Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing : Encounters with the Mysteries & Meanings of Language by Daniel Tammet

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing : Encounters with the Mysteries & Meanings of Language by Daniel Tammet

You may remember Tammet from his autism memoir, Born on a Blue Day, and his fascination with words and languages as well as numbers continues until the present day. Now living in France with his husband, his latest book is a very learned but also joyful and exploratory set of essays on everything from sign language to Icelandic naming conventions, via an Englishman at the Academie Francaise and much more.

The first chapter, “Finding my Voice”, is a fascinating account of Tammet’s early obsession with numbers – he saw them as a kind of language, and while this eventually led to him holding the world record for reciting the digits of Pi, it left him ostracised at school, as he knew no one would understand. He could even think of poetry in numbers. Add this to an advanced and hugely detailed synaesthesia, and he has a rich interior life most of us could only begin to imagine. However, he pushed himself to start reading, first encyclopaedias and dictionaries and then history books and memoirs, then trying to teach himself how dialogue works by starting to read novels. He celebrates here his teacher, Frau Corkhill, who taught him German conversation but, more importantly, the art of conversation itself, and it’s worth noting here that although he clearly has a prodigious intellect, he is humble and keen to explain and share rather than to look good and clever. At the end of this essay, he explains that although he’s now up to writing novels in French (as you do), and he does seem to live the life of a French intellectual now to some extent, “I have not yet written my last English sentence” and this book is a celebration of the English language as well as some others.

I won’t go into detail about every essay in the book, but will pick out a few favourites. I always enjoy reading about Esperanto and other invented languages, and in “A Clockwork Language” Tammet actually manages to encounter some native Esperanto speakers, raised in the language by Esperanto fan parents. I didn’t know there were any native speakers, so that was exciting. This piece follows a common pattern in the essays: as well as writing about the theory of the subject, he finds people who are immersed in whatever it is he is discussing, and that makes for a lively and approachable read. In “The Man who was Friday” he looks at language politics in African countries, and explores what languages people from Africa “should” write in.

Of course, I was initially attracted to the essay on Icelandic names (Iceland is (in)famous for its naming committee, which decides which names are permissible (they have to be able to be subjected to the language’s formidable grammar)). Tammet meets one of the committee, learns about “pure” Icelandic and the fight against English incursions and considers that the committee will become obsolescent in a matter of a couple of decades (I’m not so sure).

The essay on American Sign Language is fascinating. Did you know the French invented sign language? Nor did I. Tammet investigates the controversies in Deaf culture engendered by the invention of cochlear implants and observes a lip reader at work and learns how she learned to speak. There was a new discovery in the chapter on “Translating Faithfully” which looks at Bible translation, both out of Hebrew into English and German and then into various languages across the world. There are cultural issues to be approached as well as linguistic ones, and it’s all very interesting again. Here, it never occurred to me that the word “synagogue” is Greek. The book is full of these little gems, and Tammet obviously delights in them and (rightly) assumes the reader will, too.

In “A Grammar of the Telephone” we learn about the special speech patterns engendered by the phone, and there’s also a lot about the transcription of phone conversations, which was interesting for this professional transcriber. The introduction of the word “Hello” is covered, but so is interesting modern research about the language of illness, diagnosis and treatment, when passed through the filter of the phone. The final essay in the book, “Conversational Human”, looks at why (or whether) robots trained to interact with humans will ever be able to have a real conversation with us. It mentions a robotic check-in assistant at a Japanese airport who gave a researcher a start, and looks at the Turing Test (which tests whether we can differentiate a human from a robot interlocutor), but also looks at how humans with little experience of a topic still know from their cultural environment how to talk about that topic. He’s interesting on the fact that we probably don’t actually want a robot to have conversations with, much as Japanese schoolchildren buy a robotic baby seal in its thousands but wouldn’t want to hang out with the real thing (sliminess, sharp teeth and “pinniped odour”).

It’s all fascinating stuff, and pretty approachable; Tammet is good at explaining things clearly and pulling the humans involved into each piece gives it more accessibility. His learning and intelligence are worn lightly and he’s quietly self-deprecating about his own attempts at sign language, etc. If anything, the book is a little short. It’s most enjoyable and I’d recommend it for reading on a journey (as I partly did) or essay by essay in the house.

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Liz Dexter, who blogs about books and Iris Murdoch and occasionally running at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home, takes a keen interest when transcription comes into books (which admittedly isn’t that often) and can still do most of the alphabet in British Sign Language.

Daniel Tammet, Every Word is a Bird we Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries and Meanings of Language (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017). 978-0340961308, 274 pp., hardback.

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