Imagine if 'every word is a bird we teach to sing'

Words fly into the future leaving the printed page, singing their sound and meaning

A book for lovers of words.

The image in the title intrigues and the book delights with its exploration of words -their sight, their sound, their shape, their history. Words are objects of fun and playfulness, and objects of power.

Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing is really a series of essays on different aspects of language. The author David Tammet is, in his own words, a high-functioning autistic who first came to the notice of psychologists because he saw individual words in colours and experiences. He explains a little of this in his first chapter. This is his fourth book.

The topics of the essays dart about, but I found all of them interesting and easy to read.

We travel the world with Daniel Tammet and travel through time as he explores the beauties and vagaries, and humour, of language.

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One of his first jobs was teaching English to Lithuanian students in Lithuania. He had no Lithuanian, and they had only a few words of English. Throwing away the guides, he stumbled across a way to teach using the sights and sounds of the words.

In one essay Tammet writes of made-up words, of the playfulness of text language and the opprobrium that brings from the purists. Of course, Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll were great word inventors. (Chortle, chortle. LOL)

There is an essay on Australian poet Les Murray in which Tammet explores Murray’s education, a novelty to a Londoner, but Murray’s bush schooling is familiar to an Australian reader. He examines Murray’s playfulness with words and forms such as the sonnet.

Nahuatl, a language which has given us avocado, tomato and chocolate is struggling to survive in Mexico, as is Kikuyu a native African language. Tammet meets with speakers and writers of these two languages, and much of their dilemmas and problems exist around the world where colonial powers sought to wipe out the native language. It is for this reason that there exists in Iceland a Person’s Name Committee to keep the purity of Icelandic names. L’  Academie Francaise also sprang from nationalistic sentiment. Rather than talk in an impersonal way about these languages, Tammet introduces us to people involved in the preservation of these languages and reports on his discussions with them. This makes the book easy to read as he interviews many interesting people.

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It is for this reason that there exists in Iceland a Person’s Name Committee to keep the purity of Icelandic names. L’  Academie Francaise also sprang from nationalistic sentiment. Rather than talk in an impersonal way about these languages, Tammet introduces us to people involved in the preservation of these languages and reports on his discussions with them. This makes the book easy to read as he interviews many interesting people.

Esperanto and sign language for the deaf are specialist languages. Esperanto is a constructed European language, designed as a universal language, which has never quite taken off. Sign language is a method of using hands and body to communicate. Each spoken language has its own version, indeed there are variations amongst English speakers with Auslan being different to other English sign languages.

We learn of a standoff between the saints Jerome and Augustine, one espousing translating the Bible from Greek, the other from Hebrew. Because of the nuances of both languages, and the complexity of the Hebrew, the same passage came to be translated in different ways. Some familiar passages, actually mean something a little different to their usual interpretation.

There is the language we use on the telephone, a special shorthand truncated language especially between close friends and family members where the familiarity of the voice does away with introductions.

The final chapter is a discussion of that challenging question of robots replacing humans. Tammet discusses their possible use in nursing homes and as receptionists in hotels. Discussing with a linguist her reaction to a robot receptionist in Japan where she was totally unnerved by the experience, he and the linguist conclude that the human brain is processing so many cues, emotions, and social experiences that for all but the most mundane of tasks, there is no possibility of a robot takeover.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, finding it easy to read despite the esoteric subject matter. I can recommend it to all lovers of words.

Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing, by Daniel Tammet, (published by Hachette Australia) is available from Dymocks. Click here for details.