-day San Francisco cabdriver whose web site offers techniques with which speakers might defend themselves from the insanity of language—by actively deranging their own words.

Non-escalating Verbal Self-Defense Web site by Richard Ames Hart, with art by Amoret Sprunt Phillips.

Richard Ames Hart sees language as a system of insults. People use language to tear one another apart, to destroy and to dominate. The answer, the safe course, lies in responding to people in ways that short-circuit the derangement and dis-integration they seek for you. He sums up his "theory of human communication" as follows: "When communication goes wrong, you can see you have been tricked into being a child."

Hart, then, offers a kind of verbal Aikido designed to prevent other people from turning you into dialogic child. His system taxonomizes verbal attacks with the rigor and specifity of medieval manuals of rhetoric. Indeed, he derives precisely half of his types of verbal attack from the fallacies of classical rhetoric; Petitio principii and a Fortiori argument are mixed in with "snobbery." There are 88 of these "Informal Fallacies" in Hart's system; each one has its own "Stargate" leading to a suite of responses designed to redirect the enemy's verbal energy to positive uses. These cross-reference against the twenty-two types of verbal aggressive persons, corresponding to the twenty-two major arcana of the Tarot deck. The grand scheme that ties these elements together is the notion of the sesshin byooin, or Japanese mental hospital, in which the attackers are the patients and we, their supposed victims, become the doctors. Taken as a whole, Hart's vast idiosincracy produces nothing less than a database of language derangment.

It's time for a lesson. Any response to an insult consists of a "bridge" and a "follow-up," as follows: Somebody says to you, "Don't give me that look." Cooly, you bridge him, saying, "Hidden away." Then, when his eyes begin to boggle, you follow-up smoothly saying "You're doing really good, and I'm going to give you a big raise."

There's more—thousands of possible blocks and parries. Each day Hart offers a new set of exemplary insults, to which readers are challenged to respond. The correct answers appear the following day: the archived mini-dialogues snake down the home page, a bright column of viciousness answered with placid lunacy:

A. You're sounding a little desperate because you're trying to build yourself up by tearing everybody else down.
B. Quite unnecessary.
That's a little misleading, isn't it?

A. Do you have to incite them? [To get people to be mean]
B. Quite unnecessary.
I don't do that—I just do good work.

A. I haven't offended you, have I?
B. Completely different.
Not this side of paradise.

You're right if you're thinking, this is the idiom of the homeless and the mentally-ill—the paranoid literary mode has rarely been expressed more copiously or with greater sophistication and rigor than it is here. Hart's system has a kind of loony, lapidary complexity in its striving to express the insane antimomies of language. It's a kind outsider-intellectual magnum opus, the literary counterpart of capacious cokebottle sculpture parks and roadside topiary gardens —a monument and a life's labor, flowing from an utterly individual mixture of mania and genius.

Surely we can say this is true as well for the dialogues of Brinsley and Carolino—although the two approach language from the opposite poles. Brinsley's words cluster at the brink of gibberish and unmeaning; Carolino's, by contrast, surrender themselves to a glossolalia that would sew the shreds of language after Babel into a crazy quilt. And then there is Hart, who knows that insults are uttered by strangers—even if they are our intimates, at the moment of insult they instantiate our estrangement. And what is a stranger but a foreigner, who speaks to us in a barbarous tongue? Alien languages are already vaguely reprehensible, as any vulgar linguistic purist will attest. As George Steiner (no vulgar linguistic purist) puts it in After Babel, "To the baffled ear, the incomprehensible parley of neighboring peoples is gibberish or suspected insult." And this may be true whether those neighbors are on the other side of the mountain, or across the aisle on the subway.

* * * * *

Wittgenstein knew the gulf between the surface grammar of language and the depth of the operations from which its springs. In his famous aphorism, "what we cannot speak we must pass over in silence," he recognizes the numinous abyss of the unsayable across which languages stretch like so many bridges of twine. It's in this regard, perhaps, that we can understand the nature of Hart's "bridges." He traps his enemy out there on a swinging rope, and then offers him a hand—a hand with a buzzer in it. But Hart isn't alone here; Brinsley and Carolino each sense the plunging abyss as well. At the edge of the meaning-hole, they behave like the three monkeys: Brinsley will see no evil—his paranoia makes his words into a screen, a tangled weave so dense it admits neither light nor darkness. Carolino hears no evil—he plunges ahead, tumbling gaily over the lip of unmeaning; he doesn't even know he's falling. And Hart, so colossally aware of the abyss, will speak no evil. "Big hit!" he says. "It's better to do nothing."

* * * * *

What's the literary potential of our authors' paranoia? Can we imagine Gloucester's opening soliloquy in Richard III, as done by Carolino?

As to now, his winter of ours discontent
made glorious for his sun of summer of York;
all hers clouds that they had
lowered in top of our house
in bosom deep of her ocean had embedded.
So now our foreheads limited with wreaths victorious
Our forearms bruised had hung above stop monuments.

But Brinsley is Shakespeare's contemporary; how would he have handled Anne and Richard's tortured dialogue later in the same play? Let's go to Act I Scene II:

Anne: Villain, thou comprehendeth not with regards to human men nor God [without having vnderstanding art thou] concerning laws; fierce beasts are none who toucheth pitie not.
Glou: But I am without knowledge therefore [i owneth not such an vnderstanding], so trewly am vncomported in beastly wise.
Anne: O wonderful, when devils are given to telling truly [verily to sayeth]!
Glou: How more wonderful, when angels are given angrily to be [have anger concerning such].

Later in the same tête-à-tête, Anne barrages Richard with insults. Taking a lesson from Richard Ames Hart, The Duke of Gloucester could defuse Anne's verbal attack and win her to his rascally ways:

Anne: He is in heaven, where thou shalt never come.
Glou: Anytime, right?—I won't tell if you won't tell.
Anne: And thou unfit for any place but hell.
Glou: Big time!—It's fate.

* * * * *

Rabelais and Swift are the great masters of macaronic literature, in which languages are commingled to comic effect. But the macaronic can be a mode of everyday discourse as well: Martin Luther, for one, was known to speak in a highly idiosyncratic confusion of Latin and German understood by few outside his family and his circle of students; Medieval English friars shared a tradition of delivering sermons in a murky, idiomatic pudding of English and Vulgate. In our own time, the occult vitality of various creoles and the pop importance of "Spanglish" attest to the copious promiscuity of languages. Whether comic or quotidian, however, language-mingling may expresses an anxiety which at times froths into a paranoid-delusive derangement of meaning. In a nervous time like our own, perhaps, such works may speak to us with special force. Can we take our three authors, put a feather in their caps, and call them macaronis? As Carolino puts it in one of his idiotisms, "Words and feathers the wind carry them."



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Illustration by Amoret Phillips / taxi1010.com