How broken English led to rhythm in writing

On holiday in the south-western Pacific recently, I sent David a text that read: ‘English already broken. Don’t tell boss! Tetepare as wonderful as hoped.’  As a writer, of course I chose my words carefully. (Yes, even on holiday … ) When I came home I realised the text message was so rich with meaning that I’m now building three posts, one around each of the sentences. 

My English broke early in the Solomon Islands. I was surprised and slightly alarmed – I earn my living from knowing about these things.

I realised I was in trouble when writing in my journal (lying in the hammock, a breeze keeping the heat at bay …) I wrote ‘siteseeing’ and could not work out if I should’ve written sightseeing. With many custom sites – significant ancestral places – in the Solomons, ‘site’ seemed like the right word to me. I turned to my husband – known for his skills as a firefighter not as a speller – to ask him about site and sight. He looked at me with great pity.

Conversations were also becoming laced with my special blend of stilted English and poor Pidgin. I wasn’t consciously dumbing down, though I was caught once or twice saying things like, ‘Me walk up hill’. My aim was to wrap my chops around the sounds and tones of the words and sentences. The people of Western Province seem to laugh and sing easily so rhythm is embedded into their lingo.

Does English sound so beautiful to the non-English speaker? I doubt it. I soak up any French, Russian or Swedish I come across, but I doubt they do the same to me.

We mostly think of rhythm as it relates to music and song lyrics, yet rhythm in writing prose is essential. Rhythm is as critical to writing as finding the right words. More than just satisfying to the ear, rhythm also affects clarity. Consider an example here from one of my favourite authors Richard Flanagan:

‘ … in a world where it seems that almost everything can be bought, all that will remain are ghosts briefly mocking memory’.

Compare this to:

‘ … in a world where nearly everything’s bought, all we’ll have will be ghosts mocking memory’.

I’ve hacked the words to make a point, but perhaps try reading each phrase out loud to discover which sounds better to you and which is clearer to you. (You may decide differently to me. Would love to hear what you think.)

Cross-lingual experiences ‘top up’ my understanding and love of language. From food shopping in Box Hill to practicing my North American friends’ various accents to visiting my childhood home in Tassie, I devour expression like some people down coffee. I tune in, listen and absorb.

Next post: Don’t tell boss! about knowing your audience.


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