Review of Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries & Meanings of Language – Daniel Tammet

Posted: April 26, 2019 in nonfiction, Review

Is vocabulary destiny? Why do clocks ‘talk’ to the Nahua people of Mexico? Will A.I. researchers ever produce true human-machine dialogue? In this mesmerizing collection of essays, Daniel Tammet answers these and many other questions about the intricacy and profound power of language.

In EVERY WORD IS A BIRD WE TEACH TO SING, Tammet goes back in time to explore the numeric language of his autistic childhood; in Iceland, he learns why the name Bl r became a court case; in Canada, he meets one of the world’s most accomplished lip readers. He chats with chatbots; contrives an ‘e’-less essay on lipograms; studies the grammar of the telephone; contemplates the significance of disappearing dialects; and corresponds with native Esperanto speakers – in their mother tongue.

A joyous romp through the world of words, letters, stories, and meanings, EVERY WORD IS A BIRD WE TEACH TO SING explores the way communication shapes reality. From the art of translation to the lyricism of sign language, these essays display the stunning range of Tammet’s literary and polyglot talents.

Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries & Meanings of Language

Daniel Tammet

Hachette Australia

Supplied by Hachette New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve Litten

Daniel Tammet suffered from autism as a child, and saw the world in numbers, rather than words. Not surprisingly, this different view of the world, and language, made him a troubled user of English, his native tongue. At least, as a child. After moving to France and learning the joys of literature in French, he was re-introduced to English. Which he saw in another light. For apart from the whole number thing – words evoking numbers – he also has a certain degree of synaesthesia: words evoke other sensations.

It is this complex array of foibles, both bane and boon, that inspired this collection of essays. Daniel recounts an adventure language teaching in Lithuania, attempts at reviving a mostly dead language, chasing down a fellow autistic poet, a childhood vocabulary test and so forth. But instead of coming across as a whiney, life was hard sort, he buzzes with excitement. Yes, the difficulties of childhood were sad, but he recognises that these were his problems. The reader doesn’t suffer for Daniel’s limitations. Rather, he carries them along with his love of language and human communication.

I enjoyed this book. It gave me an insight into another mind, another method of approaching languages, for Daniel doesn’t confine himself to exploring just English. His essays, some of which are deeply personal, are not about him; they’re about language. For writers, language is almost all they have. For people who use words, and that is almost all of use, the title sums up what we strive for with our use of words: every word is a bird we teach to sing.

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