All my words done failed me
Every line derails me
This is the day that the English language let me down
Words. Language. Etymology, definitions, wordplay, translation, stories and poems, word puzzles, word games. English, French, German, Spanish, Hebrew. Language is both my friend and my enemy. In I Am Unlike A Lifeform You’ve Ever Met, I talked about books and the imagination. This post covers speech and language.
Somewhere, there is a tape of me reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, aged about two. My first word was ‘duck’. I’m not sure when I learned to talk, though I wasn’t a late developer or non-verbal. I do remember, however, that I spoke in a monotone, and that efforts were made to correct this and have me intone words like ‘normal’ people. Mum also told me my speaking voice was too high-pitched and that I should try and make it a bit deeper, and that I was too loud. “Turn the volume down,” was a comment often directed at me. Years later, in synagogue, the rabbi took me aside and asked me not to sing so loudly at Friday night services as I was drowning other people out. This upset me a lot; I was just enjoying the service and had no idea that what I was doing was wrong, and as it was not an Orthodox synagogue, the principle of kol isha did not apply. Was it because of my Aspergers? How the fuck should I know? Maybe it was. I have no idea how I sound to other people. When I hear my own voice played back to me, it sounds horrible, like a cross between Morrissey and Henry’s Cat. I hate my singing voice as well, possibly because Jack always used to tell me to shut up whenever I sang along to music in my bedroom. I have a bit of a complex about it. How it could turn any nice Jewish boy on, I do not know.
Anyway. Tangents aside, I apparently went to see a speech therapist at some point when I was younger. In terms of writing, I was doing OK – I got team points for stories and essays I’d written at school (I even wrote the script for our class’s production of the story of Pandora’s box), I was in the top group for spelling, and when we had to write sentences using words on coloured cards. It was also at primary school that I discovered an aptitude for languages. OK, I’m not a polyglot and I’m not fluent in any language besides English, though I can speak German pretty well, but I got interested in languages after going to French Club in Year 3, having French lessons off a friend of Mum’s in Year 5, and doing French lessons in Year 6. Even when I was little, the way people said things in other languages fascinated me. When we went on holiday to the Algarve, I pored over the Portuguese phrase book we had. I was fascinated by an old English/French picture dictionary and the conjugations of irregular verbs. How could ‘avoir’ become ‘aurons’ and ‘aurez’, and what the hell was the deal with ‘être’? When Dad went on a work trip to Germany, he brought back comics in German. I didn’t have a bloody clue what any of the words meant, though they did come in handy when I started doing German in Year 9. I found the German language even cooler than French, with its complicated word order and Modalverben and ever-changing masculine definite article. I also liked the way it sounded, and was made up when a friend gave me a Rammstein tape. (Till Lindemann’s voice helped. That guy could sing the contents of the Dusseldorf phonebook and make it sound sexy.)
When I got into Sixth Form, I decided I wanted to read languages at university, since languages were my thing; I was doing A-Level French, German and English Language (and my transcripts of Space interviews came in handy when we were studying accent and dialect!) I wanted to read Chinese or Spanish alongside German. Cambridge turned me down, and I got offers from Durham and Leeds, but went with Manchester, which didn’t do Chinese at the time but did offer Spanish. I took night classes in my gap year to give me a bit of a grounding in Spanish. I find it harder than German, I have to admit. Maybe it’s because German is closer to English. When we were studying the evolution of the English language, I noticed a lot of similarities between Old English and German. The fact it was phonetic, for instance.
On the subject of accents, Rudy Simone writes in Aspergirls that she has a tendency to pick up accents; she recalls being mistaken for an immigrant after speaking in a ‘Hispanic’ accent that she’d picked up from a colleague. The same thing happens to me. The one time I did consciously put on an accent was in high school, because I was being bullied for talking ‘posh’, but after moving to Manchester, something bizarre happened where I was out with mates and I started talking in a sort of weird half-Manc half-Yorkshire accent. Everyone thought I was putting it on, but it was real. I’ve toned it down a bit, but it changes depending on who I’m with and where I am. Expose me to Everton matches or members of Space, and my accent gets a Scouse tinge. In London, it goes a bit cockney. I’m not putting it on to make fun of people; it just happens. It’s a kind of osmosis. G-d help me if this ever happens in Scotland. Perhaps it’s some kind of instinct to imitate sounds, like a baby learning to talk.
As I’ve said before, I find writing easier than talking. Writing helps me organise my thoughts better, and I can rewrite what I’ve written, whereas when I say things, that’s it, the cat is out of the bag. Sometimes I can’t find the right words to express myself when I speak, or I say stupid or horrible things without thinking. At least, sitting at a keyboard, I have a bit more control over what comes out.