Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Invention of Language

Forgive these rather unformed thoughts, but after I blogged about line endings a while ago, one of my fellow workshoppers challenged me to post about the next topic put to us by our leader, Polly Moyer. In our last workshop, Polly got us thinking about invented words, which reminded me of an excellent talk I heard at Cheltenham Poetry Festival this year by the poet-lexicographer Giles Goodland. Goodland's main point was that, in the past, poets were actually a source of new words, expanding the vocabulary of English as a young language by coming up with new ways of saying things that needed to be said. The greatest word inventor was Shakespeare, with over 1700 coinings of his still in common usage. Once we have a standardised language, of course, with dictionaries, grammarians and English teachers, some words are 'right' and some words are 'wrong' or disallowed.

But inventing words is still a fundamental human instinct. Reading Roy Marshall's excellent Gopagilla (Crystal Clear, 2012), for example, I am reminded of how children learn language as much by making new words and playing sounds as by simply imitating what already existing - Roy's title is a word invented by his son. And poets, I think, have to remain as much language inventors as language imitators. While there is much to be said for the precise use of the arsenal of language as it is, there should always be room for the creation of new words where that invention gives us access to untapped experience. For instance, Paul Farley gets a whole poem out of someone else's invention of the word 'landy' to describe the smell of land from the sea after a long solo voyage (in his collection Tramp in Flames, Picador 2006).

For anyone who wants to try their hand at word invention, I can recommend Oli Hazzard's poem 'The inability to recall the precise word for something' which provides a list of things in the world that are still in search of some precise terminology (the recording is not that great - you can also find the poem in The Salt Book of Younger Poets).

Finally by way of my own contribution to word-coining, here's a poem I wrote a while ago, an unashamedly romantic sonnet, for which I came up with the term 'unkeltered'. Somehow, nothing else would do.


Your body’s the only warm thing in the room –
One finger keeps me moored to it, for safety,
until I am unkeltered by a moon
that fixes me cold and drives me out to sea,

where limbs of kraken scrape against my hull,
then pitch to depths where flitting shoals collide
and squirm with eelish memories, whose shocks seemed dull
when I was still salt-roped along your side.

I’m off the radar, a green and ghosting blip,
a bottle with its SOS unread.
My thousand lies send out their fearful ships
to sink me fifty fathoms to the dead.

Still, from your sleep, you cast a saving hand
that drags me back, anchors me to land.

(First published in Dreams and Nightmares, Gloucestershire Writers' Network, 2010)

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