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.

PolyglotBerlinHeader

Background

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.

Presentations

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 omniglot.com, 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.

 

Everything McEwan

Last Thursday the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas, announced that it had secured the rights to hold the entire literary archive of novelist Ian McEwan. This collection is to include drafts of stories, notes, letters, and his complete 17 years of email correspondence history. All for the bargain price of £1.2 million. I’ll take two! At least we’ve discovered one way to make a fortune from a career of writing literary fiction. Though I imagine the filming of his novel Atonement didn’t hurt.

Vincent Van Gogh, self portrait, 1889

Self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, Saint-rémy-de-provence, France

The grubby details of filthy lucre aside, this announcement prompts other prurient thoughts. The first concerned the contents of his email archive. Is it truly the entirety or just those between his literary buddies Amis, Hitchens, Barnes and the rest? Or will there be every piece of trivia imaginable, from the restaurant booking enquiry, train ticket refund complaint, spam emails that somehow made their way past the filter and were never deleted? Will personal details be redacted? If so, how long will it take before those redactions that seem reasonable and necessary today, become the subject of conspiratorial, literary intrigue and over-reaching scholarly debate hamstrung by confirmation bias? Will McEwan be tempted to delete any emails that paint him in a less flattering light, or did the library pay extra for a signed guarantee that the archive would be delivered whole and unexpurgated?

In light of this, one wonders if I, and other aspiring writers of today, should now put a little extra effort into each and every email that is sent, peppering them with literary gems and flecks of waggish wit? Imagine, how disappointing if they were found to be uniformly trite and bland, of absolutely no exterior interest. Will there be anything in McEwan’s correspondence to approach the poignant sentiments that Vincent Van Gogh expressed when writing to his brother Theo?

Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.

I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.

What dominant captains steered Van Gogh, and he was greatness-bound.

Letter to Thoreau – Published in Brev Spread

This week I’m delighted to announce that my short story, Letter to Thoreau, has been published in a literary/arts magazine called Brev Spread. You can find it at their homepage or directly download the magazine hereLetter to Thoreau is a playful epistle, a gentle pastiche, the unaware writer of which challenges Henry David Thoreau’s conclusions that he famously reached in his volume Walden.

In addition to my story, the issue is packed full of artwork, short stories, essays, poetry and an interview. Starting at the very beginning, particular personal highlights include the melancholy front cover artwork by Annlyn Huang (visit her website for more here ), which features a heartbreakingly tender moment of a lonely red car singing its life story to itself, and to unknown distant observers, as it navigates a tangled road. Is it driving towards a future life, or is it heading back in time into the confusing morass of memory, which becomes evermore difficult to unpick and navigate with any reliability the further back it reaches? The red car is us, and we it; we must explore our individual memories alone.

A second highlight is an extensive interview with Rob Wilson, a poet and Professor of Literature, Creative Writing, and Cultural Studies at the University of California. The discussion is chock-full of thought-provoking deliberations on poetry, the act of writing, philosophy and the purpose of education & universities. I leave you with an excerpt from Promise Place by Rob Wilson, which I found particularly striking.

But the name must not eclipse the cenotaph

of your photography or wild barley brush growing over origins,

asking no one for help.

Brev Spread Issue 14 - Front Cover

Front cover from Brev Spread Issue 14 – Travelling Nostalgia by Annlyn Huang

 

 

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.

Review: The Ring by Roberto Saviano

In Gomorrah, a book for which Roberto Saviano received both awards and death threats, Saviano’s target was the Camorra (a mafia-like organisation). While that book stood proudly in plain sight on bookshop shelves, the words within unfortunately sent him into hiding. Uncowed, in this slender but powerful book, The Ring, two short stories, told in two distinctive voices, see Saviano once again sets his sights on the mafia, but they are not the only target.

The Ring - Roberto Saviano

The Ring by Roberto Saviano

Opening with a quote from French writer Boris Vian, “If you must have blood, then give of your own, if it so amuses you.”, the thematic tone of the book is set and one can hear it throughout – a subtextual refrain, delivered in a wearied anger. The first story, The Ring, tells of a mafia revenge tragedy, recounted by a friend of the victims. Deft touches reveal cultural traditions without fuss, while the narrator tries to make the reader and an old female friend understand the truth of his situation. His frustration is clear, as she presumes his friends to have been mafioso. The mafia saw them as guilty by association and had them killed, she sees them guilty of being mafioso because the mafia killed them. They’re guilty either way, no matter what, condemned for being alive.

This Catholic idea of original sin runs throughout The Ring, apparently the mafia have found it to be just as useful a tool of social control as the church has. Extending the religious parallel presents the town as a kind of purgatory, the inhabitants of which are eager to leave if only they could find the opportunity. But there are none, there never are. By his repeated emphasis of this point, the author surely intends an implied criticism of the Church. Where are they in all of this tragedy?

In the second story, The Opposite of Death, a young girl is widowed before she can even reach the altar, her husband-to-be killed whilst serving in Afghanistan. The narrative unpicks the negotiation of the aftermath of his death, which death too is put at the feet of both the government and mafia. The young deceased enlisted in the army to escape the clutches of organised crime. Violence seems inescapable. Only the state-sanctioned version has the veneer of respectability, yet it’s clear, through the enumeration into blurred forgetfulness of “the latest war”, that Saviano takes a dim view of his government. For in both organisations, power and reward flow equally to the top, leaving those at the bottom to suffer, and how.

If it is the young men who suffer most directly, their women and families left behind are shattered, destroyed in a different way and able only to mourn and to reach some reconciliation with their fate. It’s not clear that they ever will. Throughout the book, the ring of the title is a recurring motif and an appropriate symbol of the apparent eternal state in which his country and its citizens are destined to reside. Wedded, too – a marriage of convenience to organised crime, with no prospect of a divorce.

Altogether the book runs to an economical 75 pages, but the one thing Saviano refuses to be economical with is the truth. On the front of the dustcover there is a quote from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago:

I feel humble, almost insignificant, faced with the dignity and the courage of the writer and journalist Roberto Saviano.

I’m with you, Saramago; literary heroes, I’ve discovered, are transitive.

The Self-Destructing Book – Part Two

In last week’s blog post I considered how a self-destructing book might alter the approach we would take to read it. This week I continue on the theme, taking that cautionary tale into the realm of possible nightmare…

Imagine that your self-destructing book now disappeared word-by-word, line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence. Read too slowly and the words would disappear before you even had chance to look at them. It’s a booby-trapped book – as soon as you open the front cover the timer begins to tick, and won’t stop until it has devoured all of the words.

Presented with such a gift would you start at the beginning and try to read fast enough to stay ahead of the wavefront of disappearing ink? All done in the hope that you were not reading so quickly that you weren’t actually reading at all but merely glancing over the page with deadened eyes. Or would you start further in, sacrificing the front portion of the book in the name of the latter pages? That way all the better to absorb the words that you did manage to read. Either way you lose.

There is an app, Write Or Die, aimed at encouraging writers to overcome the hesitancy of perfectionism and creative block, to “just write”,  by gradually deleting their words if they type too slowly. Perhaps it’s time there was an equivalent for the reader? Previously beyond technical reach, the app as literature opens up these new possibilities for the form and allow us to examine our relationship with a text.

Imagine now the next step in the evolution of this self-deleting book: we join it not at a clearly defined beginning, but catch it at wherever it happens to be in the story. We don’t know how much we have missed, we don’t know how much is to come. Would you want to read a book like this? In some sense this book would be the epitome, the very embodiment, of realist fiction. Life happens and once the moment is passed, all we have is our unreliable memory of it. Moreover, as we soon learn as children, life is happening continuously, whether our eyes are open or not. The ephemerality of life and text become one. In such circumstances the oral tradition might once again become preferable.

Assuming that you did decide to enter into this mirrored reality, what if it was the most enjoyable and interesting that you had ever read? So captivating that the thought of having to stop is unbearable. You’d have to eat, sleep etc. at some point though, and while you were gone, the words would continue to appear and disappear, and you’d never know what they said. Worse, the subsequent material might no longer make sense and you might no longer enjoy reading it. That great pleasure of your life would have vanished. And so perhaps you’d try to keep reading and reading and reading until your met your demise.

The final situation I’ve described seems to me to be analogous to “The Entertainment”, the fatally addictive film in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. A film which, by the way, claims more than a few victims in that novel. If a book like this existed – one both potentially unending and maximally entertaining – would you choose to read it? Would you dare take that risk? Or would the risk lie in not reading it?

The Self-Destructing Book – Part One

Your mission, should you choose to accept it… As always, should you or any member of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.

Fortunately, most objects are much less prone to self-combustion than the tapes and discs handed out to members of secret spy teams. Imagine though, for a minute, if our books did behave like that. What would it do to the way you approached the text? First though, the acknowledgement that paper books already are self-destructing – the paper will yellow and then crumble and the ink will fade under daylight – but the processes by which this happens move so slowly that, outside of history departments at universities, no one really gives it a thought. However, if the rate of destruction were to be increased by several orders of magnitudes, from centuries to days or even hours, such that the destruction is likely to happen whilst we are still reading, then we might not be so blasé.

The first thing you notice is a pleasant warmth in your hands, something to counter the artificially-chilled room, followed closely by the delicate smell of smoke, the source of which your repeated sniffing is unable to discern. You look down and see the energy manifest as the visible. You drop the book to the ground and stamp on it, but tenderly, trying to quell the burgeoning flames, at the same time looking for a glass of water, anything wet, to quench the fire. But it’s too late, the book is far more burnt than not, and you give up. The words are no longer yours to read, its wisdom, poetry and pleasures taken away from you forever and you must walk away and try your luck elsewhere.

Suppose that this spontaneous combustion were not the product of TV spy-craft or the overactive imaginations of internet conspiracy theorists, but a well-documented risk associated with all books. Trojan books that are the logical conclusion of those destroyed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. What would it do to your pace of reading or your approach to the text if you knew that the next time you returned to the book it might no longer exist?

Would the book be more valuable due to its potential scarcity or less so as a now unreliable storage method for information? Once you’d acquired the book would you try to read it deeply to maximise your enjoyment and insight from those sentences that you had read, or would you read it quickly hoping to find the most important bits of the book before they disappeared in flames? Would you take notes as you read or try to copy each page wholesale? Or perhaps you’d decide to abandon the book as a format and occupy your time with something entirely different?

Now, I confess, this is all merely a hypothetical danger, no one is going to make and sell a book that could scar the reader or burn down their house. The publishers’ legal departments would see to that. The firemen of our society are not those of Bradbury’s fictional world. We’re safe after all, sorry to have alarmed you.

Ebooks, on the hand, burn with a cold flame: delete the file and smother the memory chip with layer upon layer of random binary digits, the original document now rendered truly irretrievable. As it happens, the terms of service of ebooks bought via Amazon or Apple, mean that the book can indeed vanish in that manner, as these cases here and here, rare though they may be, confirm.

So I’ll ask again, how would this change the way you view your books?

Dear Reader

Dear Reader,
It’s commonly said, more or less, and attributed to many (in more than one language), that “if I’d had more time I would have written a shorter letter”, and this could be true here too. So too the reverse, it could become a thesis. I have form. Though it would be a brave student indeed who began his dissertation so cheekily with the words “Dear Examiner, I hope this thesis finds you well.” Not to be outdone nor forget my manners, dear reader, I hope this letter (please, play along) finds you well.

The letter is truly a stalwart, not just of literature, but of life – both of our individual and collective lives. Dear John letters. Letters sent home from soldiers in the trenches. Letters that constitute the epistolary novel. The collected letters of the famous writer or artist. Clearly even the highbrow of society engage in the voyeuristic eavesdropping of others’ lives.

And now a rejuvenation of the form is underway at The Letters Page, a new literary journal run by the good people of the School of English at the University of Nottingham. The past issues are available free to download from the website here and they’re well worth a read. To return to the beginning, but altered for the experience, in the first letter of Issue One the author declares that regrettably he has no time to write a letter. I sincerely hope that you are never forced to write the same.

Until we meet again,
The Author

Gutenberg 3D

Not the title of a Hollywood blockbuster about the life and times of Johannes Gutenberg, chock full of CGI special effects that bring to lurid life his system of moveable type, but rather a reference to Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel, On Such a Full Sea, that will come with a limited edition 3D-printed cover.

On Such a Full Sea

So is this perhaps the first signs of a revival of interest in the printed book as an object to be desired and cherished? Or is it merely the autonomic twitches of a dying form? In the jargon of stock market analysts – did we just watch a dead cat bounce?

This particular piece is certainly well executed, with the interplay of the title on the book and its continuation into 3D text suggesting motion and a dynamic quality to the words. Limited edition status aside, the suggested current price of $90 alone indicates that this is a niche product.

But let’s look ahead slightly to the days, surely not long in coming, when 3D printing and 3D printers in the home, have become, if not ubiquitous, then at least commonplace. This kind of slipcase could be produced much more cheaply and even printed by the end-user by downloading the requisite CAD files from the publisher’s website.

That said, it’s my hunch that the electronic versions of books available for download on Project Gutenberg became a lot more popular with the arrival of e-readers. Even though printers were a feature in most homes and offices, it was never that appealing or convenient to print out novels at home. This idea could fall prey to the same inertia.

On the plus side, even if it doesn’t see widespread adoption, in this long-tail age of the internet it doesn’t need to become a mass-market idea to be successful and enduring. And these 3D slipcases are just the beginning.  Surely there is room for all manner of innovation in the combination of 3D printing and the printed (by whatever means) word.

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.