“An academic treatise to a linguistic/scientific Big Bang theory of the evolution of language”
This is what I imagined, in my first experience of a manic high as an undergraduate, the title of my paper on the subject would read. Something similar. I had been asked to write a history of dictionaries in my final year at Oxford, by a tutor who was especially academic and reductionist in her approach to literature. She was the one that you read the essays on literary theory to, and the one who used to lie on her day couch, eyes closed (she had a bad back) while you read your essay, and then ping them open at the end having said nothing throughout, quoting whole lines of your text for disagreement and rigorous review. I was not the only person to find Mrs Ingham terrifying.
So her request to write a history of dictionaries was not one I received with enthusiasm. As I remember, unusually for Oxford, we had a whole term to write this one, so the build up was immense. At the time, I was reading, as everyone was ‘A Brief History of Time’ the Stephen Hawking book, which hints at the possible existence of God at the end. Or at least it did in my reading, Christian though unorthodox to the core. The book that I embarked upon first for this history of dictionaries was not to look at when Webster and Samuel Jonson were embarking on their great projects, which would be a more traditional route. That didn’t even occur to me. I wanted to include my latest find “The Seed of Speech” which I still have a copy of somewhere and which I believe formed the basis for the Reith Lecture that year, which would have been 1991.
What fascinated me about the ‘Seeds of Speech’ argument was that, though language developed in small tribes in East Africa, it was only at its most basic components. Then at some point there was a trauma to these small tribes, most likely an earthquake, and they split some staying East and the others going West. It was from this trauma that language evolved properly, as tribesmen had to learn to communicate in order to hunt together in the more barren and food scarce West.
It seemed to me, in my pre-manic phase, that this was just like a proof of the possibility of the garden of Eden story, and that language and choosing, would make sense in the context of the story, of evolving at that point. The impact on evolution would be enormous. It occurred to me as well that language was constantly evolving and changing, and if I could prove it all came from one common word that spread out like a linguistic big bang, then I could tie up all the strands of my interests and give my own take on this apparently impossible assignment, the history of Dictionaries. I imagined Mrs Ingham sitting in her study on too of an enormous 3 storey high pile of dictionaries, and me trying to impress her with my antics at her lofty height. I knew I had to do something special.
I started on my own action research on how language works. Say it started with the big bang and the word ‘good’ and that good just realised a whole other set of words to develop. ‘Good’ is of course the first word that God liberated into the universe, and it would have, as a word of that status and from those lips, a kind of explosive quality to set the rest of language into motion. The problem is with language and its evolution is that it tends to get set into cliches and tropes, and everyone now and them someone has to bust them wide open before they become meaningless. So for example; ‘pale blue eyes’ becomes just a codifying phrase, rather than one that communicates with immediacy or explosiveness, because we use it without thinking. Lou Reed sings ‘Linger on, your pale blue eyes’ and pale blue eyes is very distant cypher for another set of ideas, which don’t have to do with the words themselves. I was writing similar examples in my notepads, but making them up “Lesser spotted cack I spotted you” followed by four very similar lines seemed rife for some high energy denotation to get the meaning out.
My notes for this essay were becoming more and more sprawling, and I was coming back at the end of days in the library with screeds of hand noted nonsense. I was also walking down the High Street calling (under my breath I hope) Boom! At certain institutions that represented words or judgements that I thought ought to be detonated to let the language out. But, just because I was doing all those things, doesn’t mean that I now want to discount all my experience then.
The big bang history of the world evolution of language theory in the meantime was rumbling on in my head. Breakthrough moments were John Donne’s “License my roving hands and let them go/Above, between, before, beneath, below”. Later in the poem, when he has his wish he calls his mistress “My America!” and there’s that sense of the explosion of the new, which breaks the shackles and the ossified language of the past.
But I started future casting about where these set of ideas could go, and I came across virtual reality, which was one of those half understood buzz words at the time which generate attention, fear and excitement in equal aspects. For my theory of language evolution, and for my limited understanding of the area, they were disastrous. If you had virtual reality, you’d have virtual dictionaries, and then virtual ‘good’, virtual ‘truth’ and so on. 20 years on, and I’m still not convinced whether there has been since then a fundamental shift in our understanding of these universal concepts, which may or may not be ascribable to the idea of ‘virtual’ or ‘online’ existences. Certainly at the time for a vulnerable 20 year old, these concepts were too big to contain in my brain, and seemed to matter too much to not be acted upon.
At the time I was going out with someone from the Oxford Revue, which is equivalent to Cambridge Footlights. They were devising a show which contained a sketch which may have been partly inspired by Dan and my conversations about VR – ‘Virtual Reality Boxing’. The idea was that a man came in, determined to take on the world in his virtual reality boxing game, with a cardboard box on his head. While he was swinging punches at the air and issuing challenges, six or so sighted boxers came on and beat him to a pulp.
I was doing similar things in my room at night by this stage, calling out ‘ding ding’ as the round started. Hannah vs Reality, it’s the contest of the year, who will win? Reality, hands down. A few weeks later I was in the hospital. I did hand in my essay to Mrs Ingham. In the first few weeks, before the meds kicked in too much, I could remember most of it, and I wrote it down for her. She came, very sweetly, to the day room in the Warneford, and we ate cake and caught up as human beings. She brought the essay with her with comments, which I must unearth if I still have it. I asked her what she thought. I wanted her to say it was ‘true’, she said it was ‘interesting’. At the time I was disappointed, but maybe for an Oxford academic interesting is more of a compliment than true. I’d like to think so. I’d also like to thank her for the cake.