Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Making up words (part two)



Link to Part One

Probably the most extreme example of a household language is idioglossia, also known as cryptophasia, and commonly referred to as twin talk or twin speech. Children who are exposed to multiple languages from birth are also inclined to create idioglossias, but these languages usually disappear at a relatively early age, giving way to use of one or more of the languages introduced. Apparently autonomous languages (yet another word for the same thing) exist in about 40% of all twins. So it’s far from uncommon but the chances are higher with identical twins. There have been high profile cases though like June and Jennifer Gibbons and the Kennedy twins who had well-developed secret languages that only they could understand. Wikipedia describes the language used by the Kennedy twins, Poto and Cabengo:

Their language was spoken extremely quickly and had a staccato rhythm. These characteristics transferred themselves to the girls' English, which they began to speak following speech therapy. Linguistic analysis of their language revealed that it was a mixture of English and German (their mother and grandmother were German-born), with some neologisms and several idiosyncratic grammatical features.

and provides a short extract from a conversation between the two girls to illustrate:

Pinit, putahtraletungay. (Finish, potato salad hungry)

Nis, Poto? (This, Poto?)

Liba Cabingoat, it. (Dear Cabengo, eat)

La moa, Poto? (Here more, Poto?)

Ya. (Yeah)

Nell Probably the best-known example, albeit a fictitious one, is in the film Nell where Jodie Foster’s unintelligible, idiosyncratic language is made up of English-like phrases that are a blend of stroke-impaired speech and twin language.

The most commonly known made-up language (if you’re British and of a certain age) is Unwinese, the creation of the British comedian Stanley Unwin who spoke a mishmash of English and expressions of his own devising. It gets classified as gobbledegook but that’s really a misleading term because there are rules and other people have learned them to imitate him; it’s closer to the language game gibberish. I once saw him interviewed by Michael Barrymore and the entire interview was carried on in Unwinese which was fun for them I’m sure, but hard on the poor audience. Recurrent expressions were:

Deep joy: Pleasing

Goodlilode: Good or excellent

Nockers (as in "I did nockers"): Not

Terribold: Terrible

Remarkibold: Remarkable

Horribold: Horrible

Flollop: Fall, or Go

Once a polly tito: Once upon a time

Thriftymost on your banky balancer: Very good value

Goodlibilode: Goodbye

Garbage path: Garden path

Deep folly: Foolish deed, but sometimes simply means Complicated arrangement(s)

Huffallo-dowder: Up and down

Notice how -bold and -bode are common suffixes. This is similar to what rappers do inserting "-izzle" after a word's last pre-vowel consonant while discarding the remaining letters. I wrote a short article about Unwin a couple of years back called Basic Engly Twentyfido if you’re interested and there are some video links too. I have a great deal of affection for him. I was also very fond of the pianist and entertained Victor Borges and one of his routines involved Inflationary English. The rule is a simple one: any time a number is suggested within a word, inflate its value by one. Simple examples would be:

"Anyone up for tennis?" becomes "Anytwo up five elevennis?”

"I ate a tenderloin with my fork" becomes "I nined an elevenderloin with my five'k"

These two ‘languages’ were created to entertain not obfuscate but they manage to do both. Argot, however, is a secret language used by various groups – including, but not limited to, thieves and other criminals – to prevent outsiders from understanding their conversations; it dates back to 1628 and under the strictest definition, an argot is a proper language, with its own grammar and style. The closest I’ve come to that was in the civil service when I was there. Memos were written (yes, it was that long ago) in what I think of to this day as abbreviationese, a form of bureaucratese; if there was a way to reduce the numbers of letters you had to write then that’s what you wrote. Nowadays we have textese, or as they would call it, txtk, and twitterspeak where most of the words seem to need to begin with twi-, twe- or twa-: twaiting (twittering while waiting), tweetaholism (the continued use of Twitter as an addiction that is difficult to control) and twitterrhea (just use your imagination).

I wouldn’t call any of these words neologisms, not right away. They’re actually protologisms. Wikipedia says that it was coined by Mikhail Epstein, the Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and that it was first used in 2005. It’s from Greek protos, first, plus logos, word.

The difference between a protologism and a neologism is that the latter has actually been used somewhere, even if only once, while a protologism exists only as a suggestion of a word that might be used. – World Wide Words

Heaney So, when is a word a protologism and when is it a nonce word? Okay, a nonce word is a temporary word created to serve a purpose and then dropped later. Seamus Heaney has a poem called ‘Nonce Words’. I think this term could be applied to many of the made-up words poets use. I don’t make up words often but I have done like in this early poem:


in a crowded supermarket ...
gaping mouth ...

and a tight knotted little hand

The word was created solely to try to communicate how a mentally disabled child might think. It’s not a very good poem, which is why I’ve just quoted from it, but you get the idea. Carrie is fond of them, like “egocentenially” in her poem, ‘reflex’ or “preconflagrations” in her poem ‘hairfire’, in fact the title would count as one too. James Joyce is probably the best-known exponent of the made-up word. Some only exist in his novels (particularly Finnegans Wake):

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbron-ntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohooh-oordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev- linsfirst loved livvy.

and just as well if you ask me. Since many of the words used in the book are actual combinations of other words, e.g. the very first word of the book ‘riverrun’, they’re described as portmanteau words. More common examples of these are words like ‘smog’ which was coined around 1900 as a portmanteau of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’. ‘Brunch’ is another which was first used in an edition of Punch in 1896. Later we have acronyms that get absorbed into the yuppie everyday speech like Yuppie (young upwardly-mobile professional), Wasp (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), Oink (One Income, No Kids), Dinky (Double Income, No Kids Yet) and, apparently, Jap (Jewish American Princess).

I think one single thing comes through this article and that’s the fact that we’re not satisfied – not any of us – with just using language. And the more one is into words the more frustrating it can be just to use the words we’re given. This is why neologisms, new words, appear all of the time. It’s a desperate need to find ways to accurately communicate what’s going on in our heads. What gets me, and I was only talking to Carrie about this the other day, is how many things, everyday things, I don’t have a word for and have to rephrase what I’m saying to work around the problem. For example, everyone knows what a liar is. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of lies are told every day. If a person who tells a lie is a liar when what do you call a person who is lied to? Why is there not a word for that? We have a tester and a testee, a donor and a donee, so why is it a liar and the lied to? Eh? Why not a lyee? Makes sense to me.

I remember a competition on Radio One years ago looking for new collective nouns (Seriously, why is it a murder of crows?) and the winning entry was “a persistence of Jehovah’s Witnesses” – marvellous! It’s a bit like an ostentation of peacocks (yep, that’s a real one) but please tell me who decided on a cartload of chimpanzees, a piteousness of doves or an implausibility of gnus. I read those out to my wife just now and her response? “Someone just made those up.” Of course they did. Every word we’ve ever had was made up. What I want to know is how they got people to accept that you could get away with calling a group of starlings a murmuration. What’s wrong with ‘flock’? In an episode of Inspector Morse, Morse asks one of colleagues at the scene of the crime if there is a collective noun for pathologists. They decide on 'a body of pathologists'.

There’s a word – I mean, why wouldn’t there be? – for “any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should”; it’s sniglet. Comedian Rich Hall made it and has published several books of them. In a 1990 interview, Hall was asked if the "Sniglets books [were] completely for comic value?" He answered:

Yeah. Well, no. I wouldn't say they're completely for comic value. I mean, I get letters from schools all the time saying how they've incorporated a sniglet book into their reading program. You can look at a lot of the words and sort of break them down into their etymological origins. And you can learn a lot about how and where words derive from. When you assign this frailty of human nature a word, then the word has to work. It has to either be a hybrid of several other words, or have a Latin origin, or something. – Reuven Lerner, ‘An Interview with Rich Hall’, The Tech, Sept 25th 1990

I can understand that. I know what I was like when I discovered prefixes and suffixes. They were like verbal Lego bricks to me; you could just keep adding them on at  the beginnings and ends of words to your heart’s content. One of the words I love for this reason is hemidemisemiquaver which Americans call a sixty-fourth note but seriously hemidemisemiquaver is a much cooler expression. There is a quasihemidemisemiquaver but it’s rarely used (Beethoven's Pathétique Piano Sonata is one example in case you’re interested) and only practical in slow pieces.


Of course the Pathétique Sonata brings us right back to where we started all this: names. What was wrong with Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13? The name – Grande sonate pathétique if we’re going to be fussy – came from his publisher. But that brings up the whole issue of nicknames, pet names and even pseudonyms. Remember I mentioned the expression my wife and I use, “a Tracey”? Well, her nickname at work was ‘Tink’ after Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. Unusual for girls to have nicknames, at least when I was at school none did, none that I can remember, but the boys most certainly did: Gee-Gee, Buh Buh, The Nor, Chips (even the teachers called him ‘Chips’), Croc, Big Nell, Wee Nell, Pro, Midge. Teachers too: Spider, Mark Spitz (after the swimmer), Stookie, Shuggie, Bobby Lennox (after the footballer). Even my own name: Jim, Jimmy, James, Jamie, Jimbo. We just can’t seem to leave well alone. A random selection from online (some are animals in case you were wondering):

Kosaburo but gets called Kosanji

Athina but gets called Theenie

Toffee but gets called Snoffs

Gypsy Rose but gets called Gypsy Monster

George but gets called Eddie

Cricket but gets called Wiggle

What I don’t get is calling a big dog ‘Tiny’ or a redhead ‘Blue’. I mean, seriously, what is going on there? Apparently Australians are very bad for that one. Or what about the parents who name their kid one thing and call them something else right from the jump.

Of course, people don’t just have nicknames or pet names for people, they often have cute names for parts of their Wicked Willie anatomy, usually their private parts. Probably the most common is to refer to a man’s penis as “Little [whatever the guy’s name is]”, but there are others: Captain Fantastic (or just ‘The Captain’), Godzilla, Chewy, Thumper, Pepe, Mr Happy, Winky. Breasts also get nicknames: “the boys” (after the (in)famous Wonder Bra ad), “the girls” (I heard that in an episode of Castle recently), the twins, Pinky and Perky (if you’re British), Thelma and Louise. And that’s without getting into the enormous list of euphemisms for parts of the body.

Have I covered everything? I doubt it.

That’s as much as I have to say on the subject for now anyway but I’d be keen to hear of your own experiences with . . . I want to write ‘oikolectia’ but is that the right word? I don’t want to rewrite my sentence but at the same time I don’t want to use the wrong word because there is nothing worse than using the wrong word when you’re known as a writer. Maybe the right word is ‘oikolectics’. Dialectics is a proper word so why not oikolectics? We’ll go with that.


Rachel Fenton said...

I was talking about this with one of the other mums at my daughter's swim lesson tonight...funny...we were comparing the naming of parts from our respective regions. Hilarious.

I remember watching a documentary a long time ago about the twins with their own language.

My younger brother and I had a large - but not a language sized - vocabulary of nonsense words for things.....I'm carrying on the tradition with my kids...makes for more sense than a lot of other things I could be teaching them!

Oh, anyway, the point was, this lady at swimming has just written her MA thesis on the very subject of bilingualism in children and in particular the way kids whose parents speak different languages crib together a language made from the two....

Elisabeth said...

Hi Jim

I'm half way through this fascinating post when I scrolled down to comments.

I'll say something more when I get to the end, but in the meantime can I lean across you please and ask Rachel if the person to whom she refers, the mother who has completed an Ma in the creation of new languages in bilingual children could please pass on more details.

I'm interested in this topic as my two and half year old grandson is bilingual in German and English and I'd love to understand more about the process.

I'll be back Jim when I can do justice to your post. For now I must rush.

Art Durkee said...

And then there's onomatopeia.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m pretty sure there was a film made too, Rachel, at least a made-for-TV film. I know it’s not strictly bilingualism but I wonder how many kids have a ‘language’ that they speak with their friends and one they speak with their families, a bit like a ‘telephone voice’?

Of course, Lis, just don’t spill your coffee in my lap.

And, Art, yes, one of my favourite words. I always surprise myself when I spell it right first time.

Elisabeth said...

This is a great post, Jim, all these wonderful made up words.

I use words carelessly these days. Perhaps it's the business of aging, but I find when it comes to classifying words I like to interchange one for another. So if we are talking about the style of a dress, I might ask about its flavour, or I'll ask for the menu for a concert rather than its programme.

We also have a tradition where names are built on rhyming efforts: Tessa becomes Tessa Wassalovski, Rosie becomes Rosel Piccolosel, Amelia Bodelia - not so original I gather and finally there's Ella Bodella.

Thanks Jim.

Words are fun.

Peter said...

Teaching leads me to sniglet. (Can sniglet be a verb? Wait, why would I ask the question.) This week was "rectanglize," as in, "Circle the subjet, and rectanglize the verb." I guess I could just employ "rectangle" as a verb, but it sounds too much like I'm naming the verb, like live moved from the imperative to the declarative, like "verb" in my sentence is a gerund. At least that's my excuse.

Anyway, delighted to learn this: "I remember a competition on Radio One years ago looking for new collective nouns (Seriously, why is it a murder of crows?) and the winning entry was “a persistence of Jehovah’s Witnesses” – marvellous! It’s a bit like an ostentation of peacocks (yep, that’s a real one) but please tell me who decided on a cartload of chimpanzees, a piteousness of doves or an implausibility of gnus."

Jim Murdoch said...

I think you’ve just cut to the quick, Lis. Why do more people have a go at writing poetry than attempt prose? It’s because playing with words, enjoying the sound of words is natural. Everyone is born with it. It is prose that is artificial, a construct. That a dress has a flavour makes absolute sense to me. If it can have a volume (e.g. loud) why can’t it have a flavour? It’s what they call a synaesthetic metaphor. I mentioned it in this article.

And, Peter, yes, making nouns into verbs has been in vogue for a while. The one I remember is zeroising. I mean, seriously, what’s wrong with, “Set all the counters to zero,” instead of “Zeroise all the counters”? It sounds pretentious. And it’s only two words shorter.

Kass said...

I love made up words. Love the movie, Nell. My daughter and I go around talking 'nell' all the time. Saturday Night Live did a skit on it and we died laughing. Our favorite is, "tie-eye inna whiiiih" - (trees in in the wind).

You've made up some pretty good words yourself, Jim.

Scattercat said...

Just wanted to say kudos on a fascinating read. I would (and have) read entire books on language and its uses. (Have you read "The Stuff of Thought" by Steven Pinker?)

I enjoyed this immensely.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve just been reading a few reviews of this book, Scattercat, and it does look like the kind of thing I’d like to read but far too long and dense for me to get the most out of it. The review in The Independent begins with the line, “Language is so familiar that we don't notice how strange it is,” and that’s something I’ve believed for a very long time. We don’t think about what we’re saying. It’s why I think characters like Data and Mork appeal to me so much because much of their humour is derived from a literal interpretation of what we say.

What also puzzles me is the fact that so many people struggle with poetry when the language they use of a day-to-day basis is so figurative. I’ve written a few blogs about language and no doubt I’ll come back to it when I learn a few gems that I can rope together to make an article. In the meantime I need to get on with using these words and not think too much about what I’m actually doing. I suppose it’s like walking or any simple mechanical act, once you start to list off all the things your body is doing to make you walk you wonder how it manages to coordinate it all.

Dick said...

Right up my alley, this one, Jim. I've always been fascinated by patois, dialect, pidgin and straight made-up language. You pretty much cover the waterfront here with some glorious examples.

Little to add except to note that I was at boarding school with a partially deaf boy from whose imperfect apprehension of English there derived the strangest and most beguiling of constructions, many of which had no clear provenance. For many years afterwards I would refer to those who had earned my contempt as 'miserable pilots', which was Tom's most devastating insult. From origins long since forgotten (if ever known), porridge was 'fumpy parch' and, more clearly phonetically, a bicycle was a 'bricksarple'.

Conda Douglas said...

I'm late to post here, but I just had to comment that I believe it's natural for all of to "make up" language--for example, I'm late because of my new arrival, Puck the puppy and he's puckalicious. Sorry, can't resist.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s another whole topic in itself, Dick, the expressions we adopt from other people. Of course it really only works with people who are in on the joke. And there’s a fine line between mocking and celebrating. Carrie and I adopted an expression one of her grandkids used when someone was trying to get him to do something he didn’t want: “You’re being mean a me.”

Ah, so you’re a dog person, Conda. You may want to steer clear of my next post: Timoleon Vieta Come Home.

Scattercat said...

Just to drop back in for a moment with my own quick review:

"The Stuff of Thought" is wholly fascinating... if you're a linguist or interested in linguistic theory. If you're not, it can be quite dry at times and almost impenetrable on rare occasions. I'm not up on the terminology (I wouldn't know a fricative from a glottal anything) and as a consequence I got a little mazed now and then.

The chapter on profanity, however, is worth the price of admission all by itself. IIRC, it was published online somewhere (but I'll be darned if I can recall where). If you can get ahold of the book with time to read one chapter, that's the one to go for.

Tammi Kibler said...

I just finished The Stuff of Thought this week and I loved it. I enjoy everything Pinker writes, but this gave me so much to ponder.

The issue of why so many verb synonyms are slant and can't be substituted without changing other words in the sentence had troubled me for some time. Pinker uses this issue to introduce how we use language as a metaphor for our experiences.

He even delves into the subject of words we should have but don't, like your example of those to whom the lies were told. (My first thought was dupes but I think that is only if they believe the lies.) I don't think he found a satisfactory explanation of why it happens that the right word never becomes standard.

At any rate, a good read for those intrigued by words and language.

Jim Murdoch said...

Nice to hear from you, Tammi, and a second recommendation. I may well have to bite the bullet and at least stick this on my wish list.

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