Song Thrush

A sweet morning… The small birds are singing, lambs bleating, cuckow calling, the thrush sings by fits, Thomas Ashburner’s axe is going quietly (without passion) in the orchard, hens are cackling, flies humming, the women talking together at their doors, plum and pear trees are in blossom – apple tree greenish.

Dorothy Wordsworth, Journals, May 6th 1820

There is a song thrush who lives over the road from my house, and makes a bit of an auditory spectacle of himself (if that is possible – and in all probability it is a him, not a her, since roughly 30% of female songbirds have lost their song, probably so as not to attract attention to their nests).

The song thrush is notable for the short repeated units of its song – by fits, as Dorothy Wordsworth had it – and its seemingly bottomless repertoire (not unlike the nightingale, its close relative).

And it is disappearing. Only 1,144,000 breeding pairs are left in the UK (seems like a lot, if I’m honest, but then when I heard there were only 3,200 tigers left in the wild I was struck – incorrectly – by how many tigers 3,200 actually is, when you think about it).

We have had the same song thrush over the road from our house for the past three years (I assume it is the same one), and yesterday, listening to him go at it for a while, it struck me that he or she had learnt some new tunes. I have no idea if thrushes cycle back through the same set of refrains, or if every iteration is different, like a sort of aural snowflake. I suspect the former. But repetition does imply identity. My son sings the same song over and over when he is busy with something, but it is never quite the same song twice in a row.

Anyway, I cannot be sure, but it seemed to me that the thrush has picked up some new tricks. Perhaps it is a way of keeping the competitive advantage fresh. Perhaps it is a natural mutation, like a sort of personal season-long game of Chinese whispers. Or perhaps it is just a new thrush, who has evolved the song of his forebears. And perhaps, in the end, that is how any one learns a language – be it English, or Chinese, or Thrush: by continually cycling back, and tweaking the tunes each time you do.



“A wise old owl sat on an oak; The more he saw the less he spoke; The less he spoke the more he heard; Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

What is the goal in language learning, if not fluency? We all want to be fluent. If you tell someone you speak a language they want to know if you speak it fluently. Not accurately or expressively or competently. Fluently.

It isn’t something we ask of other skills. We do not ask if someone can play the violin fluently, or climb mountains fluently, or draw pictures fluently, or write blogs fluently (pretty fluently, since you ask). There are other measures of competence (accuracy, intonation, musicality, eloquence, not falling off, etc.)

So I have been wondering if fluency is really the right goal for a language learner, and whether fluency can even hamper efficient communication. In part, fluency is cultural, and in part it is indexed to personality. Some people, from certain cultures, are more given to fluency than others. I have known some gobsmackingly fluent Italians, for instance – and by contrast, not so many outstandingly fluent Japanese. Does that make the Italian learners more competent than the Japanese? In some instances, to be sure. But some of the most fluent speakers I have know have also been among the least accurate, ultimately the least comprehensible. Stopping and thinking from time to time, suffering inhibitions connected to self-doubt, inaccuracy, tricky corners, and so on, is not necessarily a failure. It can, in fact, be indexed to ultimately higher levels of achievement. Fluency can really be nothing more than a fluent mess; hesitancy can be the hallmark of a well-managed communication.

When the telegraph was first installed along the length of the eastern seaboard of the USA towards the end of the 19th century a newspaper headline announced proudly Now Florida Can Speak to Maine!, to which Ralph Waldo Emerson was moved to wonder sardonically, but does Florida have anything to say to Maine? We are all pretty confident of our own need to communicate, less confident as learners of foreign languages, of our ability. On occasion however, it may very well be that the reverse would serve us better.

All of which amounts to some pretty fluent grousing, I’m pleased to note.


‘I wrote Meditations, rather than Disputations, as philosophers normally do, or Theorems and Problems, in the manner of geometers, so that by this fact alone I might make clear that I have no business except with those who are prepared to make the effort to meditate along with me and to consider the subject attentively.’ Descartes, Second Replies, p. 101


I am pleased to say that I have never done any formal meditating, but some of my students have advised me of its efficacy and pleasurableness. Others tell me that they have tried it, and rapidly bored of it, but could see the merits of it in an abstract rather than a practical sense. None has persuaded me to try it, through disputation or theorem or otherwise.

Similarly, none has persuaded me to take up running. Students have told me variously that it eliminates stress, irrigates the brain, promotes health and wellbeing (whatever that is) and so on. They have said nothing about their knees or their cardiac arrests, but that’s by-the-by.

On the other hand, no one has seriously tried to persuade me to declutter my life, although where psychic health is concerned it is the coming thing. Any number of books will now tell you how to say goodbye to your various effects. We are living, we are told, in a post-materialist world. Things do not make us happy. They weigh us down. They clutter our heads.

I am fairly well-persuaded that Descartes did not go jogging, nor did he meditate in the way that we understand it. He may have sought to clear his head of unnecessary objects, but only so he could build better founded structures of necessary objects. Whether he kept his room tidy and wished his socks goodbye when they got beyond darning is unknown, but since Descartes was not in fact a lunatic it seems unlikely.

Yet I suppose these are the things I am constantly pleading with my students to do. Reflect on what you do, stop and think, practice and repeat, get organised. And if they do not always respond in the ways I would like, then it is no more than a tacit acknowledgement that our approach to life is often untidy, inefficient, hasty. And all the more satisfying and probably no less oddly productive for it.

Part of the Team

It is no surprise to learn that language defines us – what we are told we are, or say we are, has a positive or negative effect on us. Hence our obsession with job titles.

Years ago when I taught at a large company in Central London I had an eight-o’clock lesson on the Strand, and used to arrive early enough to get a coffee at a branch of Pret a Manger on the corner of Waterloo Bridge. I remember there was a sort of greeting card on the table from the manager which I would study bleary-eyed over my bun and over-priced cappuccino, noting that every morning she and her team got together to think about the best way serve their customers (with coffee, if I may make a retrospective suggestion).

And then one morning I arrived early, a couple of minutes before the shop opened, and there was the manager and her ‘team’ getting together to discuss how best to serve me, and quite clearly not one member of this ‘team’ wanted to be there or had anything to say. They looked lost, tired and bewildered by whatever their manager was telling them, slumped over the tables and wishing they were anywhere but here. She might have thought of her staff as a ‘team’; they quite clearly did not. And she might have thought of herself as displaying ‘leadership’, but if a leader’s followers are trapped in a low wage economy and don’t have any real say in the matter, perhaps it is not leadership but a very tiny tyranny that is being exercised.


And so now one of the gig-economy standard-bearers, Deliveroo, has provided guidelines for how its managers should talk about its riders (read all about it, here). The riders, according to the company, are not ’employees’ but ‘independent suppliers’ (although a number of these ‘independent suppliers’ are hoping to prove they are nothing of the sort in an ongoing courtcase); hence they cannot be employed at an ’employment agency’, rather they must be ‘onboarded’ (?!) at a ‘supply centre’. Riders do not ‘work shifts’; they ‘accept orders at a previously agreed time’; the word ‘shift’ is doubly taboo; managers and riders must talk in terms of their ‘availability’. They also do not ‘clock in’ but ‘log on’.

And so on. The whiff of some idiot lawyer lingers all over this language, of course. The idea that if I do not call you an employee, then you have no rights, even though in your day-to-day actions you clearly work for me and for me alone, is an absurd but nasty fiction, one which covers the progenitors of Uber and Deliveroo in nothing but ignominy (and a considerable amount of dirty money, not incidentally).

The only compensation if you ride for Deliveroo or drive for Uber – and it is it not negligible – is that you will never experience the humiliation of being cast as one of the ‘team’ in someone else’s dream of ‘management’ and ‘leadership’. You are, by definition, ostracised, cast out, on your own, bitter and resentful, litigious and probably ripe for unionisation, if not – who knows? – revolution.


One of the great beauties and freedoms of the Internet Age (and there are precious few) is that we are free to publish things and make sweeping assertions without bothering to cite our sources. Our collective knowledge is a hazy sphere, of half-remembered facts and unverifiable data. It is a pleasant and easy land, not of milk and honey, perhaps, but of bits and pieces.

I say all this by way of apology for the unverifiable and frankly indefensible ‘study’ I am about to quote, which has assembled a list of the most ‘untranslatable’ English words. The list runs as follows:

  1. Plenipotentiary †
  2. Gobbledegook †
  3. Serendipity †
  4. Poppycock †
  5. Googly †
  6. Spam †
  7. Whimsy †
  8. Bumf †
  9. Chuffed †
  10. Kitsch †

Sharp linguistic eyes will note a few utterly forgivable errors here. Kitsch, for example, is not an English word. You would assume, therefore, that in some languages, at least, a rough equivalent could be found. Also, plenipotentiary has perfect mirrors in Romance languages (plénipotentiaire, for example, would probably get close to the nub of it in French). Serendipity has been imported into various languages wholesale, and spam is pretty international (unless, of course, you’re translating Monty Python).

All that said, the idea that a language – even that most international of languages, English – has some irreducible cultural core simply not available to the non-native speaker, is an attractive one. Do I teach English, in fact, or international English? International English (aka bad English) is to the English I know what Esperanto is to Latin – washed out, denuded, softened around the edges; good enough for selling a few bolts of cloth in Hong Kong, perhaps, but hardly a polyvalent cultural vessel.

Which probably makes me sound a bit Brexity and little-Englander, what with my Monty Python and my warm beer; but that would be poppycock.

Squirrel Scam

This morning – Brexit morning – I was cycling to work when a squirrel crossed my path, carrying another squirrel in its mouth. I assumed it was some sort of omen, something about Britain cannibalising itself. But it seems the second squirrel might have been the baby of the first, and that carrying one’s young in one’s mouth is an emblem not of a cannibalistic Britain but of a warm and furry and nurturing Britain struggling to get across a busy road and a bit wild-eyed in consequence.

The world is a dangerous place, as I fear we are about to find out. Yesterday evening I was on the wrong end of a phishing email, purportedly from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Here is the mail:


In a spirit of hands-across-the-ocean co-operation and fair-play, I was moved to reply, as follows:

May I suggest ‘You have’ for ‘You’ve’ and ‘We have recalculated’ for ‘We have recalculate’. Also ‘If you want’ is very direct and informal. You should try something a little more polished, such as ‘Should you wish to’. ‘Determinated’ should, as I am sure you are aware, read ‘determined’ (an easy mistake to make, over-generalising from ‘determination’). Further, ‘If you will…’ is grammatically incorrect in this case. You also insert a stray space before a comma, on two occasions. Oh, and the day the tax office addresses me as ‘Hi ferrisjt’ is the day I declare myself an independent state and dig a moat around my house and get myself a little cannon.

HMRC does many things wrong, but it writes OK English, in the main.

Good luck with your otherwise first-rate scam.

I think there is probably a good opening for an editor of scam emails in our Brave New Brexuent World, and I advertise my services accordingly.

Bashers and Swoopers

Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Time Quake

When George V died, on the night of January 20th 1936, the German composer Paul Hindemith happened to be in London. Spotting an opportunity, I suppose, he wrote an elegy – the Trauermusik, for viola and string orchestra – the following day, between 11am and 5pm (in an office made available to him by the BBC), and it was given its premiere by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, with the composer as soloist, that evening.

Hindemith must have had something on the go, you would think; either that, or he gave the piece – a full eight minutes of music – some remarkably condensed thought. By contrast, when Anton Webern came to compose his String Quartet op. 28, he spent nine months over the first movement alone, at a rate of sixteen bars of music a month, or a bar every two days. Most of the bars have no more than two notes in them. He wrote therefore at the rate of a single note per day, or thereabouts. Any slower and he simply would not have been composing (and in fairness he went a little quicker with the second and third movements, completing each in a matter of three or four months).

Webern’s music operates at an extreme of condensation (a complete performance is only a few minutes long), and in fairness he most certainly did not take it a note at a time, since the whole principle of the work, as of all his work, is of an extreme structural integration. But I would imagine he was pretty handy with the eraser.

I do not know that Webern was a basher and Hindemith a swooper, but I would lay odds. I see the same pattern with my students. Every Monday they settle to do a bit of writing. They have half an hour and a choice of subjects. Some get their heads down and proceed steadily using the eraser copiously; others dash down whatever and then scratch emendations over the top. The former tend to have neat handwriting, the latter less so. I doubt whether there is a correlation between good writing and one approach or the other; good writers tend to read back over longer portions of text more frequently, which might be a characteristic of the basher rather than the swooper; to judge from their manuscripts, both James Joyce and Charles Dickens were swoopers; and so on. Both get there in the end.