Language dream files: the speech balloon

I had another language-related dream a few nights ago. The last time I remember this happening, my sleeping mind conjured a weird connection between raccoons and the word chiefly.

This time, I dreamt I kicked a rubber ball at a door, my grandmother suddenly opened the door, and the ball got pronged on the pointy tail of a speech balloon near her head. Then we laughed, the way you do out of delight when something physically strange happens.

The ball was light – the kind that burst easily if they land in bushes. I don’t think there were words in the speech bubble at first; certainly there were none by the time I saw the ball slowly deflating on it.

Some people find dream reports boring. If you’re among them, I hope you didn’t read past the first line. I tend to be intrigued or at least mildly entertained by dreams – my own and others’. If you want to share one below, please do. Bonus points for linguistic examples.


Here’s one I just read in James Crumley’s novel One to Count Cadence:

I fell asleep, thinking, Surely soldiers gripe in Heaven . . . no one understands the reward for virtue . . . only the penalty for guilt. Then I dropped away to visions of a scarred leg dancing alone in the desert, a vast stone leg pursued by a girl-child, pretty and pink, but when she caught it, her hands rotted black and fell away a smy father’s voice tolled, “My name is Ozymandias, king of despair: / Look on my works, ye warrior and king.” (I always dream what I’ve read, though changed in my mind as if I’d written it. A mighty conceit.)


27 Responses to Language dream files: the speech balloon

  1. Roger Hill says:

    I had a dream that I might call “Obama and the Tiger”, in which Obama as executive delegated tasks to various experts. Since my field, dream-wise, was tigers, it would be my responsibility to head off and guide this tiger that he would momentarily release from a back office. He duly let the animal out from somewhere in the rear and I took position along its probable route forward, feeling quite up to the task — except for the sudden realization that I needed to make a bathroom trip and would not have time for both bathroom and tiger, unless there were a chance of the one as I went forward to face the other. Then the tiger did a slow fade, meaning that I’ll never know, because I woke up. Symbolism? Not at all, I just needed a prompt to go for a whiz.

  2. sarahlivne says:

    This is a very old dream, but has a linguistic side to it. I remember it because at the time I was seeing a psychologist who worked with dreams, and she asked me to document my dreams so we could discuss them. This was a very vivid dream, full of colour and intensity. There was a group of political activists involved, clashing with army forces, and a “good-guy” officer that the soldiers were turning against and I tried to intervene and save his neck, and in the end of the dream I kissed him. This troubled me a lot, long after I’d woken up from it, because in the dream I was very much aware that officer was in many ways the resemblance of a guy that I knew (and was not my husband), but in the dream it was clear to me that his name was Gil (pronounced with a hard G, as in ‘get’), which was not the name of that guy in real life. It was also not the name of anyone I closely knew at the time, even though it’s a common Israeli name. The name means ‘joy’ in Hebrew, and that emotion was completely unrelated to the dream. I couldn’t understand where that guy got into my subconscious and my dreams from, until the psychologist pointed out the obvious (that for some reason completely escaped me at the time), that ‘gil’, in other contexts, also means ‘age’, and all of a sudden the whole dream made sense.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Interesting dream, and nice psychological detective work. For an old dream you’ve remembered it in impressive detail. I can recall several childhood dreams – often nightmares – but generally only their most vivid moments and impressions. I didn’t start keeping a dream diary until my adult years. Do you think it’s significant that the ‘obvious’ solution to your dream escaped you, or was it just a trivial oversight?

      • sarahlivne says:

        Oh, I think it was very significant. It’s probably why I remembered that dream for so many years. It was somewhat of a breakthrough for me at the time. The issue I was trying to resolve with that psychologist was why I was depressed. Certain situations and things would put me in such dark mood and I could not understand why. In the dream as well – there seemed to be a detachment between the ‘story line’ and the emotions it provoked in me and that left me very distressed both in the dream and for a whole day after I’d woken up from it. I couldn’t understand what it was exactly in the dream that had shaken me so much. And that guy that appeared in the dream – in real life he used to casually flirt with many people, myself included, but I didn’t really like him THAT much. The key here was to realize that this was all a bit of an age crisis – I was first time pregnant at the time, and on the verge of an important move of migrating to another country, and was all of a sudden asking myself what I had done with my fleeting youth and where all those years had gone. The double meaning in the name was a message from my subconscious, and once I ‘heard’ that other meaning in that name (and I needed someone to suggest that to me before I could hear it myself) – it all started making sense to me. That age-anxiety I’d been hiding from myself surfaced and explained a lot of my emotional reactions both to the dream and to other situations in life. I had once read that there is something very literal about the subconscious and this dream fits that theory very well.

  3. This one is from My childhood. In the town where I grew up, the public swimming pool complex was named “War Memorial Pool”. Anyway, all I remember of the dream was my school-teacher saying “War-Memorial Pool. You’re not allowed to lurch upon a hung-leaf”. To this day, I have no idea what that sentence might mean. But I have never forgotten it. I ought to blog snog about it.

    • I have no idea how the word snog got into my previous comment, but that’s an even funnier sentence than the one from my dream. Thank you iOS

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s quite the intriguing string, a cryptic rule that resists decoding. How’s a visitor to the pool supposed to know how not to lurch upon a hung-leaf? I think you should blog snog about it too.

  4. Shit. My head hurts already and it gets worse… A hung-leaf has a hyphen because it is the leaf of a particular native tree (not a real one obviously), rather than a leaf that has been hung. I think also that the narrator meant perch rather than lurch, but perching in a crouching manner, and we’re not even in the pool yet! I have no idea how I know this; I guess dreams in the digital-era come with meta-data.

  5. I don’t know why some people are so averse to descriptions of dreams. The nearest I’ve heard to a justification is that dreams don’t make good stories, but that only applies if someone describes a dream as though it were a story. In my experience, people don’t do that. People describe dreams on their own terms, as dreams.

    The most language-related dream I can think of is the one I had as a child where the cat was accidentally left in the freezer overnight and when taken out had gained the ability to speak. I don’t remember what it said.

    I sometimes enjoy interpreting dreams when friends describe them to me. Most recently, someone described a dream in which she found a pair of malnourished kittens while on a rest stop from a bus, and wasn’t sure if she’d be allowed to take them on board. I identified two themes, the most obvious being the frustration/fear of being unable to show compassion, and the other being the feeling that other people are in control of where you go in life, as represented by the public transport. Both themes rung true for her.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t really get the aversion either, but you may be right that it has to do (at least sometimes) with their lack of traditional narrative quality or structure. I think some people also find them too trivial or daft to merit attention. Or they may decide dreams are boring because they know it’s a popular attitude, or someone they respect finds dreams boring, so they sign up to the belief reflexively and then don’t get beyond that.

      Your dream about the cat gaining speech via the freezer is great.

      • sarahlivne says:

        I think it has to do with the fact that it’s often very hard to tell a dream well. Some of it fades away in the morning light, often there is some dream logic that seems obvious while you are dreaming but requires a lot of explaining when you are awake – all sorts of things that you “are” or “know” in the dream and that lead you to act in a certain way, and sometimes also just strong colours or emotions that are hard to put into words at all. Sometimes the narrator themselves are too disappointed in how boring their dream sounds when they tell it compared to the experience of dreaming it. But when people do tell them well – dreams can be fascinating. A lot of well written novels include descriptions of dreams that add a lot to the story.

        • Stan Carey says:

          That’s true and fair, Sarah. It can be very hard to convey the subjective experience of a dream satisfactorily.

          Dreams in novels can be very badly done too, being painfully contrived attempts at symbolism. It’s a hard thing to do well.

          • Roger Hill says:

            Re dreams in novels — how about dreams in movies? Dream on film ought to be much easier to do than in novels, and usually is. And of course in animated films far too easy, especially now with computer-assisted gadgetry. But what memorable dream scenes in films come to mind? I remember “Spellbound” only because Salvador Dali was in on it, though I read that much of what he did for the film was set aside, not used.
            What undercuts filmic dream is that films are naturally dream-like. And a quote from Orson Welles in support, since he called film generally a “ribbon of dreams”; any film, that is, which may account for the trance state typical of film audiences in cinemas, which are of course darkened, like sleep.

          • Stan Carey says:

            Waking Life is definitely worth a look as a film with dreaming as a major theme. Honourable mentions in this vein also go to Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Paprika, The Science of Sleep and, um, The Cell and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

            Re Spellbound: Films with elaborate or significant dream sequences that come to mind include Dumbo, Brazil, The Big Lebowski, Wild Strawberries, Take Shelter, and Lost Highway.

            Some films that aren’t about dreams but use dream logic to good effect: Un Chien Andalou, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead, Source Code, Being John Malkovich, Jacob’s Ladder.

            (I didn’t care for Inception.)

      • I just remembered another one, from the late nineties (when I was about 20). I dreamed that the Pope excused himself from a conversation with me on the grounds that he couldn’t understand my accent.

        (It may be worth mentioning that at the time I routinely discussed theology and other topics with certain people, one of whom was Catholic.)

  6. astraya says:

    I’ve had weird (non-language-related) dreams for the last two nights, but as vivid as they were at the time, they fade very quickly. I can remember random bits of each, but it’s hard now to put them into any coherent order.
    I’ve dreamed Korean three times. One had my sister speaking Korea better than me, which I thought was a bit unfair, seeing that I’d been studying Korean and she hadn’t. When I woke up, I realised that the Korean she was speaking in my dream was created by my brain. My subconscious is better at Korean than my conscious is. And at music, too – I’ve dreamed entire existing *and* new pieces of music.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I love the idea of one’s subconscious surpassing one’s waking mind at language learning. Maybe your Korean is better than you thought. Music dreams are such fun, but it’s a while since I had one.

      Dreams slip away so quickly upon waking. Even when you write them down right away, it’s hard to retain all the details and emotional impressions.

      • astraya says:

        I had a musical dream last night. One of the choirs I was in in Australia was singing a piece we sang last year and simply nailed it. (Except it wasn’t one of the choirs I was in – I didn’t recognise any of the singers and the conductor was different – but I just *knew* is was that choir.) I then (in my dream) found a performance on Youtube, which was atrocious.

  7. Roger Hill says:

    I’d be interested to know whether you ever dream-read
    an unfamiliar text and remember the words afterwards.
    That would necessarily be dream writing, not just dream reading.
    Usually when I dream-read a text, the words do a Saint Francis and become blurred, illegible.

    • The only time I’ve seen legible writing in a dream, it was a computer error message. I didn’t remember the words for long, but long enough to think “Legible writing in a dream. Weird.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’ve had various types of experience with dream-text. Sometimes the text becomes slippery and changes, or is just illegible, and occasionally – like in Adrian’s dream – it’s stable. When it behaves abnormally it can trigger lucidity if I’m primed for this. I’ve used it as a ‘state test’ when on the verge of a lucid dream: I find or create text to observe its status. Though even when the text mutates, sometimes I’m so committed to the dream’s reality that I explain the weirdness away in dream-logic.

      William Wharton’s novel Birdy has some very interesting passages on dream-text, suggesting that the author experimented with it. I don’t have my science-of-dreams books at hand, or I’d see what light they shed on the phenomenon.

  8. Michael Vnuk says:

    I’ve not read much about dreams, but many of the comments so far fit with my experience: it’s hard to read text in a dream, dream-logic seems to explain everything, memories of dreams fade rapidly, etc.

    A dream of mine with a linguistic connection that I remember concerns Scrabble, which I play a lot. A game appeared in a dream, but I realised that I was dreaming when I saw that the points value on a W tile was 3, rather than the real-life value of 4. This is one of the few times that I can recall realising in a dream that I was dreaming.

    Another non-linguistic dream that has occurred quite often (although, fortunately, not lately) involves feelings of anxiousness, failure or panic due to the inability to complete tasks or assignments at work or university. Now, I have had these feelings in real life too, so it’s not surprising that I would dream them occasionally, but they continued well after specific jobs or courses had finished. I think that my ‘worried mind’ searches my ‘real mind’ and finds no evidence of real work being done lately on a particular task and so decides, using impeccable dream-logic and despite the fact that I am not currently working for that company or enrolled in that course, that I am going to fail. But perhaps this is just my explanation for an essentially unexplainable thing.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s great, that you twigged you were dreaming because of the value of the W tile. It’s all in the details! I don’t think I ever had a Scrabble dream, but then I never played it very often. I did have other game-inspired dreams – including, predictably, Tetris.

      I suspect all dreams are (ultimately, theoretically) explainable, but we seldom have enough information or insight to do so. Another possibility for your task-anxiety dreams may be that your sleeping mind has access to memories of the particular activities you dream about, and it maps present emotions, subconscious concerns and other cognitive processes onto them. I find it can take a while for things to percolate into dreams: for instance, my dreams take place where I grew up far more often than anywhere I’ve lived as an adult.

  9. Lady Demelza says:

    I remember around the time I was diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder I dreamed that I had a special kind of thesaurus that listed all the synonyms in order of how offensive the word was currently perceived to be by general society. I was very upset with myself and crying because the last word on the list (the most offensive synonym) always came out of my mouth before I had time to think about it, but I really didn’t mean to be offensive and wished so much that I had used a word near the top of the list (kinder, gentler synonyms). This is a reflection of what often happens – I think of my autism as ‘Foot-in-Mouth Disease’ – but I thought that coming up with a published book of graded lists of synonyms was quite brilliant of my subconscious.

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