The Grain of the Word - The Babel Game
I am fascinated by words that sound like what they signify, even if it may be a purely subjective experience.
Sometimes a word can sound so much like something, that we know its referent without ever having been told or having looked
it up in a dictionary. As it may happen that one knows a person’s name before having been introduced to them. This happened
twice to me in my life. In both cases the person had a nickname that didn’t relate to their real first name. One was
a guy called Floyd and the other a girl called Kroko. For some bizarre reason I knew, his real name was Florian. I had no
doubt about it. Why I knew it I don’t know but I knew. And I knew the girl was called Eva. But then sometimes people
have names that one wouldn’t ever have expected them to have.
In relationships and intimate friendships one can often anticipate the others thoughts and words and this is
not a tremendously exciting thing. But sometimes it goes a bit further than that and one know something is coming and there
is no explanation why it is coming. Like when I was seventeen and sitting in a math class and suddenly for the duration of
four digits, I knew which digit my teacher Herr Ströher would write on to the blackboard next. Yet the numbers he wrote down
were random and didn’t follow a calculation. Like sometimes one knows who is on the other side of the line when the
phone rings, my mother is very good at it. Like that.
And then, with all such things, we can be wrong. Like I believed with all my heart and brain that ‘gloomy’
means ‘glowy’. I believed it so strong that even though when I read it, and it didn’t make much sense in
that context, I still wouldn’t question it or think of double-checking in a dictionary. I guess it must be to do with
the German word for ‘glowing’, which is glühen, which sounds very similar to ‘gloomy’. In the end
I was told that in Scotland they have a word that describes an in-between state between gloomy and glowy and the word is glowmy.
It hits me like someone cutting me with a knife in my chest when I get something so wrong, in which I have believed so strongly.
And also because I usually convince myself to have a very reliable intuition and it makes me feel insecure to be proven wrong.
I keep distracting. This is all about the grain in words and their relation to their objects in the world. To
speak properly, it is about signifiers and signified. Out of this interest in the word and the sonic relationship between
signifier and signified the Babel Game emerged. In all simplicity, the Babel Game is a based on the children game ‘Chinese
Whisper’. Instead of whispering, however, the word or sentence is always passed on to a person of a different language.
This requires that the following person in the circle is able to at least understand the language of the previous person.
After having gathered people of 13 different linguistic backgrounds (English, German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek,
Slovenian, Polish, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Croatian) together, I tried to create an order that would allow for as many
different languages in sequence as possible, and only when necessary due to a missing link to fit in an English filler who
would build the connection to the next person. Thus, for a language to exist in the circle, I had to be spoken by one person
and at least understood by another. Then I could have inserted an English filler. Due to this requirement, some of the languages
that existed in the group of people couldn’t be used. There were two girls, one of which spoke Moroccan and the other
Welsh, yet nobody would have been able to translate them back into any other language. In the search for people and their
languages I found a few exceptional individuals that spoke four or five different languages because of their bringing-up.
They were the jumpers in the group who didn’t have only one fixed position in the circle, but had to hob around as the
game went on in order to translate at different stages of the circle. The starting sentence was whispered to the next person
so nobody knew its content. From then on each sentence was spoken slowly and clearly into the microphone so that attention
could be paid to the phonetic differences from one language to another. The last person in the circle would speak the sentence
in English. Already less then halfway through the circle people had started giggling because the sentences seemed to be getting
very absurd. This became evident in the end, when the last English sentence had no connection to the first sent-out sentence,
which would then be repeated for everybody.
Other than passing on sentences, it is very interesting to pass on words that refer to objects or concepts and
to notice the differences and similarities.
This game does not only inquire the relationship between sounding and meaning in language, it also creates a
lot of fun and laughter fro its players. I can only recommend it. Good opportunities are Erasmus exchanges, language schools
and international forums and conferences.