My soul is a black maelstrom, a great madness spinning about a vacuum, the swirling of a vast ocean around a hole in the void, and in the waters, more like whirlwinds than waters, float images of all I ever saw or heard in the world: houses, faces, books, boxes, snatches of music and fragments of voices, all caught up in a sinister, bottomless whirlpool.
―Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Image: The Maelstrom, by Harry Clarke, illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1919.
The world is never quiet, even its silence eternally resounds with the same notes, in vibrations which escape our ears. As for those that we perceive, they carry sounds to us, occasionally a chord, never a melody.
If a conversation contains patterns taken from English but not sensible words, do we still perceive it as English? What is it that gives a language its own personality and quality?
The following is an delightful short film made by Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston called Skwerl, starring Eccleston and actress Fiona Pepper. An attractive young couple is having dinner when their conversation takes an unpleasant turn. The conversation itself is unintelligible, with the exception of affirmatives like “sure,” “yeah,” “ounds good”, and a few curse words (be advised) which jump out of the jumbled quasi-English texture like knife strokes. Multiple viewings will reveal clues; there are English words sliced and diced in here.
Are you able to understand the argument? You might want to try some techniques: re-ordering syllables, reconstructing incomplete words, and using a “sounds like” approach. Context, body language, and facial expressions are key, and don’t ignore the brilliant analogies between the conversation and the food. This is a fun puzzle to play with and an extremely ingenious film.
Skwerl represents what someone with a very limited understanding of English might pick out of an English conversation: rhythmic patterns, vowels, consonant clusters, word fragments, connecting words, and some syntax, without understanding the actual words. Affirmatives and curse words are the exception; humans pick them out relatively easily, even in new languages. Those who have ever tried watching news clips in foreign languages will recognize the attempt to hold on to anything that seems familiar, even when it doesn’t make sense in context. If I only know three words in a language, my mind is going to try to hear those words.
What do you hear?
Video via Brian and Karl on YouTube.
Brian and Karl are a film-making duo based in Sydney, Australia, known for their short films and music videos.