STARRED REVIEW
September 12, 2017

Finding the beauty in language

By Daniel Tammet
As a lonely child in London, Daniel Tammet found language baffling; he “thought and felt and sometimes dreamed in a private language of numbers.” But once he learned to read, he found words fascinating and beautiful.
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As a lonely child in London, Daniel Tammet found language baffling; he “thought and felt and sometimes dreamed in a private language of numbers.” But once he learned to read, he found words fascinating and beautiful. (Tammet covered some of this material in his first book, Born on a Blue Day, which detailed his synesthesia and his diagnosis in his 20s of high-functioning autism.) And it is language that Tammet delves into in Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing. A sprightly combination of essays, profiles and reported pieces, the book explores words and language from a variety of angles.

An early chapter describes his attempts as a 19-year-old to teach English to Lithuanian women, ditching the textbook for poetry and wordplay. Other chapters look into nearly lost languages, like Mexico’s Nahuatl language, which a small number of Aztec descendants speak, and from which words like avocado, chocolate and tomato came. Tammet also visits the Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea, where a handful of inhabitants work to keep the Celtic Manx language alive. Tammet also weaves in the story of the invented language Esperanto and its creator, the Polish-born Ludwik Zamenhof, who invented the language as a means to simplify Europe’s languages and bring people together.

Tammet also profiles several writers and academics, including the Australian poet Les Murray, who explores Asperger’s syndrome in his poetry. A longtime fan of Murray’s poetry, Tammet translated a volume of Murray’s poetry into French, and he walks the reader through the steps of translating one of his poems.

A book about words and language might sound dry or lofty, but Tammet’s writing is lucid, thoughtful and often funny, drawing readers in and leaving us thinking a little differently about language.

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Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing

Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing

By Daniel Tammet
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316353069

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