Say it in ten hundred words

One thing I like a lot is languages. In fact, I have started taking Dutch classes at the beginning of the year, and it has been very enjoyable. Recently, my teacher has introduced a new kind of homework: Writing short essays. The first one involved describing my work.

Now, this is hard. First of all, I haven’t learned a whole lot of words yet. Second, they are words from my Dutch textbook, so they are chiefly intended to help people go about their day-to-day lives in the Netherlands. (“Hello. My name is Joop. My bicycle is broken.”) Nothing there (at least not in lessons 1-15) about, say, computational neuroscience. Or synaptic plasticity. Or Calcium signalling. At first, I was a bit frustrated, because my limited vocabulary does not allow me to say the things I want to say.

But thinking of it some more, I was reminded of several things at once: My early days of learning English, the Up Goer Five and Oulipo. Bear with me, I’ll explain.

At age 10, I started learning English in school. On one of our first written tests, we had to translate into English a little dialogue where someone tells a friend about his new cat. The friend asks: “Is it male or female?” Now, “male” and “female” are difficult words, and most students could not remember them (or even remember that we’d learned them in class). A few got it right. But they were not the most impressive. The most impressive students were those who had forgotten the words, but still found a way to say what they wanted to say. A few wrote: “Is it a He or a She?” and one, rather ingeniously, asked: “Is it a Mr or a Mrs?” What I learned that day was that not having the necessary words is not an excuse. You just have to find another way of saying it.

This is exemplified rather marvellously by this xkcd comic, where a Saturn 5 rocket is described using only the one thousand (or, as the comic says, “ten hundred”) most common words in the English language. It is fantastic! If you want to try this kind of stuff yourself, there is an Up Goer Five Editor you can use: Enter any text, and words that are not in the most common 1000 will be highlighted, so that you know to replace them with simpler words. You can also read texts other people have posted. Some describe their work, some give synopses of movies, some even re-work poems or songs. Some of these texts are absolutely awesome, as if restricting the authors to a limited vocabulary had unlocked an enormous creative potential.

This is not a new idea, of course. In the 1960s, the French literary movement Oulipo did exactly the same thing: Authors invented rules or constraints, and then tried to write texts following these rules. At the height of the movement, Oulipo superstar George Perec published “La Disparition”, an entire novel without the letter e. (You should read it, it’s fun! If you can’t read French, fret not. There are at least seven translations into other languages, all of them without the letter e. The English translation is titled A Void).

So, if limiting yourself to a restricted version of the language is good enough for my middle school class mates and for xckd and for George Perec and his friends, if it even made them better, more creative writers in some way, then I should stop worrying about not knowing much Dutch and just embrace the creative challenge.

I am sure Mr Cat would agree.

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