Recollections of the Polyglot Gathering Berlin 2014

Regular readers of my blog will have noticed a distinct lack of posts in the past month or so. This wasn’t due to laziness on my part, but rather that I was  extremely busy with, first helping to organise the Polyglot Gathering Berlin (I produced the booklet), and then actually attending the event. It’s one week since it finished and what better way to end my blog-writing hiatus than with some thoughts and impressions from Berlin.



First some background. Richard Simcott and Luca Lampariello, two well-known internet language enthusiasts, organised the inaugural Polyglot Conference 2013 in beautiful Budapest. Though I didn’t attend that event, it was by all accounts a huge success, and so inspired, Judith Meyer (herself an accomplished polyglot) decided to organise a companion event for 2014, and so the Polyglot Gathering Berlin was conceived.


I attended so many truly excellent presentations that they are in fact too numerous to list here. Here’s a sample:

Dr. Michele Gazzola – surely a polyglot gathering is one of the few places that you could have a speaker scheduled to talk about language & politics unfortunately pull out at short notice, only to find that another such expert is in the room and with a presentation virtually ready to go? To everyone’s immense gratitude, Dr. Michele Gazzola delivered a very persuasive and data-driven talk on the necessity of the EU continuing its full multilingual policy for official documents. This narrow topic broadened into a full discussion of what it means for political bodies to represent their citizen members, a core part of democracy.

Emiel Visser – there were a number of excellent overview courses of different languages at the Gathering. I very much enjoyed Emiel Visser’s systematic and thorough overview of the Japanese language, including the writing system, pronunciation, basic syntax and information on various learning resources. I knew the writing system was difficult, but had not appreciated just how multifaceted it actually is. I’m intimidated and intrigued in equal measure. However, as I enjoy writing haikus, not to mention Japanese cinema, I feel that someday it might be nice to learn to read the original versions of these wonderful poems, or at least begin to appreciate how they function in the original Japanese. It could be a long road.

Simon Ager who runs the impressively comprehensive, an online encyclopaedia of writing systems & languages, gave a talk that in my mind was a useful companion piece to Michele Gazzola’s presentation. In his talk he gave some shocking examples of the poor treatment of speakers of minority languages by speakers of the majority language, as well as an insightful exploration of the various tensions and conflicts that can prevent a minority language speaker passing on their language. These human examples lend emotional weight to the more pragmatic considerations of Dr. Gazzola. As Simon explained, some languages, such as Hebrew, have managed to rise again, though it’s far from a straightforward process and can give rise to disagreements about just what the language is when it is revived, as has happened in the case of Cornish. Sadly, from the statistics he presented, it’s clear that many minority languages will disappear without trace.

Alex Rawlings, who to his credit gave two talks at the Gathering, provided his audience with some useful ways to approach higher-level language learning using literature. One tip is to only look up a word when it has appeared four or five times in relatively quick succession. I was particularly drawn to this talk because of the focus on literature, which, as I’ve written before, was what drew me back into language learning after so many years away from it. It didn’t hurt that he gave a short reading in German of another of my favourite authors, in this case the opening from Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Prof. Bernard Comrie gave a fascinating talk covering his career in linguistics, including a rundown of all the various ways that languages represent numbers & counting. Having ten fingers seems to suggest that base 10 is the one obvious and logical choice for counting, but I realised that’s just a lack of imagination on my part. Why not count fingers and then your wrist, elbow, shoulder, chest, and back down the other side?

Richard Simcott who, aside from his impressive achievements in language learning (see this video from the conference for an example), is also a genuinely all-round nice guy, gave an insight into his daily routine and how he manages “to sneak” multiple languages in there everyday. To top it all, he’s still learning new ones, including what possibly became the conference’s favourite and most talked about conlang, Toki Pona.

The best thing though, is that the majority of the talks were recorded and will be uploaded onto YouTube in due course. I’m looking forward to catching up on the sessions I missed and rewatching my favourites.

Personal note

Of course, this gathering wasn’t only about sitting in lecture rooms listening to presentations. It was supposed to be fun, not work, and there was plenty of time available for mingling with language learners from around the world, everybody sharing life stories, language tips and aspects of their own culture. Again there are too many moments to mention, but a few highlights include meeting Andrew Williams who has lived his life assiduously following his father’s advice to study one new language every year. He’s somewhere around language number 60 now, and yet ever so humble. Meeting people like that really does alter your perspective on just what is possible if you apply sufficient time and dedication to a pursuit. His personal encouragement has meant that I’m finally starting to learn Farsi (and making rash promises about it too. Is it possible to be too inspired? That’s a story for another time).

Another highlight was getting to meet Olly Richards of I Will Teach You a Language. Olly and I have corresponded a little regarding blogging and when I was putting together the conference booklet, and I even recently contributed to an article of his about difficulties in language learning. As the cliche has it, it was good to put a face to a name. Even though we’re able now to meet people through the internet, sometimes becoming very good friends, there’s still nothing quite like that eventual meeting in person.

On that theme, I find it incredibly uplifting that a conference this long, varied and successful, was organised by a team of people who’ve assembled through the internet. In my case the first time I actually met my co-organisers was when I arrived at the A & O Hostel on Saturday 14th June. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them all for their hard work, I can say without hesitation that it was worth it! I just hope they have had a good rest because…

…in news to warm the hearts of language lovers everywhere, Judith has just announced that there will be a Polyglot Gathering 2015. I can hardly wait! Now where did I put that Farsi textbook?

In my next post I’ll be writing about a small publishing house that I am certain will be of interest to anyone who loves both literature and languages.


Trees Are Made Of Air

We are stardust.
Billion year old carbon.
We are golden

as Joni Mitchell famously sang in her song Woodstock, a beautiful piece of poetry that contains a scientific truth.

In the following short video, we see the opposite, as the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Fenyman produces poetry out of scientific exposition.

In his explanation of how trees grow he says “they come out of the air”, the carbon, the water, almost everything they need to grow comes from the atmosphere; trees are made of air.

Then in the reverse process, piled up in the wood-burning stove or fireplace, the flames that we see, that spectral light and heat, “That’s the light and heat of the sun that went in… it’s stored sun.” A tender truth to warm the heart and what beautiful ways to look at everyday things.

Inch Forward To A Metric Language

In Tom Sharpe’s grotesque yet hilarious novel The Throwback, the protagonist Lockhart must find his natural father and, in order to fully meet the terms of his grandfather’s will, flog the man to within an inch of his life. With a suspect at hand and gagged, the officiators of the will begin to debate the practical meaning of the will’s instructions.

‘An inch of life,’ said Dr Magrew, ‘leaves us in fact two inches to play with, one before death and one after.’

After much humorous discussion, the solution is reached, and a crime scene outline is drawn on the wall around the soon-to-be victim, at the precise distance of one inch from the body.

‘Lockhart, my boy, you may go ahead and flog the wall up to the pencil line and you will have flogged the man to within an inch of his life.’

An inch of his life. Don’t give an inch. To inch our way forward. Inch by inch. In these metric times, though time itself is not yet that, perhaps these Imperial nouns and verbs should give way to their modern, metric descendants.

Lockhart must thrash the man to within a centimetre of his life, never giving a centimetre. A centimetre is shorter than an inch, we have short-changed our language, diminished the story, perhaps we should have used an exact conversion. We 2.54-centimetre our way forward to a solution, 2.54-centimetres by 2.54-centimetres. Taking the definition of a metre from the 17th General Conference on Weights and Measures, we can even say that Lockhart must flog his father to within 0.0254 of the distance travelled by light in a vacuum during the time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Completely modern and scientific language. Progress. On second thoughts, maybe not.

Due Care and Attention

This birthday cake is literally as big as a house!

Assuming that Heston Blumenthal were not involved in the baking, the cake is almost certainly of standard proportions. It’s an oft-lamented and well-noted abuse of language, the use of literally when figuratively were the correct choice of word, thought it’s worth noting that the noting of such has apparently done little good. I confess to feeling annoyance too, but I do my best to remember that I probably also transgress other rules of grammar and meaning, offences of which I remain ignorant. Matthew (the safety conscious) 7:3.

The example I gave above, no harm done, but imagine if our imaginary speaker had said, “I’m literally going to kill you!” We may perhaps assume from the context of the speaker themselves that they don’t mean it literally, but then we also shouldn’t prejudge their character, so perhaps we should assume that they mean it after all. If so, our actions should be appropriate to the situation. Whatever their subsequent denials, the semantic cat is out of the bag and he won’t go back in without a fight. Get the antiseptic at the ready.

It is held that ignorantia juris non excusat, that is, ignorance of the law does not excuse. My question is, if ignorance of the law is no defence, then is ignorance of language no defence either? If you were to utter the threat above, should you be arrested for making credible threats of violence? Or perhaps we could institute some lesser offence – talking without due care and attention?

Mr & Mrs Smmc

Nowadays, particularly living in a large city, it’s hard to imagine a time when one’s profession was a unique enough identifier to be the source of a surname. Cooper – your maker of barrels and other wooden vessels, not to mention his assistant Hooper. Fletcher – arrow-maker and medieval arms dealer. Butcher – your go-to guy for the slicing and dicing of tasty, dead animals. Smith – the basher and shaper of heated metal. All reasonable and logical enough, though I think the Kings were probably getting a bit ahead of themselves.

Even though the English language as a whole is ever-changing – new words and grammar brought in and others dispensed with by the language’s capricious users – surnames are staunch hold-outs from the past. Perhaps that’s a reason to treasure them, they provide a link to our history, which the popularity of genealogy-as-hobby surely shows is something we value. However, let’s suppose we wanted to refresh this aspect of the language too and bring it into line with modern circumstances.

One option is to do as they did before and base them on current job areas. Consultant. Actuary. Programmer. The problem is that maybe there are now too few job areas to usefully name everyone. So, we could be more specific, for example, social media marketing consultant or the infamous and barely-fictional self-facilitating media node. For those reluctant to completely rid ourselves of the historical connection, as a compromise position we could artificially age these words with some retro spelling: actuary, now actuaerie.

This process of going from an occupation to a personal identifier is one of the principal functions of language – the naming of things. Perhaps now is the time for names, or our naming of things, to give something back to language? Some of these names, in their multi-word form could get long-winded and tedious, so let’s abbreviate. Social Media Marketing Consultant: SMMC. Primary school teacher: PST. Self-facilitating media node: SFMN. Ignoring capitalisation convention in the name of innovation we arrive at Mr Smmc, Miss Pst, and Mrs Sfmn. Hard to pronounce, agreed, but they’re new words, a contribution to the language and as Wittgenstein said:

A new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion.

They might look like nothing now, but from them could sprout fresh, new argument.

“A Half-Forgotten Book of Erotic Memoirs”

What would be a shame is if this erudite and hilarious sketch by Fry and Laurie were to become half, or worse, fully-forgotten. Not just a parody of a certain kind of intellectual television show, it contains a wonderful monologue that is both about, and itself embodies, the sheer delight of language. “A Half-Forgotten Book of Erotic Memoirs” is one such treasure contained therein. I won’t spoil anymore of them, but merely insist that you watch for yourselves.

Finally, thanks to everyone for reading my blog over the past year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

Player Piano, Player Reader?

Every time Conlon punched a hole, the world got more interesting.

So said Robert Willey of the 20th-century composer Conlon Nancarrow, and what a beautiful thing that is to say of an artist. Would that someone might say the same of us and our work.

Nancarrow, an American composer, spent much of his life in self-imposed exile in Mexico due to his far-left political beliefs, and gained renown – in the world of classical music at least – for his innovative use of player pianos. These are the pianos that “play themselves”, with the music fed in on rolls of paper that’s pock-marked with encoded musical notation. For a surprisingly funky example that provides context for the rest of the article, I highly recommend that you listen to the following one of his compositions:

As you will have just heard, Nancarrow exploits the possibilities afforded by the player piano to produce fiendishly complex rhythms and staggering polyphony, to an extent which would lead to broken digits and mental breakdown if attempted by a living pianist.

But that’s just the beginning, what I’m really interested in is the following question: is there an analogue, or something close to it, in literature for the music and compositional technique of Conlon Nancarrow?

To begin to answer that, it’s necessary to understand what it is that his approach to composition and performance allows, and it seems to me that, aside from highly music specific aspects, there are two main effects.

  1. It removes the possibility of interpretation by the performer; the composer’s word is now final.
  2. It allows the music to possess a complexity of sound that would otherwise be difficult, or impossible, to obtain through normal means.

These things taken together, along with his rhythmic innovations, give us a new kind of music. How might we do something similar for literature?

For music, the performer and listener are separate roles, but for literature, the reader is working overtime in two jobs. When they bring the text to life beyond what’s stated on the page they are both performing and listening, more or less simultaneously.

Therefore, tackling point one, one possible analogue is to have it such that every single thing in the sentence, every symbol, reference and allusion is explained as fully as possible, in an attempt (futile, but still) to remove the possibility of any incorrect interpretation on the part of the reader.

Another is to remove any emotion and interpretation by producing a speech-synthesised recording of the text. But this kind of electronic reproduction allows for further innovation and refers to point two – in a similar way to Nancarrow, we could use this synthesised speech to overlay multiple strands of speech and narration, which no longer necessarily obey the rules of etiquette, and now refuse to wait for one to finish before entering with their own contribution. Cacophony it could be, also confusing, nauseating or breathtaking. Finally, we could deploy a combination of these two effects: complex multi-layered speech and narration, accompanied by the exhaustive authorial exposition.

It’s likely, almost certain in fact, that some of these suggestions will sound horrific or merely redundant, but then to an ear accustomed to more traditional modes of music, Nancarrow’s can feel claustrophobic and bewildering at first, but there’s no doubting its place in the canon. Equally there is surely space for these other methods of writing and storytelling.

In this post, I’ve only begun to suggest and hint at possibilities, but the judgement of their success can only be made by recourse to some concrete examples. To that end, in the next couple of weeks I’ll be uploading a few of my attempts to capture something of Nancarrow’s music in the “written” form. I welcome your feedback and hope that we can have a fascinating debate on the topic.

An Incisive Remark About Samuel Beckett

He believes in the cadence, the comma, the bite of word on reality, whatever else he believes; and his devotion to them, he  makes clear, is a sufficient focus for the reader’s attention. In the modern history of literature he is a unique moral figure, not a dreamer of rose-gardens but a cultivator of what will grow in the waste land…

The critic Hugh Kenner on Samuel Beckett (quoted on the cover of Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works).

“The bite of word on reality”. Is there a more incisive or lucid piece of criticism than that? And one so neatly expressed at that. It evokes a certain vitality of words, which possess a visceral danger when let loose to describe our world.

Cover of The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett


The word association it provokes is insightful too. Bite. Teeth. Incisors. Incision. Cut. With words, he cuts open the world, peeling back the layers, to reveal both the glorious complexity and terrifying gore.

But most of all, contained within this quote is the suggestion that the world, that reality, will show the bite marks and forever bear the scars of its mediation through Beckett. Read him, and things won’t ever seem quite the same again.

Review: The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Some authors seem to have a few principal obsessions, which they repeatedly examine in their novels. In the case of Diego Marani, author of New Finnish Grammar, these obsessions are language and identity. Luckily there are readers who share these obsessions, and I count myself in their number. In his enjoyable new novel, The Last of the Vostyachs, Marani once again explores the relationship between the Finnish language and the national identity of the Finnish people. Given this thematic similarity, it only seems natural, if not unavoidable, to review Vostyachs by making some reference to New Finnish Grammar.

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani (Dedalus)

If the underlying theme in the two books is the same, the presentation is certainly different; Vostyachs is in many ways a straightforward crime novel. Ivan, a mute, is the last of the Vostyachs and hence the last remaining (potential) speaker of his language. He is encouraged to speak once again by the academic Olga Pavlovna, who has discovered that in Ivan’s language lies a host of treasures. Contacting her old colleague and previous collaborator, Prof. Jarmo Aurtova, she reveals her exciting discovery, and in a classic set-up delivers her linguistic charge to the care of this villain.

Aurtova, it is revealed, is an adulterer, a serial womaniser and a ruthlessly-ambitious personality, which are perhaps not the best characteristics for someone taking sole care of a bewildered man unused to the city and the ways of its people. For Ivan constitutes evidence of a link between the Finnic and Eskimo-Aleut languages, possibly even those spoken by Native Americans, all of which sits in direct contradiction to Aurtova’s painstakingly-constructed theory of Finnish linguistic development. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader that the obliteration of his thesis is untenable to Aurtova and, no matter what the cost, even murder, he will not allow his work, his obsession, to be disrupted. Whether or not he is successful in his quest for self-glorification I leave for you to discover.

For much of the book there are thought-provoking exchanges between Olga and Jarmo, culminating in an amusing, but tense, scene of seduction and counter-seduction. In one such conversation, Olga, saddened by the thought of the loss of a language, tells Aurtova, “And with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it.” Unmoved he replies that, “…the contrary is true: the fewer there are left, the more we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language which contains them all.” Somehow these deliberations are sharpened by the knowledge that we are reading a translated piece of literature, and indeed, one that has only been translated into a limited number of languages.

While there are many healthy ways to appreciate language, Aurtova is a fanatic, believing in the superiority of some languages over others. More than that, he is an unprincipled opportunist, who in the end has abandoned the scientific method once it no longer suits his interests. And so for all of the linguistics and talk of fricative laterals with a labiovelar appendix, Vostyachs is a thriller, full of narrative tension. Perhaps because of that the book somehow feels a little less profound or original than Grammar; where that book was mournful and subdued, Vostyachs is tense and unsettling, though there is much humour to be had too. The ending could not be described as an utterly happy one, but it is uplifting, spiritual even, and I can say that, without revealing anything of the plot, language (or the power of language) emerges the winner.

And we the reading public are winners too, as aside from the merits of Grammar and Vostyachs purely as stories, it is good that Marani keeps providing us with these entertaining opportunities to think about language, and all of the things that go with it. Grazie mille Diego!