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

by Mark Broatch / 03 December, 2017

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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.

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