Friday, January 30, 2009

English Language Series #2:
In Which a Dual Lesson on the English Language and Great English Writers Wreaks Havoc on the Author’s Spell-Chequer

Originally when I pondered writing this post, I was looking for a story that was shared in a content area literacy class my students took a couple years ago while I was their field instructor. In the story, most of the words were complete gibberish, but the students were given a quiz (made up of the same gibberish) and got all the answers right without fail, without really understanding what the story was talking about. The point of the lesson was how much we take from context. Thinking of language as a set of words that we deconstruct one by one is not really accurate, because when we learn to understand a language, we do it largely through contextual clues. There are phrase structures and sentence structures, and even story or genre structures, that help us know what to expect so that we don’t have to actually think about the individual words, one at a time.

I couldn’t find the story, though (it’s a pity, it would have been fun to share). But then I realized that I had one of the best examples of understanding gibberish through contextual clues in a well-worn book on the bookshelf in my apartment. And so for #2 in my English Language Series, I share a brilliant little poem from one of my favorite books of all time, Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.


‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

What makes this poem great is that, despite the fact that nearly every one of the important words is completely incomprehensible by itself, as you read the poem you can understand, and even visualize, what is going on. And what makes the poem even greater is that even the individual words are not complete and utter nonsense—either Lewis Carroll had a lot of fun constructing the words, or (I like to think this is the case) he had a lot of fun deconstructing the words after he had written them, and making meaning out of what had begun as nonsense.
’There are plenty of hard words there, “ [Humpty Dumpty interrupted]. Brillig” means four o’clock in the afternoon—the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.’

‘That’ll do very well,’ said Alice: ‘and “

‘Well, “
slithy” means “lithe and slimy.” “Lithe” is the same as “active.” You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

‘I see it now,’ Alice remarked thoughtfully: ‘and what are “

‘Well, “
toves” are something like badgers—they’re something like lizards—and they’re something like corkscrews.’

‘They must be very curious-looking creatures.’

‘They are that,’ said Humpty Dumpty: ‘also they make their nests under sun-dials—also they live on cheese.’

‘And what’s to “
gyre” and to “gimble”?’

‘To “
gyre” is to go round and round like a gyroscope. To “gimble” is to make holes like a gimblet.’

‘And “
the wabe” is the grass-plot round a sun-dial I suppose?’ said Alice, surprised at her own ingenuity.

‘Of course it is. It’s called “
wabe” you know, because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it—‘

‘And a long way beyond it on each side,’ Alice added.

‘Exactly so. Well then, “
mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable” (there’s another portmanteau for you). And a “borogove” is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round—something like a live mop.’

‘And then “
mome raths”?’ said Alice. ‘I’m afraid I’m giving you a great deal of trouble.’

‘Well, a “
rath” is a sort of green pig: but “mome” I’m not certain about. I think it’s short for “from home”—meaning that they’d lost their way, you know.’

‘And what does “
outgrabe” mean?’

‘Well, “
outgribing” is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle: however, you’ll here it done, maybe—down in the wood yonder—and when you’ve once heard it you’ll be quite content. Who’s been repeating all that hard stuff to you?’

‘I read it in a book,’ said Alice.

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