The hills are alive with the sound of English

english_flagHave you ever wondered what English sounds like? I do. Sometimes when I’m sitting on a train or a bus hearing English around me I try to “blur” my ears so that I can imagine what it sounds like to be hearing the language as a foreigner. It’s similar to the way sometimes I blur my vision when looking an artwork and then refocus. It can help sometimes to see the composition in a new light. But with sound, it doesn’t completely work, because it is near impossible to separate meaning from the sounds. You can close your mouth, your eyes, nostrils, and avoid touch, but you can’t avoid direct sound. Likewise, you can’t avoid meaning. You can in fact saturate a single word with meaning until it is just a sound, but to do that with a whole language is an almighty task. So how can us English speakers hear our own language without understanding it? It’s difficult, but there are ways.

I’m interested in the sound of English because first of all I’m a writer and I love words. I’m also an English teacher, and I have a passion for music and therefore the melody of language. I’ve studied linguistics and a bit of Italian, Dutch, and Czech. I even wrote a short story about a Scotsman who develops a sudden case of xenoglossia. What is xenoglossia you might ask? It is the phenemona of a person forgetting their own native tongue and adopting a completely different language that they before had no understanding of. There are reported cases of people having a remarkable new fluency in another language after severe accidents involving an impact to the head. It makes you wonder about the possibilities of the brain. It seems these people have somehow subconsciously absorbed the foreign language, and in their head it has laid dormant until the accident has reset their balance of their subconscious abilities. When I hear romance languages such as French or Spanish I have an idea of the people and the culture based on the sounds of the language. I have an image based on sound. To me, these languages sound beautiful, just like music, and it makes me wonder what English sounds like. Is it just as beautiful? I think of it as a mongrel language, a mix of many influences – then does it sound more German, or French, or Latin? More and more it is absorbing other versions of itself like an out of control amoeba, and the sound of English is changing. What does it really sound like? I wish I could develop a sudden case of xenoglossia to see for myself.

Of course the sound of a language is to some extent up to personal taste. I’ve heard a lot of people comment on how ugly the Dutch language is, but personally, I think Dutch is beautiful. I actually like the guttural “ggggghhghghghhhhhrgrggggg”. Dutch is relevant to English because of it’s close similarity. Yet even closer is Frisian (spoken in Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands). It is the closest language to English (think of them as twin sisters) and in general, people who speak Frisian can understand more of a text in Old English on sight than modern native English speakers. Old English is what our language used to sound like before it became the monstrous lingua franca that it is today. English sounds closer to Frisian than any other language, so to get an idea of the sound of English it is a good place to start. To me that’s not a bad thing, but considering the amount people who baulk at the Dutch guttural “gggh”, and the fact that Frisian is directly in between English and it’s cousin Dutch, this may mean that non-English speakers think our language is not inherently beautiful.

Seeing as the chances of developing xenoglossia are (thankfully) quite slim, it is necessary to find another way to hear English as a foreigner. I stumbled across a video recently on YouTube that originally aired on Italian television, and it gives an example of what American English sounds like to a foreigner who can’t speak the language. The lyrics are complete gibberish designed to replicated the sound of the language. The weird thing is that the brain naturally tries to make sense of nonsense and so at times I feel convinced that I can hear actual sentences in the video. I think everyone has had a time in their life when they got the lyrics to a famous song hilariously wrong. I recall the song “Blue” many years ago – the chorus is so indecipherable that everyone that heard it had their own personal mistaken interpretation of the lyrics. In fact, the chorus is not really words but sounds “da ba dee da ba di”. Other songs that are open to lyrical interpretation are Louie Louie by the Kingsmen, and Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends. Interestingly, in 1965 the FBI began an investigation into the song Louie Louie amid allegations of the lyrics being obscene and after two years reported that the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed”. In a short story I wrote titled “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (which was coincidentally a recent blog post) the main character has the interesting quirk of getting the lyrics of songs very wrong, and I used the song Louis Louis in the soundtrack I created for it. I love these songs, but I have to admit the lyrics are mostly gibberish when sung. It gives you an idea of what (drunk) English sounds like, but not what fluent English sounds like. At least with this Italian video, although it is gibberish, you can feel free to hear whatever you like in the lyrics and no one will blame you. The song is actually really catchy, and the choreography is impressive. But do Italians really dance like that?

Shedding Tears

cryingI cried yesterday. A few years ago I wouldn’t have been so keen to tell you that but I’m now proud to say it because for the purpose of acting crying is a good thing. Any actor needs to know how to cry in front of people. The trouble is, that especially for a man, it is very difficult to get over the barrier of being stoic. For a while now I have been able to cry when I am alone in my room. All I need to do is think about something very sad and I can force the tears. Music helps a lot. There are a few songs in particular that help me to cry. Everytime I listen to the song Blood by The Middle East for example I cannot help it. And while Roy Orbison’s Crying doesn’t make me cry, it definitely reflects the emotion, and is stuck in my head while writing this post. But still, in acting class, even if I am feeling an intense feeling of sadness my eyes dry up and I can’t show it. In the real world we don’t show vulnerability for a reason. To see a man crying is a rare thing. If a man starts crying in front of people it’s seen as a sign of weakness. That’s why we don’t do it. The last thing we want to do is reveal the chinks in our armour. In fact we go to great lengths to hide any chinks, why on Earth would we want to publicise them to the world?

I have tried for a long time to actually cry tears in class, and in one class a couple of months ago I actually broke down when I couldn’t get the tears to come. I ended up walking out of class in a storm of confusion. But in yesterday’s class I finally managed to shed three whole tears. As the tears ran down my cheek I felt an odd mixed sensation of sadness and joy. I was sad because of watching my partner break down into tears in front of me, and at the same time I was relieved that I was crying! Imagine how nerve wracking it is to talk in front of an audience, to perform in front of people, and then imagine how difficult it is for a man to cry in front of others watching your every move. This is the first step in letting out all my sadness, and I know I have a lot of sadness to let out. But it’s a great feeling to be on this path. Crying is such a beautiful thing, and it should not be feared. Our vulnerability is what makes us human.

The whole acting exercise was amazing. At the start of the exercise both Begum and I were struggling to get on track and completely connect with each other. We were in the white water rapids of emotion and both of us were desperately hanging onto the rocks to keep ourselves from going under and losing ourselves in the experience. Usually in any normal acting exercise like this, if two students are hanging on like that, nothing is going to change unless the teacher steps in and tries to pry the students from the rocks. Like barnacles in a rockpool students can be stubborn! But good acting moves with the flow of the moment like a leaf in the rapids. The amazing thing is, that if you go with the flow you don’t get hurt. Sure, there are rocks, and there is shallow water, and you get thrown about, but if you give yourself to the experience you can’t lose. A leaf in the rapids will not break because it is moving with the energy of the currents. But if you hang on to the rocks for dear life and fight the rapids you get bruised and bloodied, and like a leaf, ripped and torn. Luckily however, something amazing happened in this exercise because without the teacher stepping in, Begum and I both let go of our rocks and drifted like starfish that had left their cosy reef and ventured into the far distant ocean. For that second half of the exercise everything became oddly serene. The rapids became the sea, there was no battle anymore and without any struggle there was no need to hide our vulnerability.

I liken acting to playing the piano. Everyone has notes that they play. Some people tend to play the same notes over and over again. Some people will be inclined to play deep notes, others high notes. A good actor can play the the full range of the piano. A really good actor can play the full range and make it sound beautiful. And an exceptional actor can play one of those double level organs you find in churches and make that sound beautiful. In yesterdays exercise Begum and I both struggled to play the scales at first, but managed to hit a few of the right notes at the right time and in the right place, and from there, our song came to life. We both shed tears, and it was beautiful.

So yes, I cried. And I’m proud of it!

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat

Braindressing

phrenologyI got a haircut yesterday. It’s always an interesting experience when you go to a new hairdresser because there is the possibility that you will walk out of the place with a reminder of your trauma on top of your head. Sometimes if a hairdresser doesn’t listen they can end up doing the exact opposite of what you want them to do. So if you say “please I want to keep the length”, they might just cut it all off. And so the next time you go in you ask them to cut it all off, thinking it’s some kind of reverse psychology game and then they do indeed cut it all off – again. Sometimes you might seriously want them to cut all your hair off and you leave the hairdressers with hair extensions, bright pink braids, and bangles hanging from your ears. It’s an interesting world – the “hairdressers”. And you know that when you take that first step there’s no going back. Well, actually there is. You do always have the option of running out of the hairdressers waving your hands maniacally in the air screaming “escape! escape!” But you run the risk of looking silly.

Getting your hair cut is a big deal. Hair frames the face. Would the Monalisa look as beautiful without a frame? Then again, she doesn’t have any eyebrows, perhaps she could do with a trip to the hairdresser. Come to think of it, maybe she’s already been. Maybe she asked to keep the length and they cut off her eyebrows instead. Getting a haircut is scary, and it’s even scarier when you don’t know the language. The hairdresser yesterday was not what I expected. First of all, I was expecting to enjoy a nice relaxing shampoo and scalp massage, but the young lady was very rough. She massaged my scalp as if massaging the skin wasn’t good enough. She was trying to reach deep into the brain. Then she dried my hair as if I were some kind of rabid dog. But that’s okay. I have to admit it was oddly enjoyable. She sat me down in a comfy chair and made me a cup of tea. I then explained to her what I wanted to do with my hair. I said I wanted texture. She said she didn’t understand.

So she started hacking away. She was a maniac, enchanted by some invisible force known only to those that follow the path of the “Hair“. She hacked and chopped, thinned and trimmed. Hair was flying all over the place and I was worrying – I was worrying because you just never know what’s going to happen in a hairdresser. At the same time, I realised that it is wise to invest confidence in one’s hairdresser. There is a point in any haircut when you just have to trust that the hairdresser has listened to you. It serves to calm you down and accept your fate. At the same time though, it is important that you keep your invested trust to yourself. If you start acting overly polite all of sudden they start to grow suspicious of you. Or they might have a sudden rush of inspiration from your agreeable nature and cut off half of your head. Or they might think that your forced politeness means that you are unhappy with the haircut. That’s when they force you down onto the ground and cut off your eyebrows.

It seemed that my hairdresser didn’t want anything to do with my hair. All she wanted was my brain. My hair was just an obstacle to her real purpose. She had to clear away my hair to see more clearly where she intended to lobotomise. At one stage she even scratched my ear, and I imagined that it was a failed attempt to cut it off completely. If she was successful she would extract my brain out of my ear canal and start the process of trimming it. “Braindressing” I call it. She would take out my brain, analyse the many different parts, and say “you don’t need this”, then shake her head, “and you don’t need that childhood memory”. Then she would attach the bits of my brain that she fancied to her own enormous head. At which point I would think to myself, “I knew there was something unsual about her! It’s her over-proportioned decoupage brain!”

The haircut was very quick. In the end she gave me the mirror to look at my hair and asked me what I thought, and I said “excellent” because it was. She really knew what she was doing.

Day 10, tick.