Transcending mutual unintelligibility

A scene in Ali Smith’s wonderful novel How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) depicts a curious but common experience: people with no shared language having a conversation. Given enough time and repeated encounters, such parties may, of necessity, create a pidgin. But for one-off exchanges it’s a different story.

Like the comic Saga, whose use of untranslated Esperanto I wrote about recently, How to Be Both switches to Italian and lets the reader fend for themself. But even if, like the story’s main characters, you don’t know the language, some words and names will be familiar or guessable.

The protagonist, George, a teenage girl, is visiting a gallery in northern Italy with her young brother, Henry, and their mother:

The place is completely silent behind them except for the lady attendant who has been charmed by Henry into leading him from picture to picture and telling him the words for whatever he points at.

Cavallo, the woman says.

Horse, Henry says.

Si! the woman says. Bene. Unicorni. Cielo. Stelle. Terra. Dei e dee e lo zodiaco. Minerva. Venere. Apollo. Minerva Marvo Ariete. Venere Aprile Toro. Apollo Maggio Gemelli. Duca Borso di Ferrara. Dondo la giustizia. Dondo un regalo. Il palio. Un cagnolino.

She sees George and her mother are both listening to her too. She points at the blank and faded walls.

Secco, she says.

She points at the still-picture-covered walls.

Fresco, she says.

She points at the really good bright end wall.

Mando o andato a Venezia per ottenere il meglio azzurro.

I think she’s saying that the blue colour is Venetian, her mother says.

George’s mother goes over to speak to the attendant. She speaks in English. The attendant speaks back in Italian which her mother doesn’t speak. They smile at each other and have a conversation.

What did she say? George asks her mother as they leave the room through the curtained door and go down the stairs.

I’ve no idea, her mother says. But it was nice to talk to her.

There are many things I like about the quoted passage: the lightly matter-of-fact way the scene unfolds; that George’s mother and the attendant decide to have a conversation despite knowing that the other will not understand them; the fact their conversation remains a mystery to us; the mundane yet remarkable report of their having communicated something worthwhile beyond the trade of words.

I’ve had experiences like this in Ireland, with people who don’t speak English (or another language I could get by on), and on my own travels in places where I didn’t speak a local language. Facial expression and gesture become invaluable, and a shared context, goal, or object of attention – like the art in Smith’s scene – creates a ground for communication even in the absence of shared vocabulary.


Ali Smith’s earlier novel The Accidental has appeared on Sentence first in a book spine poem, ‘The Accidental Grammar’, and in a medley post about contagious laughter, metaphors, and other things.


Yesterday a friend reminded me that Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog has a perfect example of this. The title character, an assassin, knows Raymond, a French speaker who sells ice cream in the park. Raymond doesn’t understand English, and Ghost Dog doesn’t understand French, but they chat often and each believes the other is his best friend. It’s sweet and funny:

Patrick O’Brian’s sea adventure novel Desolation Island has a passage touching on the same theme:

Stephen left the chaplain and the priest in the cool of the porch: Fisher’s pronunciation of Latin made some part of what he said incomprehensible to a Portuguese, and Father Gomes’s piety so far exceeded his learning that he was often at a loss for a word, but they certainly communicated, talking away at a great rate. It appeared to Stephen that they did so less by language than by sympathy and intuition.

19 Responses to Transcending mutual unintelligibility

  1. Deb Kean says:

    I really enjoyed that, all the more because I speak Italian!
    I have been studying for years now, and have moved on to improving my school French, but I read both without a second thought!
    Despite its ubiquity, it’s the American dialect I struggle with.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Deb! Italian is on my long list of languages to learn at least a little of. I also miss being good at French: it’s such a beautiful language.

  2. Chips Mackinolty says:

    I enjoyed it for similar reasons to @Deb Kean, having a certain familiarity with Italian and Sicilian … and I have kinda been in similar situations of half/barely understanding the other end of a conversation, but enjoying it nevertheless (and being terrified of false friends). But also of being involved in a semi-pidgin with Aboriginal languages working with Aboriginal artists documenting artworks: a process that often involved limitation to nouns, occasionally strung together with verbs/phrases/philosphical/cultural references. So the link to an Italian art gallery is a strong echo–but in this case out bush, and having to imagine the connections between images and country and Aboriginal law.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It is fun, isn’t it. And a real sign of how unstoppably social we are, that we carry on enthusiastically with conversations even without any semantic content arriving understood in either direction.

  3. astraya says:

    From my experience with Korean, there’s a huge difference between these characters *listening* to Italian, and us *reading* it. We can see the divisions between words and go back and re-read at our own pace. They just get a string of sounds.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Well, a string of sounds accompanied by a rich and varied set of facial expressions, gesture, and body language. And when the Italian attendant is speaking to Henry, the divisions between most of the words are apparent because they’re spoken one at a time. But it’s a fair point.

  4. David Simpson says:

    Good stuff, as always. You might like to take a look at Donald Davidson’s ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’, and his various ‘radical interpretation’ papers.

  5. jules says:

    Interesting post. I work as an English as a Second Language teacher and often we have kids who arrive with barely a word of English. The more confident and extrovert children’s desire to communicate overrides their fear of speaking very quickly and they use any form of communication possible!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Jules. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me! My impression is that this desire to socialize is pretty deep-rooted and probably hard-wired in some ways.

  6. […] more elaborate case plays out in Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both (whose conversation without a common language I recently shared). The protagonist in one half of the novel, a teenage girl named George who is […]

  7. GeoffC says:

    In a conversational situation there’s a strong (instinctive, I would suggest) compulsion to speak, even if you know your interlocutor won’t understand. As a foreign tourist, asking someone to take a picture of you, for example. The accompanying gestures do the work of communication, but gesturing only, without words, would seem unnatural.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, I’ve found that to be the case too. Whether, in the scenario you mention, you ask someone in your own language, or a telegraphic version of it, or some attempt at their language even if you don’t really know it, the tendency to vocalise seems fairly hard-wired.

      • ktschwarz says:

        It is hard-wired to the extent that even deaf babies will babble, but since they don’t have the positive feedback of hearing themselves, they stop vocalizing after a while. Hearing people *learn* to associate communication with vocalization, so tightly that not vocalizing feels unnatural.

        I think that in a situation like asking someone to take a picture of you, the vocalizations would contribute to the work of communication: the tone and rhythms of speech would help convey “this is a polite request” and “I’m not insane, I do have a coherent intention, even though I can’t say it in your language.”

        • Stan Carey says:

          That’s very true. So long as the norms of expression are close enough in the two cultures, vocalizing helps to signal and establish the innocuous and routine nature of the request or interaction.

  8. […] ‘Inside Outer’ (and a post on reading coincidences); Smith in posts on compulsive pedantry and mutual unintelligibility; […]

  9. […] You’ll find more Ali Smith in these posts about compulsive pedantry and transcending mutual unintelligibility. […]

  10. John Cowan says:

    See also Feyman’s story about pretending to speak Italian in such a way as to convince even other Italians (follow the link at bottom right for more), and another story about faking Chinese so that a Mandarin-speaker assumes he’s speaking Cantonese.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s funny. And I suppose the dialectal nature of Italian helped convince his interlocutors that his fake Italian was real, if the intonation seemed authentic enough.

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