Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing by Daniel Tammet


Reviewed by E. B. Heath

Nature is a book written in the language of mathematics

Galileo Galilei

There are some extraordinary people walking this earth. Daniel Tammet is one whose ability raises questions about the brain, the extent of its capacity, and even human consciousness.   Daniel Tammet has been classified as a high functioning Autistic Savant with synesthesia. His synesthesia gives him a fully textured multi-sensory form of memory, and the autism provides a narrow focal point for number and syntactic patterns.  Unlike many other Savants he is self-aware and so is able to explain how he experiences the world.

Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing is Tammet’s perspective of differing aspects of language in fifteen essays; ranging from his fascinating childhood number language, his approach to teaching English to non-native speakers, to the constructed language of Esperanto, the Australian poet, Les Murray, and to various areas of socio-linguistics. Only a few are commented on here, but all deserve to be read.

The first essay ‘Finding My Voice’ is a mesmerizing account of how Tammet had to grapple with learning his second language, his first being numbers!

The world was made up of words. But I thought and felt and sometimes dreamed in a private language of numbers.

For Tammet numbers had a personality carrying numerical, semantic and emotional meaning; every number has its own shape, colour and texture and sometimes motion. The number 6 was sad. He saw 89 as dark blue like a sky before a storm, fluttering downward carrying the meaning of ‘winter’.   Seeing snow for the first time aged seven he said ‘snow’ but thought 89.   Looking out at the view from his window his mind produced 979.

… the shimmer and beauty of eleven expanding, literally multiplying eighty-nine’s wintry swirl.

A calculator confirmed for me that 89 x 11 = 979.   At age seven Tammet just knew this, no thought required. He gives many other examples of this extraordinary way of perceiving the world in this essay.

Although not covered by Tammet, linguistic research reveals that babies have an amazing capacity to segment automatically an acoustic wave into sound categories and can differentiate between very similar phonemes, far exceeding adult ability.  However, Tammet’s understanding of language was something visual, even as a seven-year-old if he tried to listen to conversations he abruptly tuned out. He spent hours looking at the comic book cartoon Adventures of Tintin, a story unfolding frame by frame, matching words with actions, studying their shape, and then later juggling single words, like pieces in a jigsaw, into sentences. His poor communication skills resulted in a deficit of friends but plenty of time to analyse how the patterns and systems of English fitted together. His acquisition of English was thorough, he understood its syntactic patterns, could spell words backwards if necessary but pronunciation was difficult. Baby Tammet could not match the average newborn’s super acoustic ability but it seems that his synesthesia and visual patterning facility cohered to create a different kind of baby magic.

Tammet’s narrow focus and multi sensory study of the English language set him up to become a language whizz, learning many languages as he grew older. The essay ‘The Language Teacher’ details his experience, aged nineteen, leaving England to teach English to Lithuanian women and, with their help learning Lithuanian.   His teaching methods encouraged the women to think laterally, to be creative and involve all their senses in learning vocabulary.   He classified certain words as impressionistic, for example the onset phoneme ‘sl’, as in slant, sleep, slide, slope, and slump suggesting ‘downward’, and negative, as in slang, sly, sloth, slur, and sloppy. A sound category fitting a general concept is a type of language synesthesia, although not as obvious as onomatopoeia, as in buzz or fizz, but both examples might indicate how early language was formed.   Similarly, in Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors, cross-domain mapping and another form of synesthesia, are the building blocks of human understanding emerging from physical experience of the environment. ‘Up’ happy, ‘down’ sad, and love is a journey as in ‘our relationship is at a crossroad’, ‘we’re going in different directions’, many other examples indicate that metaphor is part of our subconscious thought process, how we construct our understanding of the world. Tammet’s extreme lateral thought processes gives us a fresh view of how we all think, albeit subconsciously.

Tammet is a great fan of another synesthete, the Australian poet Les Murray. The essay, ‘A Poet Savant’, is a captivating report of Murray’s life and work, and Tammet’s account of gaining permission from Murray to translate forty of his poems into French; it is this man who unwittingly influenced Tammet to be a writer. Clearly, Tammet was thrilled to meet his hero, and his telling of it is a must-read. It is thought that many of the great writers and artists were synesthete.

‘You Are What You Say’ begins with Tammet’s unpleasant experience being tested on word recognition by psychologists in London. He was given no opportunity to explain how his synesthesia added to his understanding of words. He wanted to tell them that ‘equivocal’ was cool, shiny, green evoking ideas of a shimmering sea, carrying all five vowels. But that opportunity didn’t arise. Rather the emphasis was placed on reading aloud a list of words, some of which were obscure pronunciations, one had to rely on ‘being in the know’, as in ‘drachm’, ‘Lord Cholmondeley’ – pronounced ‘dram’ and ‘chumly’.   From this Tammet realised that without context words are inert, only animated by the user’s perspective, knowledge and experience.  He references the research of Shirley Brice Heath, a sociolinguist and ethnographer, whose work revealed that children from certain social classes and cultures were marginalized if their language did not match the middle class norms of the school. In fact, all language is equally rich and fully formed, but only a certain middle class style of language is valued. Brice urged teachers to respect the experience and knowledge of their students, to appreciate their speech styles and creative uses of language. Tammet’s emphasise is that verbal intelligence is about animating words with our imagination – ‘every word is a bird we teach to sing’.

‘A Clockwork Language’ details the history of Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, a language that was intended to become a European lingua franca, known as Esperanto. Zamenhof dreamt that his new language would over-come the prejudice that his Hebrew family experienced in Poland.   A language that was devoid of cultural bias, one that belonged to everyone, so breaking down communication barriers. However, the reasoning that inspired this venture was also the cause of its failure. Language is not just a mechanical instrument transporting meaning like a verbal robot; it is organic, it carries cultural history, speaker’s literature and values, it is also profoundly political.   The economic and social status of colonial occupiers has caused the death and near death of many languages.

Tammet deals with issues of dominant political powers in ‘The Man Who Was Friday’, and ‘Dead Man Talking’. The former is about the linguistic brutality of colonial Britain in Africa. His essay, relates to Ngûgî wa Thiong’o, who wrote the first Kikuyu-language novel, from prison, on toilet paper.   Thiong’o laments that African literature and debate is conducted in English but Chinua Achebe disagrees saying his novels are in a new English, in ‘full communion with its ancestral home’. In English as a Global Language, David Crystal has made the point that English does not just belong to the English, rather has been adapted by new global speakers and that literature is all the richer for it. Nevertheless, when a native language is overtaken by global English much is lost: cultural knowledge and values, a way of seeing and thinking about the world, and we are all the poorer for it.   Along the same lines, ‘Dead man Talking’ is about the near death of Manx, the language of the Isle of Man. Nineteenth century tourism was almost its executioner, as the English flooded onto the island to participate in the new craze of sea bathing.   The economic imperative to use English was overwhelming. Thankfully, in 1964 two language revivalists, Brian Stowell and Douglas Fargher worked hard with its last remaining speaker to restore Manx. It remains to be seen if Manx will survive in the future despite the lack of economic function.

Other essays concern Icelandic, the amusing account of a committee constructing a French Dictionary, sign language, the travails of translation, the history of telephone conversation from its inception and the development of artificial intelligence, and the dynamics of acceptable conversation with robots.

Daniel Tammet’s is ‘different’.   There is so much we can learn from ‘difference’, and Daniel Tammet is particularly instructive.


Highly recommended.


Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing

By Daniel Tammet

Hodder & Stoughton (A Hachette UK company)

ISBN: 978-0-340-96137-7

pp 272

Paperback   – $29.99

eBook           –   $16.99

ISBN: 978 1 848 94688 0





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