The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Damian O'Brien

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Damian O'Brien


Summary: Words have long fascinated Zoë and after reading If Houses Why Not Mouses? by Damian O'Brien she had quite a few questions to ask the author when he called in to Bookbag Towers.
Date: 9 January 2013
Interviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris

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Words have long fascinated Zoë and after reading If Houses Why Not Mouses? by Damian O'Brien she had quite a few questions to ask the author when he called in to Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Damian O'Brien: Classicists, cruciverbalists, linguists, logophiles, perusers, polymaths, phonologists, philologists, students, Scrabblers, teachers, tutors - and, for personal reasons, Queen Rania of Jordan.

  • BB: When, where and why did you first become interested in linguistics?

DO'B: Latin classes at school were I think the first time I became aware of relationships between languages. Much later I started learning Greek to pass the evenings during a winter in Siberia, and I saw a chart listing cognate words in ten Indo-European languages. I remember being captivated by the idea of an ancient substrate binding together things as superficially different as English, Greek and Sanskrit - and that there were regular rules of sound change which could be applied to a word in one language to change it into a word in another.

My real study of linguistics began with the question, "Why are there irregular verbs in English?" Every grammar I read, of Old English, of Gothic, of Latin, of Greek, said that verbal irregularities were part of an ancient system which could be better understood through Sanskrit. So I spent three years studying Sanskrit, Indian liguistics, and two dialects of Ancient Iranian in order to understand why we say drive drove driven. Then I wrote a book about it - so others wouldn't have to!

  • BB: On my first day at uni, we were set an assignment to answer the question Why study linguistics? In a nutshell, what would your response have been?

DO'B: My response would probably have been, "Isn't this something you should ask on the application form?"

There are many branches of linguistics, from the historical linguistics (philology) explored in my book, a discipline with a history of over two thousand years, to neurolinguistics, a much more recent field concerned with very different questions. Although not mutually exclusive, someone could have an entire career in one of these areas without ever encountering the other. Whichever of the numerous paths someone chooses they will find a demanding subject which rewards rigorous analysis, attention to detail and the ability to spot patterns and draw conclusions. However scientific, linguistics of course deals with a medium of communication that is used with immense creativity in literature, advertising, politics and so on. Anyone interested in language acquisition must at some point wonder how Shakespeare acquired so much.

As for ancient languages, the introduction to my book lists some of the marvellous things we wouldn't know about history if we didn't study them.

So, that's it in a nutshell - I'm afraid my nuts are quite big.

  • BB: In the book, you discuss how complex a language English is. From your experience, does any other language even come close to this complexity?

DO'B: English has a large and heterogeneous vocabulary, but so does Persian. The relationship between spelling and sound can seem quite opaque, but compared to Chinese it's a piece of cake. In terms of morphology (changes in word form) Turkish is vastly more complex. As for syntax, Sanskrit can be positively sadistic in comparison. The more or less complex features of English have all emerged over time - the underlying structure is pretty simple, and that's what I try to show in the book.

  • BB: Languages, especially English, change rapidly as a result of their use (and misuse) by different generations, different communities. Do you approve of language evolution in this way, or are you more of a puritan?

DO'B: I think it is important to try and distinguish between changes in style and more fundamental changes. Someone may disapprove of a change that is occurring in their language during their own lifetime, but that is an unnaturally and unrepresentatively short period of time in linguistic terms. The language of new media, advertising, and instant messaging may cause a bit of harrumphing from puritans, but nobody seems to lament the loss of verb forms like goeth and goest, or noun gender or any number of features that English speakers have dispensed with over the centuries. Why not? Because the anti-change position doesn't really make any sense in a broad historical context.

However, I think there are points to be made regarding style. You can't really do much about the way people speak, but there is clear benefit in having conventions for writing. I have read articles by progressives about, for example, the evils of prescriptive grammar or the redundancy of apostrophes. More striking than their arguments is that their texts are all written and punctuated in completely standard English, which the author must have been taught and without which they wouldn't be understood.

Understanding change is far more interesting than arguing its pros and cons, and you can read my book to see why!

  • BB: If we were playing a sort of Desert Island Dialogue, what would you pick as you Top 5 words?

DO'B: If I could choose any language, I think on the basis of sound I would take domedidum smakkabagm glaggwuba, a unusually inelegant selection of Gothic words which means I judged the fig tree exactly. For expressiveness I would have the Sanskrit word ayoni, which my dictionary defines as something which is not a vagina and therefore has potentially the greatest range of possible applications of any word ever thought of. And the word help would probably come in handy after a couple of weeks.

  • BB: Who are your favourite authors, either fiction or non-fiction?

DO'B: Jamie Oliver. The man's a genius. I have one of his spoons. Apparently Dickens wrote nearly as much, but he never made any spoons or produced recipes for easy meals on the go. That's why he won't be remembered. Pukka.

Aside from that, the book I have read the most frequently is probably The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Probably the most entertaining novel I have read is My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad. For sheer readability James Hilton's Lost Horizon. Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes is mesmerisingly beautiful. For non-fiction, Steve Coll's books on the major issues of our times are excellent, and Ahmed Rashid is Coll's equal when it comes to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But no-one can match Shakespeare. Not even Jamie.

  • BB: Besides language and languages, what are your other passions?

DO'B: Travel. Slow travel. Long train journeys, canal boats, cycling.

  • BB: Your book probably wins the prize for written in the best location – which parts of the world are your favourite to travel in?

DO'B: Great! What's the prize? I like unfamiliar places, culture shock, terrific landscapes.

  • BB: What's next for Damian O'Brien?

DO'B: I think I might have a cup of tea. This has been exhausting.

  • BB: Enjoy, Damian and we hope Queen Rania of Jordan gets to read the book.

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