This book is a love affair with the country of Japan, its people and its words. I’ll say words not language because Fifty Sounds, winner of the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Essay prize, contains a glossary of random Japanese words thrown together as pairs, with each word pair recalling a sound made in a particular context. It’s language learning, but not exactly text-book oriented. It talks about philosophy but wraps it up in personal experience. So, is this an essay, an autobiography, or a dictionary? It’s probably all of these, which makes it quite unique.
The premise of the book is how language must be bound up with experience in order to be really understood. Language is context dependent. A word can change its meaning in any given context quite subtly, and Barton plays around with these subtleties, alienating the reader then hooking them back in through the medium of story. As her command of Japanese deepens she succeeds in breaking the linguistic code that made her feel like an outsider. Words can be feelings, and feelings are the switch that turns a language on. You really have to live the words to understand the culture. Language after all is just the cue.
The glossary of these word-sounds is certainly fun to read. Poka-poka is how we feel when we step ‘into a warm obliviousness that is probably not what a higher self would want or need’. That sounds familiar. ‘Bin-bin is the sound of having lots of sex of dubitable quality’. No comment there. More obscure is giza-giza, ‘the sound of seeing what you thought was yours through the lens of an alternative system, or of having your cock incomprehensibly sucked.’ Confused? Better read the book.
These meanings, warped or rather set upon by the narrator’s experience, fulfil the promise of obsessive language learning, which this book sets out to explore. Duolingo, complains Polly Barton, with its jaunty little owl and its ‘level-unlocking structure’, is not really up to the mark. If anyone out there has just reached level 8 of Hungarian I can only apologise. Why does Barton begrudge the Duolingo owl’s ‘hooting pride’? Because she feels that ‘there is another, far less stable form of learning – a radium to Duolingo’s lurid neon: sensory bombardment, ‘a possession, a bedevilment, a physical takeover (…) so chaotic and out of control that you are taken by the desire to block your ears’.
The author weaves a web of experience from each of these extraordinary word-sounds, which are sometimes onomatopoeic, always fascinating, and often painfully significant. Words can be a trap in Barton’s Japanese obsession, but then language is a trap – one that we fall into simply by opening our mouths. ‘Our language,’ writes Barton, ‘is the lens through which the world is constituted for us…and as long as we are part of the linguistic majority we never have the opportunity to question it’. Learning a language could be the only way to break the mould and see the world afresh.
Any Cop?: If you like philosophy and wit, you’ll probably like this book. It felt like the kind of book that Stephen Fry would have penned: clever, funny, engaging and well written.