Don’t try this without a safety net or three mojitos. Parse the following sentence:
Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.
If you’ve given up and decided to drink another mojito instead, you’re in good company. Even linguist Geoff Pullum, co-author of the phenomenal Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has said that he can’t decide whether it’s grammatical or not. On the other hand, if you’ve sobered up and actually created a tree diagram that looks more complex than the map of the London Underground, congratulations and please send us a copy.
This magnificent sentence comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book that somehow never seems to make it onto the recommended reading list for Speechies but that deserves to be made obligatory. And the particular version to get hold of is The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, edited and annotated by Martin Gardner, and containing the original artwork prints of the Victorian artists, John Tenniel.
Combining both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, this book cannot fail to appeal to Speech Therapists, teachers, and linguists, or in fact, anyone with any interest in language. Carroll plays with words the way kittens play with string. He bends them, stretches them, chops them up, and puts them back together in entertaining ways. Just one chapter of the Alice books could form the basis for a semester of study.
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe
Sheer brilliance. He start out by a pronoun-verb contraction to hit us with twas and without skipping a heartbeat trots out a new word, brillig. You may never have heard the word before but somehow we feel it means something akin to bright or brilliant. We at least know it’s an adjective despite the fact you won’t find it in a dictionary.
And how about slithy? That, surprisingly enough, does get a mention in the Oxofrd English Dictionary as an adjective from 1662, itself a variation of the word sleathy, originating from the Old Norse slœða meaning “to drag or trail behind.” But Carroll used it to mean “smooth and active” (Carroll, 1855), which is very different from the previous use. In fact, it comes from a mix of slimy and lithe, which is called a “portmanteau word” – a phrase also coined by Carroll himself!
According to Humpty Dumpty, toves are “something like badgers, they’re something like lizards, and they’re something like corkscrews. Also they make their nests under sun-dials, also they live on cheese.” The fact that the word toves appears immediately following the definitive article alerts us to the interpretation that a tove is a noun; the final “s” also signals nouniness.
As you can see, we are just at the end of the first line and we’re talking about phonology and morphology (the /s/ at the end of tove); syntax (an article precedes a noun); contractions (twas); and blends (slithy). So tell me again why you wouldn’t want this book on the undergraduate reading list. Why, you could write a 5,000 word essay on The Derivational and Inflexional Morphological Structures Inherent in Jabberwocky and their Relevence to English Language Development! Well, at least I could 😉
But it’s not just the fact that you can lose yourself in Carroll’s text alone that makes this book so fascinating; it’s the comments and scholarship of Martin Gardner, whose knowledge of all things Alice is encyclopedic. His commentary covers not only language but philosophy, physics, history, mythology, and mathematics. The list of references takes up several pages and the budding Alice scholar could do no better than to ouse this book as their primary reference.
Pedagogy aside, there’s another reason to read this book. It’s fun! It’s easy to pop in the Disney Alice in Wonderland DVD and think you know the story, but if you’ve never picked up the books before, you are in for a rare treat. So pop down to your local Borders before it closes completely and splash out on a copy, or help your local bookstore go out of business by ordering from Amazon. Whatever way you choose to do it, as long as you get the real, physical book rather than some awful electronic format, you’ll have something to take with you on your vacation.
Oh, and college lecturers… Get this on the reading list for your students. They WILL thank you for it.
Lewis Carroll’s diaries:the private journals of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1993): The Lewis Carroll Society.