A bold book full of fascinating words. Beautifully and cleverly illustrated to ensure the meaning and understanding of the word are conveyed. I adored this book and am so pleased to be part of the blog tour. I was thrilled to be able to ask some questions to author Patrick Skipworth, and his answers are below. Perfectly answered I think!
“I think many of us are aware that much of our language has a deeper and intriguing history. Your book highlights twelve interesting and well-known words yet giving them a literal and fascinating twist. Your introduction and Author’s Note provide plenty of food for thought for budding linguists but in the interest of delving further, it would be amazing if you could answer the following questions.
Q: Was it difficult to choose only 12 words to appear in Literally? How many did you originally have in mind?
It definitely was a challenge! Originally I had a list of around a hundred or so. Cutting this down to 12 wasn’t easy, but I stuck to a strict criteria for each, which helped. I had to be sure that the etymology of each word wasn’t significantly in dispute, that it told a different story from the other entries, and that it would answer to the book’s intended geographic and linguistic diversity. Throughout I had help from Dr Benjamin Suchard at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where I studied.
Q: The book is brilliant and I wonder if you had considered or are considering making it a series?
Thank you! Certainly there’s scope to do so much more with the idea. There are plenty more words I’d love to see brought to life by Nicholas Stevenson’s fabulous illustrations. There’s also a few other angles that would be fun to explore in this way, such as idioms or untranslatable words from other languages. I can’t promise anything right now, but I hope there’s more to come!
Q: What is it about languages that fascinates and inspires you?
I think the starting point is that language is this incredibly complex system which requires a remarkable biological apparatus and a lot of brainpower, but we use it everyday without a second thought. It can be very telling to stop and think about all the writing around you, wherever you are (ignoring the distinctions between written and spoken language for the moment). All the advertising billboards, street signs, number plates. It might seem obvious, but language is intricately woven into every part of the functioning of our societies. Peel back the layers and there’s so much more hidden inside than we might imagine. It tells us the history of the parts of the world in which we learned to communicate, about how we think and who we are. The more you study, the more you discover that languages shouldn’t be something that divides us, or something to be too prescriptive about. They change constantly, but underlying all of them are some shared systems and ideas that seem to work on a fundamental human level, stretching across time and continents. Historical sources often give us just one perspective – usually from those with power – but mining languages and written text with linguistic theory allows us to reveal the hidden histories of ordinary people, what they thought and how they lived their lives long ago.
Q: How many languages can you speak/read or interpret? Are there any which you would like to learn?
I actually find learning languages pretty tough. Luckily, linguistics often involves studying languages at arm’s length, so I’m familiar with several languages – from Spanish and Italian to languages still spoken by a handful of people in the Caucasus or long-dead ones such as Sumerian. I would say that I can speak French well enough, and I can read Dutch and German, along with Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and a few others that I don’t find myself using on a daily basis. I would love to learn to write in Arabic and Korean, which has a truly unique writing system, and to speak Chinese since I’ve never studied a language with tones. It would be a fun challenge, I’m sure!
Q: The illustrations truly bring your words to life and both past uses and current uses of each word are shared within the illustration- did you and illustrator Nicholas Stevenson have this style in mind or did it evolve over time?
Showing both the current use and etymology of the word in one illustration was a core part of the original idea for the book, so I knew it was essential to get right from the beginning. That said, the individual illustrations definitely evolved further from my initial ideas. Getting them to work wasn’t always easy and some went through multiple iterations, but Nicholas brought so many great ideas of his own that we wouldn’t have been able to make it work without him.
Q: Highlighting and celebrating diversity plays an important part in education today- how do you see Literally being part of this and why do you feel it is important to feel a connectedness to other places and cultures?
Language plays a big part in identity, and that can be for good or bad. In some cases, it can be a key part of asserting an identity that might have been neglected for generations and a way of understanding the scars left by colonialism. If approached correctly, studying the English language can be a tool to show how our history and contemporary society owes more to diverse global influences than we might realise, and that diversity is a strength that has made us who we are. Seeing how the words in our own languages have come from all over the globe can empower us and those connected to the cultures that gave us those elements to assert their claim to that shared identity. I hope that Literally can at least be an introduction to these themes, and will leave readers eager to find out more about the diverse origins of their own languages.
LITERALLY: Amazing words and Where They Come Fromby Patrick Skipworth, illustrated by Nicholas Stevenson (£11.99, What on Earth Books)