I’ve been doing a lot of talking lately, and maybe that’s why so many of this week’s recommendations focus on language.
I was fascinated by Xiaolu Guo’s piece on the frustrations of writing her first novel in English, when her first language, Chinese, offers many more visual possibilities:
Of the many differences between the two systems, the first and foremost is visual. To give a concrete example, in Chinese, a tree is 木 (pronounced mu). If you put two trees together, it becomes a grove — 林 (lin). And if you put three trees together, it makes a forest — 森 (sun).
I am now in love with the idea of growing a forest on a page, made up of individual tree-words.
The more pictorial nature of East Asian languages is behind the next article too, which opens with the story of Alex, whose dyslexia seemed to vanish when he switched from English to Japanese. It turns out that the sheer inconsistency of English is a hurdle to many learners (children whose first language is English tend to read later than those learning consistent languages like Finnish, Welsh and Czech).
But there’s also the question of just how abstract our writing is. In Chinese and Japanese, many words are a direct representation of their meanings. As Alex puts it:
you can "recognise the meaning of a character before reading it". That is to say, you can see that a character is a mountain, or a fish, or maybe it has a little fish in it, to show that it is fish-related. By contrast, in English, you need to grasp the whole word and its sound, then figure out the meaning.
It doesn’t make Alex any less dyslexic, but it does point to the hidden differences between the ways our languages are constructed.
I’m vastly simplifying here - do read the whole article, which teases out the complex causes of dyslexia, and also its variability. I can tell you all about that: both my husband and son are dyslexic in entirely different ways, but both of them - unlike me - can read numbers. Sigh. We’re a complicated family!
Speaking of numbers, I really enjoyed this piece on the two types of numbers: interesting and boring. Sadly, for me, it lacks a third category - slippery and incomprehensible - but it did make me feel as though I was peeping into yet another language that I don’t speak, but would love to understand.
One language that I’m still learning - apart from Spanish, which I discussed in this week’s newsletter - is the arcane vocabulary of Dungeons & Dragons. Our weekly D&D Zoom sessions with friends made lockdown a little more bearable (although don’t ask about the time when H spent three whole weeks watching a cart while the rest of us explored a cave system). I was curious to discover that the game (or way of life, as its fans prefer to think of it) is now being used as a form of therapy. I say: whatever works, as long as I don’t have to cosplay.
I am, in truth, not very good at games, or any kind of organised fun, but I have just bought Illimat, the board game that seems to be a mix of Bridge and tarot, with a dash of mediaeval seasonality thrown in. I confess that I was mainly interested because it was illustrated by Carson Ellis, but that feels like a good enough reason to me. It is a very beautiful thing indeed.
And finally, I realise that snails are not as cute as pufflings, but I loved this article about snail migration, Hawai’i and deep time. Spoiler alert: snails have always been slow, but they might also be a lot more ingenious than we thought.
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“I am, in truth, not very good at games, or any kind of organised fun” - this is so so true of me as well. I can’t understand rules and can’t focus on the game and everyone gets frustrated with me and it’s just not fun for me the way it is for so many people! But if anyone wants to go for a hike or out on the lake with me, or even just talk over snacks, I’m IN.
This is so fascinating, although it is making me want to learn Japanese even more than I already did! Having taught English to adult foreign speakers on and off since arriving in Germany, the weirdness of English is real and I am more aware of it than ever, when having to explain bizarre things like different pronunciations of “read” depending on present and past tense, that “plough”and “now” have the same vowel sound, and “sew” and “so” are pronounced the same. German, universally regarded as exceptionally difficult (and I agree!), still gets a run for its money when placed against english.
Love that you play D+D! My husband is a dungeon master- something that is increasingly cool to tell people these days. 😂