Writings from the Edge of Language.

From the Guardian, Philip Gross’s top 10 writings from the edge of language (2010) is a mixture of things I already know and love (“The Waste Land”), things I know about and have been meaning to investigate (Riddley Walker), and things I’d never heard of but suddenly want to read:

5. Keeping Mum / Llofrudd Iaith by Gwyneth Lewis

These are two books, or the same book written separately in Welsh and in English, by a major bilingual poet whose collections can be multi-layered as a novel. The Welsh title means The Language Murderer; set partly in a psychiatric hospital, it is also a detective story, investigating deep harms done by loss of language, celebrating survival in the end.

6. A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty by Frank Kuppner

Not so much a translation as a witty teasing of the mannerisms of translation… This wry philosophical Glaswegian-Polish poet gives us an imaginary ancient Chinese text whose square bracketed lacunae [something something something] come alive with hints and echoes.

And Gross’s introduction to the list is well worth reading in its own right:

“I’ve just got back from Friesland / Fryslân in the north of Holland, hearing a language spoken that is so close to English that it’s like looking at a face through a rain-drenched window. One good wipe, you feel, and you’d know them. Now I’m about to drive from south to north Wales, where two languages lie alongside each other, oil and water, mixed rather than merged. I don’t speak Welsh or West Frisian – no other language, in fact, well enough to dream or write a poem in it – but that ragged edge of language is familiar to me.

“I grew up with it: on the one hand, English, on the other, my father’s language – he was a wartime refugee from Estonia – which he never spoke. […]

Via the indispensable wood s lot (whose proprietor, Mark Woods, takes wonderful photographs that adorn many of his posts).


  1. A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty is out of print – took me years to find a copy. There’s a few excerpts in “What? Again? – selected poems”

  2. Well, rats! Thirty years ago, when it came out, I could have walked the two blocks from my job in Rockefeller Center to the Gotham Book Mart and picked up a copy for a few bucks (they stocked lots of Carcanet books, if I remember correctly). Now neither Gotham nor I are in NYC. Where do wise men fish?

  3. Everything Kuppner writes is gorgeous. He uses an idiom of surreal wistfulness that might have distant forebears in a few other British writers, but essentially didn’t exist until he invented it. “Second Best Moments in Chinese History” is kind of a reworking of “A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty” and might be easier to track down.

  4. Thanks for the tip!

  5. You’re welcome. But I don’t think “Second Best Moments” has the something something motif of “A Bad Day”, as in

    Something breasts something something bosom;
    Something bust something bosom something;
    Breast something something caterpillar something;
    A look of doubt crosses the old scholar’s face.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Is there nothing in caterpillar anatomy that’s named after boobs? There’s the mastoid process on the human skull, then there’s Mastodon, and finally there’s Mastodonsaurus which is named after a very badly weathered tooth.

  7. Is there nothing in caterpillar anatomy that’s named after boobs?

    This is the closest I could find: Large White (Pieris brassiere) caterpillar.

  8. des von bladet says

    Sometimes I listen to Radio Fryslân on the drive home. I’m surprised to hear someone who’s actually heard it say it sounds like English; to my ears it doesn’t at all. 1500 years is a long time in phonology, when there are Great Wovel Shifts around every corner.

  9. Stu:
    I think Pieris brassiere (Bing count: 9) must be an autocorrect error for Pieris brassicae (Bing count: 56,500). Brassicae is Latin for ‘of cabbage’, and they’re ‘cabbage whites’ in English, while ‘brassiere’ has no meaning in Latin, but is probably the closest English word for misguided autocorrection.

  10. I’m not sure it works for everyone, but here is a link to Radio Fryslân. Most of the words I recognise are contemporary ones like “live audiostream”, otherwise it just sounds like Dutch to me.

    What’s the â all about, Des?

  11. David Marjanović says

    here is a link to Radio Fryslân

    Works for me, and sounds like… actually, “Double Dutch” is the perfect description. And I don’t understand a word (the spelling is very historicizing).

    What’s the â all about, Des?

    Strangely, Wikipedia in several languages doesn’t tell, except that âl is /ɔː/.

  12. You should definitely read Riddley Walker as soon as possible. It’s an honest-to-goodness Great Book.

  13. The circumflex in West Frisian orthography represents long lax vowels. So ê represents [ɛː], and both â and ô represent [ɔː], presumably distinguished on historical grounds. Omniglot.

  14. Oh, so it’s like Å. There’s a lot of info on that there Omniglot site, John. Thanks.

  15. I’m glad John found that; for reasons that may or may not be the “Use it or lose it” thread’s discussion of in-group-only languages spoken only by bilinguals, the amount of L2 material floating around in mainstream NL is seriously modest.

    (Incidentally, one might consider the famous unwillingness of the Dutch themselves to speak their language with outsiders to a parallel phenomenon, although I can’t say that I’ve had much trouble with that.)

  16. I tried Radio Fryslân too, and I’ll buy the story: from in front of my computer it definitely sounded like a germanic language that I don’t know, but from the next room over, with the sound slightly muffled by distance, walls, and my bad computer speakers, it did sound a lot like English.

  17. oh, Riddley Walker is a treasure. I agree with MattF; put that one on the short list.

  18. I’v tried to read Riddley Walker … I can’t get thru it.

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