Thursday, 15 September 2011


07:39:00 Posted by Damp incendiary device , , , , , , 5 comments
There's a piece of music which, when it comes on the radio, often makes me pause in what I am doing and listen. It's Karl Jenkins' Adiemus which is the first track on the album Songs of Sanctuary. This album is part of a series of albums which go under the collective title of Adiemus. It's a vocal piece but doesn't contain words which you can find in a dictionary. The words were created by Jenkins to frame the voice. The words tend to end in vowels, much like the Japanese or Italian language, to allow the sound to carry rather than being cut off by the hard stop of a consonant. As there is no written conceptual framework for his language, it cannot be tied down to specific definitions. It does, however, evoke a response in the listener. Before I was aware that the language was created I believed it was in an African dialect and I imagined that the words had a joyful meaning to them. This perception is in part down to the music which accompanies the words but also in the sounds of the words themselves. The phonic qualities come with pre-loaded associations, specific to each individual hearing them and based on their cultural knowledge and understanding.

There's a poem by Charles Bernstein, A Defense of Poetry which is composed almost entirely of words which are spelt, and pronounced, incorrectly. In the poem, if I interpret it correctly, Bernstein is drawing attention to the shades of grey which exist in our interpretation of language and meaning. He says:

We have preshpas a blurrig of sense, whih
means not relying on convnetionally
methods of conveying sense but whih may
aloow for dar greater sense-smakihn

There is a differentiation, a dualistic perception of language, which creates a hierarchy of understanding. Any poet knows the power that words contain within their culture. This is why we edit. We remove words which lack sufficient value, replace them with alternatives which have greater impact or a more precise definition. The more complex and 'expensive' our language, however, the smaller the audience which will comprehend its meaning. Simplification creates a clearer picture, but might lack clarity or spectacle.

The metaphor is deemed one of the most precious commodities which a poet possesses. They are jealously guarded and, as Steve Stroud pointed out last week, collected. Metaphors are what made Shakespeare one of the most sublime writers the English language has known. In terms of lucrative words, he was a trillionaire. Metaphors are also one of the reasons many newcomers to his work find it inaccessible.

Asperger Syndrome is a condition on the Autism spectrum. One of the symptoms of Aspergers is the inability to understand metaphor which stems from the tendency to take comments literally, being unable to derive a second layer of meaning. A lack of ability with language leads to the diagnosis of a behavioural disorder. For this group, language is costly indeed. It is estimated that between 1 and 4% of people have Asperger Syndrome.

Language, like our culture, is split into the 'have's and the 'have not's. Much like the material commodities which line the pockets of the wealthy, language can be said to enrich the lives of those who enjoy it in abundance. Owning the right words, the proper accent can open doors, can raise prospects. However, that is not to say that a lack of wealth, a lack of linguistic understanding, is a signifier of poverty per se. Just as the majority of us, in this culture, get by from day to day with enough to get by and perhaps a little besides, so those with a narrow vocabulary are perfectly able to express themselves and glean value from their language. Where there is a danger is when the financial situation becomes depressed, when those who are getting by find that suddently they are failing to pay the rent. When public services which are utilised by the poorest are removed, then the hierarchy becomes a trap. When education becomes unaffordable and schools become academies which are run as businesses, able to sift out the brightest students for profit, then language and understanding become the reserve of a few rather than the pleasure of the majority.

On behalf of our children who are threatened with linguistic poverty I want to make it clear. This shall not be.

Nonsense and neologisms, slang and dialect form the base of some of the best writing. These features come from the roots. They are born from adversity and resistance.

Language is a commodity and like any commodity, its value is affected by demand. Shakespeare is valuable but it is specialised language. Some knowledge is required to open it up, to make it enjoyable. Metaphor is exquisite but it is not accessible to everyone. Nonsense is designed to be misunderstood, and so allows a variety of interpretations. New language, created for the purpose of expressing the voice is accessible by everyone.

Let's not partition our language, knowing its value and selfishly guarding it. Let's make it available to any who would own it. Leave it hanging from the lowest branches, painted on a wall, posted on a blog. Passing on the wealth of words is easy because it never diminishes the store, it only increases it. And remember, there are hidden troves of riches to be found in nonsense for those who care to dig.


Ashley R Lister said...



Nikki Magennis said...

Brilliant. Thanks.

Lindsay said...

Very true Vicky, well said. Language should not be used as a badge of superiority. I do believe we share the same lefty leanings ;)

Ste said...

Hi Vicky - this made me think of so many things I can't post them all! I agree completely though, especially about Ownership of language. Took me right back to sociolinguistics with Kay and learning that quote, 'a language is a dialect with an army' So many people tell me I should use better grammar because I have a southern accent and the ability to talk 'proper' English. I reply that my 'bad' grammar is a linguistic resistance against the dominant cultural hegemony of snobbery :) I love the sound of 'Adeimus' as well - sounds very like what Sigur Ros do, who are a massive inspiration for me - I shall look said track forthwith, posthaste and with much impetus - loved your post x

Ste said...

Or even look up said track :)