English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

November 11, 2009

Eat Your Words

Filed under: Uncategorized — chs79 @ 10:56 pm

I would very much like to have something witty and insightful to say about Christian Bok’s Eunoia.  The truth is, I’m a little bit speechless.  Maybe it’s because my tongue is still in knots from reading Eunoia out loud – twice.  Yes, that sort of thing would leave one speechless.  The words – the sentences – they all make sense but before you (or at least I) get beyond the second line, sense seems to disappear and the words get thick and gooey and run together.  It’s the closest I’ve come to something I might describe as “eating” words.

I started wondering what it is about  Eunoia that made it different than a simple tongue-twister.  There’s the obvious point that Eunoia is “smarter” than a tongue-twister but it’s also more disorienting, harder to absorb meaning, and the aforementioned sensation of words gaining a discernible chewy presence as you say them aloud.  In looking into the question, I came across a fascinating website that claims to the the “1st International Collection of Tongue Twisters.” The homepage includes the following definitions:

  • Tongue-twister: “A sequence of words, often alliterative, difficult to articulate quickly.” (Oxford English Dictionary)
  • Shibboleth: “A word or phrase used as a test for detecting foreigners, or persons from another district, by their pronunciation.” (OED)
  • Battologism: A phrase or sentence built by (tiresome) repetition of the same words or sounds.

Eunoia is definitely alliterative and hard to say.  I suppose this difficulty might make it possible to detect foreigners, and even though I don’t find Bok’s use of repetition tiresome, I can see where the argument for it could be made.  Hmmm…so that didn’t seem very helpful.

What was helpful though was looking at the tongue-twisters themselves.  They’re short, usually only a sentence or a few short lines, the ideas they convey are simple, and even though tongue-twisters are hard to say, they aren’t particularly hard to read.   I think then that what makes Eunoia so special is that Bok is talking to the reader and actually trying to get across a message about reading, a message that his word choice obscures a bit and therefore requires analysis and actual thinking in order to understand. This thinking process is overshadowed both on the page and verbally because both visually and orally, the repetition of a single vowel sound over and over with stunning frequency requires thought and focus unto itself in order to just be able to read or say the very words.  Bok therefore forces the reader/speaker to slow down to an unnatural and uncomfortable pace in order to comprehend and read/speak simultaneously.

I don’t remember what it felt like to begin learning to read but Bok seems to be duplicating the experience here.  Perhaps part of the message we are supposed to walk away with is twofold: (1) one of the joys and wondrous aspects of language is delight in the way words sound and feel as we say them silently in our heads or out loud  and (2) simply slow down and pay more attention to what we read and what we say and not allow it to be an automatic, unthinking, shallow process.


  1. I have to agree with you whoever wrote this.

    Language, like anything we use needs to be conserved and used appropriately but more importantly it needs to be used well, because even though we as people tend to talk a lot, quality has appeared to disappear from everyday speech. Although slang and vernaculars (such as blog or internet slang) are very clever and keep language interesting, there is indeed a decay process for older parts of our language. Keeping the heritage alive is a noble duty that we as English majors are by course of study, charged with upholding and maintaining.

    Braiding it like fine hair into patterns, or teasing it out to its wildest. However we must also be good stewards of the tradition of language and keep the core of its flame glowing.

    Protecting our linguistic heritage means maintaining the architecture of a spoken language fixed to the ground by a foundation of written language and cemented by grammar. Doing so ensures that words remain powerful and always have toe potential to sue for peace and fight for freedom.

    Comment by jeremiahm — November 12, 2009 @ 2:04 am | Reply

  2. Oddly enough, though I’m an English professor, I don’t really share Jeremiah’s sentiments about protecting the linguistic “heritage.”

    Or, rather, I do to a limited degree, because I care about preciseness of expression and I recognize that, for writers at least, grammar is the architecture of thought, something to be known and used and without which we couldn’t have sense let alone elegance. But I accept as given that language changes, that grammar and spelling and other such mechanics have shifted historically and will continually shift in the future, that slang is simply the process by which new language is introduced (though it may not be validated for some time), and that you can no more hold onto language than you can hold on with wet hands to a bar of soap.

    Language is a living thing, subject to degeneration, regeneration, reformulation, change. In any case, I didn’t get into English Studies out of a desire to be a grammar cop. 🙂

    Comment by charleshatfield — November 12, 2009 @ 9:27 am | Reply

    • nice.

      Comment by sochy — November 17, 2009 @ 11:59 pm | Reply

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