Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton

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Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A fascinating combination of personal memoir and the intricacies of languages and how to learn them.
Buy? Yes Borrow? No
Pages: 360 Date: April 2021
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1913097509

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Where do I start? I could start with where Barton herself starts, with the question Why Japan? Japan has been on my radar for a while and if the world hadn't gone into melt-down I would have visited by now. I may get there later this year, but I am not hopeful. And like Barton, I don't know the answer to the question why Japan? She explains her feelings in respect of the question in the first essay, which is on the sound giro' – which she describes as being, among other things, the sound of every party where you have to introduce yourself.

This is the kind of book that, if like me you love language in all the practical and the philosophical and the magical mystical aspects of it, both spoken and written, if you are astonished at speech and writing (as in squiggles on a page) and how ideas exist in some languages and can't be remotely rendered in others, then you will love this book.


I say that because it is not an easy book. If you are not a linguist – and I'm not – then in places it is quite technical. I know what onomatopoeia is, but had to look up mimetic (several times and the dictionary that gave a definition as the habit of practicing mimesis really didn't help!). If you are not a philosopher – and I'm not – then in places it is quite esoteric (abstruse, obscure, arcane). I got a feel for why Barton is enthralled to Wittgenstein, but really just felt grateful that my own language studies have remained at the more basic, playful, level.

None of this is a reason not to read the book. Quite the opposite, it is an encouragement to keep reading the book through those early pages when you're wondering if you'll ever get into it. If you're an academic, then find an academic reviewer to tell you whether it's of any value on that score, but if you just take a joyful delight in the way words work, and might be interested in how they work in other languages then simply skim the bits you don't understand first time around, and enjoy it for the bits you do.

Those bits, for me, included thought-provoking meanders through how what we believe and how we relate and we act as a society determines and is determined by not only the language we speak and its rules but also by how it is rendered on the page. In the west we use Alphabets of (roughly – it does vary) 26 characters, each of which equates to one or more sounds, and these build into words, and words into sentences. In China, most famously, the written representation quite specifically isn't "the written word" it is the "the written concept", and as Barton explores in this book Japan sits (by choice, it would seem) between these two. Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji. There's a heavy emphasis on phonetics in the first two of these written forms (known collectively as the kana) so then you have to wonder how it can be that they have found a need for 2,136 officially recorded Kanji?

I took delight, as I think so does Barton in her lighter moments, in the how some of the stereotypical renditions of Japanese people speaking English have come into play. They have evolved out of the way they assimilate English words into their own language and then find a way of rendering those words – words in the sense of sounds = concepts into their own written form which then finds its way back out into their social interactions. There is nothing specifically Japanese about this process, it happens (I believe) in all languages – nowhere more so, probably, than in the most bastard / mongrel of all languages that we have the cheek to call English.

This isn't just a book about language though. It is also an autobiography. It is a book about trying to learn a language as an adult, which gives pause for thought on how we learn – and indeed how we quite often really don't. It's a book about falling in love, and not always recognising what it is we have fallen in love with, because sometimes it is a 'what' and not a 'who'. It is a coming-of-age piece in a way, looking at how one woman has come to terms with who she is / isn't / wants to be / doesn't and all the messy stuff involved in living a life.

Going back through my turned down corners…I find marked passages that include the embarrassment involved in trying to learn something new (when everyone, just everyone around you, knows how useless at this you are, and worse: so do you); passages on Wittgenstein – presumably in case I can ever figure out what he was on about; whether the act of writing takes you closer to a language or further from it, closer to society or further away, makes you more, or less, authentic in your expression; whether mimicking an accent is 'gross' (somehow insulting & derogatory) or whether it is the opposite, the attempt to get the authentic sound because that ties into the authentic meaning; passages that speak about why some of us cleave to the magic of language, the need to express ourselves, to be heard.

Each of the "Fifty Sounds" is a word or a compound word in Japanese and for each of them Barton explores how and where she learned it, what its (shall we say) official or accepted meaning is, but also what it means to her. Some of them are onomatopoeic and others are more broadly mimetic, but Barton has stretched them beyond that. One of the joys of this book lies in those very chapter headings. I won't spoil too much of that for readers (of whom I hope there will be many) but do feel the need to quote two of them that seem apt for these times.

jin-jin: the sound of being touched for the very first time


chira-chira: the sound of the mighty loner and the caress of ten thousand ownerless looks

Oh yes, that's the other thing – there's a great deal of beautiful poetic express hidden in here.

This isn't a book to borrow, read and put back. It is one to buy, and read, and come back to in snippets and dippings and ponderings, over a very long period of time.


For more ponderings on the nature of language and how we use it, we can recommend The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind by Steven Pinker

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