The Jabberwocky of English Language

by James Dunning

Over the past several years a polyglot colleague and great friend of mine undertook an unusual task. He sought to write passages to satirize Dutch and German, that is, to capture the appearance and flavour of Dutch and German without being intelligible, without making actual sense. He took his literary nonsense to his sympathetic informants, native speakers of these languages, and received a disheartening response. Both Dutch and German informants read the passages, wrinkled their noses as if reacting to a noxious stench, and both said dismissively with a frown: 'This is incorrect.'

Upon reflection I recalled another linguistic satirist, well beloved in the English-speaking world, Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame, who wrote the poem Jabberwocky: “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outgrabe.” This text is crafted to resemble the structure, sound and feel of English, however exhibiting little actual English vocabulary. This is an outstanding prototype of the literary nonsense my friend was trying to achieve in Dutch and German. But why did his efforts receive such a cold and uncomprehending reception?

Reflection inspires this author to a bold theory: that English among the world's languages is prominent in literary nonsense, perhaps even monolithic. Most every literary language on this earth very likely has speakers that make fun of their own language with a vengeance. Yet this author doubts that very many languages will satirize themselves in print and get away with the outrage as does English. For English seems in a unique position. Intrepid nonsense writers have blazed the trail for word games in print. Readers of English have been spoiled by the foolery of creative nonsense-smiths who have warped, distended and transformed vocabulary in a spirit of fun and satire, from Carroll through Orwell, Joyce, Tolkien and Heinlein. Anthony Burgess created a British Russianate youth jargon in A Clockwork Orange. And it worked (well, at least for English readers; I have not consulted the Russians!).

Why is this? The imposition of Anglish, Saxon and Norse on Celtic speakers (and there were many of these) may have started it all. Think of the fun an 8th Century James Joyce would have at creatively warping the language of his conqueror, even if unable to record it on vellum! Anglo-Saxon absorbed at least one Celtic word: cnoc 'hill.'* Then the massive fusion of Anglo-Saxon with Norman French stretched our flexibility and forever shattered the myth of language being some purist sacred cow, and also gave us some erudite and bombastic vocabulary to lampoon. For we developed a Norman and Latinate Katharevousa and a Saxon Demotic, both of which are still with us to this day, despite the two languages making whoopee. A kind of archaic Katharevousa still survives in legalese (heretofore, whereas, herewith, without let or hindrance, etc.) and in medical circles (Greek and Latinate anatomy, physiology and pathology).

Therefore one is eminently able to implement elegant satirical machinations by optative resort to extrascholastic lexical fabrication, or rather by resolute employment of bombastic circumlocution and reduplicatively redundant gobbledygook. One can perform such tricks in German with impunity without Latinate vocabulary, rather by wielding compound-complex sentences of Rube Goldberg complexity. Lots of Akademiker on their high horses do it every day, and don't even think it funny! But this author has not seen comparably outrageous literary nonsense auf Deutsch.

Adding fuel to the flames of infinite variability in English is its extraordinary flexibility. English has always taken in strays. Not stray cats and dogs, but words: Sanskrit, Turkish, German, Arabic, Algonquin, Eskimo, Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese, etc., and has done so for centuries now. English can also morph nouns into verbs, verbs into nouns, etc., particularly in the specialized argot or verbal shorthand of science or trade.

A great many languages of Europe grew up 'pure' like German, which was purist for so long (calques like Einfluß were the rule) that their traditional attitude is one of exclusion, although this is changing via absorption of frighteningly many foreign words today. [Many recent Latinate borrowings in modern German are 'false friends,' for their meanings can be radically different from those expected in English.] Yet still I sense a poisonous gravity toward language which is intact despite change: their written language is enforced like a Katharevousa. At first strong-arm politics imposed Hannoverian dialect as standard literary Hochdeutsch, and then the Akademiker took over.

The stringent attitude of authoritarian German education perhaps kills the printing of German dialects. There is such a pervasive and oppressive sense of dialect inferiority that one as a stranger can walk into a room vibrant with Plattdeutsch and the speakers will unconsciously switch to Hochdeutsch the moment you walk in. The Schwabs won't switch, not for nobody, not never, not nohow** [Mir schwätzet Schwäbisch, gell?], yet even they have not successfully established their beloved Swabian dialect in print. Schwäbisch appears in print of course, but in fun, for humour, novelty or local interest, not for serious scholarship or literature.*** Of course, with today's globalism even Hochdeutsch is more endangered than it ever has been, so perhaps local dialects are a moot point. The German of the future might foreseeably contain substantially more Turkish (Auf Allah ismarladik!).

This is by no means to pick on the poor Germans, who constitute but one apt example. A great many languages in Europe and perhaps elsewhere are like German, developing calques or loan-translations in response to the baffling or untoward intrusion of foreign words. The French have become notorious for their officious rejection of words like hot dog. Yet this author has not seen the like of Jabberwocky auf Deutsch or in other languages. Can one even exist with impunity? Perhaps Germany never had a Lewis Carroll to shake up its purist apple cart with his jabberwocky. Or else their stodgy editors likely squelched their nonsense-ridden Ludwig Karl,**** had him drawn and quartered and impaled on a Rückversicherungsgesellschaft with an inseparable prefix verb in his mouth.***** Throughout its catastrophic and varied history, English has been riding the roller coaster of change. Perhaps English nonsense literature bears testimony to the progressive and continuous linguistic dynamics of the English language. There ain't no language like English, not nowhere, not nohow.

© James Dunning
Author of The Bright Lady and the Astral Wind

* In Ireland today one finds a great many 'hill' towns all over the map: Knock, Knock-na-this, Knock-na-that, Knock-na-the-other ...

** This flamboyant double-negativity is grammatically highly incorrect however highly emphatic, deriving from a defiant oration by the Cowardly Lion in the film The Wizard of Oz (1938)

*** Schwäbisch actually seems anomalously to demonstrate more affinity with the Swiss High German down south than with the High German up north.

**** Ludwig Karl is my Teutonic pseudo-counterpart of Lewis Carroll rather than an actual historical personage such as Jakob Ludwig Karl Grimm, author of Grimm's Law (and I hope he will forgive me)!

*****Apologies to American humourist Mark Twain, from whom this imagery derives!

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