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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Chapter 7 Belief, Bias and Common Humanity. Meditation on Playwriting

Language - the Gloopy, Smeary, Muddy stuff we work with

All true language is incomprehensible, like the chatter of a beggar's teeth.  Antonin Artaud

For me language is a huge pile of wet, sticky clay.  I can plunge my hands in and pull out big dollops that I can smear over my pages.  I can create great gloopy piles of the stuff or mould it into delicate little figures.  I can pat it smooth and tranquil as a black mountain tarn or I can hurl fists full of it around so that it sticks in foul messes on anyone who happens to be passing by.

I apologise that I’m going to refer to the English language throughout this chapter.  That is not some sort of colonial statement that plays can only be written in English.  Far from it. But I feel that I have to try and make my arguments mean something to my annoying acquaintance Skidmore who has the attention span of a turnip and the linguistic ability of un pomme de terre. Besides I use the English language for my work and it is by a process of understanding the tools and materials of my trade that I hope to improve.  For writers in other languages, I hope there will be parallels and interesting facts about English that may amuse you anyway.

The English language as we know it came in to being so that our conquering Norman overlords could converse with their Anglo-Saxon underlings.  It is not very much use being a conqueror if you cannot get your peasantry to go out and about ploughing your fields and reaping your harvests or fighting your battles for you.  Consequently, all the fripperies of grammar that beset the parent tongues were excised and we are now blessed with a language that is so simple in construction that it has become a lingua franca (an amusing and ironic description) for trade, commerce and general communication round the world. This stripped down form of speech means that someone from the forests of Papua New Guinea can make themselves understood to a francophone from Montreal.  English is a sort of Lego language in which simple elements can be assembled using any bits and pieces of vocabulary from any other language the speaker can lay his or her tongue to. Consequently, it is unafraid of importing any vocabulary from any other language that might prove useful.  If we don’t have a word for an item or an idea we import it. Or we just fabricate something vaguely appropriate rather than trying to make it up according to some arcane set of rules as is the practice in French.

English is essentially a language of negotiation and commerce.  For all its basic simplicity it is deliciously imprecise and the reason that contract lawyers make so much money.  As I pointed out earlier, the whole process of writing and making plays is one of negotiation and collaboration so the English speaking playwright has at her disposal a magnificent set of tools ready sharpened to go about carving out a masterwork.

On the other hand, the many strands that have fed into it also means that the English language has a rich oversupply of vocabulary far beyond the needs of basic communication.  Thus each new acquisition can take on an increasingly subtle interpretation of ideas.  And as it becomes ever more complex in vocabulary and a minefield for those who are unwary in its application.  Because of all the imports and coinages words slip and differentiate in barely perceptible shades.  And above all, the true English speaker will use words in a subtle, almost poetic fashion in which basic words assume indirect, elliptical, cryptic colouring calling up a world of strange hidden meanings and images. The writer of English must always assume the mantle of a poet and the writer of dialogue in English drama must become something of a magician weaving strange incantations and spells together.  (It is no coincidence that the word “spell” is of exactly the same root as “spelling” meaning to assemble a word correctly.  The two concepts of controlling unseen powers are directly linked).

The Lexicographer Laurence Urdang says “It is a curiosity of English that it continuously acquires words from other languages to expand its lexicon. Observers have often noted that even if a new coinage or a loanword from another language starts with “exactly” the same meaning as an existing word in English, the meanings begin to drift apart before very long, one acquiring quite different frequency, distribution and connotation from the other. ... Some words do become obsolete and are dropped forever. Most, however, remain and develop nuances that expand for the writer and speaker the opportunities for expression and expressiveness.”

In Singapore, for instance the language has mutated into Singlish.  Here “The grammar mirrors Mandarin or Malay, the indigenous language of Singapore, by doing away with most prepositions, verb conjugations, and plural words, while its vocabulary reflects the broad range of Singapore's immigrant roots. Besides borrowing from Malay, it also has words from Hokkien and Cantonese (from southern China), and Tamil from southern India.”

So to record speech in English one must be aware at all times that what is said contains drifts of meaning far beyond what the words themselves convey.  

Professor Stephen Pinker suggests that language is hard-wired into the brain.  It is something we do instinctively.  He suggests that there is an innate language that, rather than learning, as we develop we synchronise with other speakers around us.  Thus a child at between six months and eighteen months can learn any language in the world. To his way of thinking, language is not an add-on or by-product as Chomsky would suggest.  I rather like this idea because after forty years of listening to other people’s conversations in coffee bars and trying to reproduce them as dialogue in plays, I have realised that language goes farther and deeper and is more convoluted than the linguists or grammarians would have us believe.  There are whole areas of speech that have entirely different rules from carefully formed written speech.  Listen to people talking and you will hear strange, illogical thought pathways and the odd instinct to synchronise speech patterns within a conversation so that each encounter seems to develop its own rules and vocabulary. It seems to me that dialogue is not only shaped by the people speaking, it also shapes their interactions together. Two people speaking together will use a style and vocabulary unique to that encounter.  They will bring all sorts of immediate thoughts and rhythms which will be different from any other encounter.  And will certainly be different from any conversation they have with other individuals.  Language like this is iconic.  It is only arbitrarily associated with the meaning that is to be conveyed. This is why I insist that plays are not literature and should not be treated as such.

Marcus Perlman from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues wanted to test the assumption that language is iconic rather than mere imitation of natural sounds. They asked nine pairs of students to play an elaborate game of vocal charades, in which they had to express certain words, such as big, slow or attractive, using only simple vocalisations. No gestures or facial expressions were allowed.

From the outset, the students tended to pick vocalisations with similar acoustic properties, such as duration and pitch, for many of the words. Over time, as these words were said back and forth they became increasingly similar, both within pairs, and between.

There may also be some evidence for this in the experiments with teaching sign language to primates.  Whether chimps and gorillas can actually acquire human language or not is up for debate but there are signs (ha) that they have a predisposition towards some sort of iconic communication even when not influenced by human interactions.

As babies we understand instinctively that that babble of sounds we make with our mouths somehow relates to those objects and actions that we see around us.  And, what is more, they also can stand for those ideas and abstractions that circulate within our own brains and have no actual correspondences in the world outside.  I may be able to see that you are angry by your facial expressions and your actions in throwing over the furniture or punching someone but I will never understand what you are angry about or why you are angry until you can express that thought in words. 

In observations of other primates, it becomes clear that communications originate in babies with all sorts of non-specific sounds, squeals and chuckles that align with the spoken phrases of the adults around.  Listening in on the bus I hear that an enormous amount of our speech as adults is made up of those sort of utterances and we manage with a relatively small vocabulary of properly formed words but a rich vocabulary of the non-specific stuff.

How many words do you need to communicate with other people?  And what would your list of 100 include?  The article here gives the 100 most commonly used words in the English language but, of course, that doesn't mean they are the ones you need most.  I would have thought there ought to be a fair sprinkling of nouns - for that would have to include "tea" coffee" "computer" "phone" "car" or "bus".  There would have to be "sea" "rain" "cold" "sun" and something to do with money like "pound" (or "dollar" or "Euro") and "card".  States of mind: ""miserable" "happy" "sad" or could I do those with mime?  And I would need some numbers, too.  In fact, if I could mime one to ten with my fingers, I would still need enough of those, say twenty and so on to make up the list.  And then there are those things you need to be able to understand on the phone when trying to get through to the call centre "press" "key" "hash" and "star" and probably "Could I speak to your supervisor?"  What about shopping "Have you got this in a larger size?" and "will you give me a discount because these are weeks past their sell-by date?"  There' that's my 100 already.  But wait a minute, can I find room for "friends" "Facebook" and “Blog"?

My acquaintance Skidmore spends a great deal of time in front of the mirror making sure that he looks just so when before he heads off to the casino. (Usually with some of my money in his pocket).  He is very conscious of his personal style and ensures that his hair is gelled into the exact quiff he requires and so on.  It is the same with his writing.  Although he doesn’t admit to it.  He agonises for hours over a single sentence trying to get it as gelled into shape as his quiff.  And, yes, I think that sort of care and attention to detail is necessary.  However, as a playwright, I have to remember that my style is made up of a great deal more than the words on the page.  Sometimes I must leave spaces for the unwritten, sub vocal language.  As I’ve mentioned before, style is related to the personal choices we make as artists but I must also leave room for an interpretation of that style.  It would be intruding on the work of the actor to nail down all those grunts and groans and sighs that are the real material of language but I must make sure my style is able to encompass, not only the style of the character I am creating but also the style of the actor who has to make it come alive.  The language and words I use must indicate what I require rather than what I prescribe.