When I was a child, one of my aspirations was to become an Egyptologist, to explore the wild desert sands on a camel, to read hieroglyphs and make exciting new discoveries. Now that I’m older, I realise, looking back, that what actually drew me to this idea – apart from an excellent exhibition on Howard Carter that I went to at the impressionable age of ten – is the idea of a secret language, a whole other world of images and words that can be learnt, devoured and interpreted. I’m no linguist, I speak a smattering of schoolgirl French and German and enough holiday Greek to get by, but there’s something utterly glorious about disappearing into another world through language alone. It’s one of the reasons why children still play with lemon juice writing or make up secret ‘spy’ codes, it’s one of the reasons why Cockney backslang, spoken in Victorian London, is so appealing – who wouldn’t secretly want to whisper ‘ecilop’ to a bunch of urchins to warn of a police officer’s approach?
Aside from the many other languages spoken in the UK, from Welsh, Cornish and Scottish Gaelic to the hundreds of languages spoken as both first and second languages, we shouldn’t forget that English itself is a mish-mash, a hungry beast that has absorbed words from all over the world. From the building blocks of Anglo-Saxon and Latin, English has soaked up slang from the streets and absorbed words from numerous other languages. From ‘beserk’ from Old Norse to ‘umbrella’ from Italian, ‘yoghurt’ from Turkish and ‘hypnotic’ from Greek, English soaks up influences from anywhere and everywhere. On top of all those glorious languages, there are dialects too, where a bread roll can be called anything from a barm, barn, bap or batch to a cob (depending on where you are geographically), where mither means being irked and pither means to worry or complain. For those interested in such things, I’d highly recommend following both Susie Dent and Robert MacFarlane on Twitter, both of whom celebrate dialect and meanings on a daily basis.
Languages are meant to be played with, to be felt, to be experimented with. Shakespeare alone is credited with inventing thousands of new words – the exact number is debatable – but surely it is notable that one of our greatest writers was not only unafraid to play with language but actively played a part in its evolution. It saddens me that, today, children in the UK education system are being taught technicalities over and above creativity – playing with language is one of the key ways to become a writer and a good communicator, both of which, I would argue, are essential everyday skills that everyone should have the right to be in possession of.
In Bearmouth, my debut novel, I knew I wanted a strong first person voice telling the story. Newt, a young person who lives and works down the Victorianesque working coal-mine in which the book is set, speaks and writes in a dialect of my own making. Newt’s voice was always very strong in my head even from the early days of scribblings. It was only later, when editing and redrafting that I realised my love of language, of playing with words had fed so heavily into the book and into Newt’s distinctive voice. There are bits of South Shropshire dialect in there alongside elements of Cockney, there are mining terms taken from the Whitehaven district in Cumbria alongside phrasing inspired by long-dead writers like Shakespeare, Marlowe and Chaucer. Like the English language itself, it is a mish-mash of influences. It would also, undoubtedly, fail an English language GCSE in terms of spelling and grammar.
Languages are living things, we should nurture them and accept that they shift and ebb over time. We should celebrate dialect too, those ancient words that scatter our landscape in everything from the food we eat to the place-names that we live in or travel through. Revel in your local dialect, share it with others, write poems and stories in it, celebrate it – for there may well come a time when those self-same words take on new meanings, choose a different coat for themselves, but how glorious to capture them, just for a moment in time, exactly as they are right now.
Last year, I was lucky enough to come across the glorious writer, storyteller and illustrator Jackie Morris (she of The Lost Words and of countless other beautiful books) at Hay Festival where she was artist in residence. Watching her tell stories, dipping into words as her brush dipped into the ink, I was utterly mesmerised by both her tales and her beautiful paintings. I told her it was like alchemy, seeing one of her famed otters come to life in front of me, conjured out of her imagination through ink onto paper.
“Oh no,” she had said. “Writing is alchemy. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet and yet you can tell every story that has ever been told through them. Imagine that.”
Imagine that indeed.
(c) Liz Hyder
It taykes more than one person to start a revolushun.
Life in Bearmouth will never change at least that’s what people say. They work hard to bring wealth to the Master, toiling in dark mines and brutal conditions for six long days each week.
When young friends Newt and Devlin start to question the system, they set in motion a chain of events that could destroy their entire world.
But freedom is worth fighting for.
‘One of the most ambitious and darkly brilliant YA books I’ve read. It’s provocative, tender, claustrophobic and epic. It blew my mind’ — Kiran Millwood Hargrave
‘Liz Hyder is a writer of true courage’ –David Almon
Order your copy online here.