Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing by Daniel Tammet – book review

by Mark Broatch / 03 December, 2017

Daniel Tammet: perceptions mould understanding. Photo/Getty Images

Daniel Tammet opens up his world of words, with their colours, shapes and textures.

To those who spend long enough around them, words have a shape and texture. It might be their sounds, distribution of consonants and vowels; whether short and direct Anglo-Saxon or roundabout Latinate; borrowed or onomatopoeic.

For Daniel Tammet, the feel of words goes much further. Cabbage, for example, is as round as a three, jacket as pointy as a four, shoemaker as shimmering as a five. That’s because for Tammet, also a maths-whizz autistic savant with synaesthesia, numbers have not only shape, colour and texture but sometimes motion – and the shapes have meaning. The number 89, for instance, is dark blue, has a beaded texture and a whirling downward motion.

One winter, when he was seven, Tammet looked out and saw snow falling and piled up on the grey English paths and streets. “Snow,” he said to his parents. Eighty-nine, he thought. Numbers rhymed, visually, in a way he couldn’t tell the children at school.

You, too, can feel that elemental joy in language in Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing. It’s a linguistic jaunt, as we are reminded by the subtitle, “Encounters with the mysteries and meanings of language”.

So Tammet tracks down a Mexican speaker of Nahuatl, the language that generously gave English avocado, guacamole and chocolate. As the English language values utility – does this new word describe something we don’t have? – what generally matters to Nahuas is the sound of the word rather than its origin.

Repetition of syllables to change or enhance meaning is common: kochi means sleep, ko-kochi means sound asleep; xotla means to burn, xoxotla means to burn intensely. A hummingbird is huitzitzilin, corn cooking in a pan is cuacualaca. How can this language die?

Tammet, who can speak several languages, including French, Finnish and Icelandic, gets in touch with some speakers of the invented language Esperanto (he doesn’t note that he’s made up his own, Mänti). He teaches English in Lithuania using sounds and pictures, learns sign language, investigates Bible translation, finds out why Iceland bans some names, talks to an Englishman at L’Académie française.

Whether you find every chapter riveting will depend on your level of language fascination. The larger point, as Tammet has explained elsewhere, is perceptions mould understanding. “Aesthetic judgments rather than abstract reasoning guide and shape the process by which we all come to know what we know.”

The pleasure here, of course, is that, unlike most other autistic savants, Tammet can communicate exactly what and how he thinks. You can sense him turning over the syntax in each sentence to find its most pleasurable and accurate form. Mostly enviably, but very occasionally, a line can come across as something like a translation.

Which of course for Tammet it is. So the best chapter for me was his published translation into French of the verse of Les Murray, one of Australasia’s greatest poets. Murray is also someone with high-functioning autism, a polyglot and a word freak. It’s an inspired pairing.

Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing, by Daniel Tammet (Hodder & Stoughton, $41.99)

This article was first published in the October 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


The art and soul of Te Papa
88235 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Arts

The art and soul of Te Papa

by Sally Blundell

Twenty years ago, Te Papa opened with little space to exhibit its national art collection. Now, it is showing off its new dedicated art space.

Read more
Does chewing more help curb your appetite?
87918 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Does chewing more help curb your appetite?

by Jennifer Bowden

Our appetite-control hormones are affected by chewing, according to some studies, whereas others show no change.

Read more
How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the crowd to queen of the stage
88396 2018-03-16 09:42:00Z Music

How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the cr…

by Vomle Springford

Auckland rapper JessB is making her mark in the male-dominated hip-hop scene with the release of her much-anticipated debut EP Bloom.

Read more
Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of military aircraft
88389 2018-03-16 07:02:40Z Politics

Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of milit…

by Craig McCulloch

Defence Minister Ron Mark is denying any inappropriate use of military aircraft after revelations he has used them to fly to and from home.

Read more
Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close to school
88387 2018-03-16 06:55:59Z Crime

Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close t…

by Eva Corlett and Sally Murphy

Corrections says it will review its processes after it was discovered 11 sex offenders were living less than a kilometre away from an Auckland school.

Read more
Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports to New Zealand
88222 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports…

by Clare de Lore

When he arrived here from Ireland in 1960, Rodney Walshe had nothing but a suit and the gift of the gab. They took him a long way.

Read more
Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming home
88378 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming hom…

by Clare de Lore

The nomadic New Zealander who’s set his sights on space travel is no longer an alien.

Read more
How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk to celebrated jeweller
88263 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z What's on

How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk …

by Mike White

The Anarchist jeweller has a remarkable show at new Te Papa gallery, Toi Art.

Read more