A philosophical question – with many delicious layers

Pixabay

If you don’t know Afferbeck Lauder, you should. He was the inventor, or should we say the observer, of strine. Strine is a kind of rendition in spelling of the sound of a very broad Australian English accent. Here’s one of Afferbeck’s less well known pieces, an existential cry of a kind familiar to many teenage (or middle-aged) insomniacs – which also offers a wonderful philosophical insight into the nature of speech and how we understand it.

Hagger Nigh Tell?

If it gets too hard to follow, scroll down for the translation

Hagger night telephime reely reel?
Hadder Y. Noah Fimere?
Car sigh only nowered I thing ky feel,
An maybe I’m knotty veneer.

I mipey no lesson I mipey no more
Than a shadder we idle fancy.
Prabzyme the moon! Can I Telfer Shaw
That I’m nodgers a nant named Nancy?

I coobie jar sreely a loafer bread,
Or a horse, or a bird called Gloria.
I mipey alive – but I coobie dead,
Or a phantasmabloodygoria.

Hagger nigh tellime notonia dream,
Cook tarpner mare chick’s pell?
Cos sigh my pig zackly what I seem,
Bar towg nigh reely tell?

Wunker nawlwye stell; yegger nawlwye snow
If you’re reelor yerony dreaming;
Yellopoff the topoff your nirra stow,
A new wafer the sander the screaming. 

Translation: How can I tell?

How can I tell if I’m really real?
How do I know if I’m here?
Cos’ I only know what I think I feel,
And maybe I’m not even here.

I might be no less, and I might be no more
Than a shadowy idle fancy
Perhaps I’m the moon! Can I tell for sure
That I’m not just an ant named Nancy?

I could be just really a loaf of bread,
Or a horse, or a bird called Gloria.
I might be alive – but I could be dead,
Or a phantasmabloodygoria.

How can I tell I’m not in a dream,
Cooked up in a magic spell?
Cos I might be exactly what I seem,
But how can I really tell?

One can always tell; you can always know
If you’re real or you’re only dreaming;
You lop off the top of your nearest toe,
and you wait for the sound of the screaming.

Some things to notice

The poem poses a famous philosophical question – but it also asks us to think about how we understand words.

When you hear a normal passage of meaningful speech you just hear the words intended. It seems you are simply picking up the sound that is there to be heard. You don’t even notice there are other words lurking in the sound, equally available to be heard. That’s what this poem wants us to pay attention to. Hearing speech isn’t just hearing, it involves a kind of thinking we call pre-thinking.

It seems speech perception is as much about what we ignore as what we pay attention to. And when we say we ignore something, please note, that does not mean we notice it and then choose not to pay attention to it. It means we don’t notice it in the first place. It is as if it doesn’t exist for us – even if someone else is clearly aware of it.

To explore this more, try reading each version above aloud – or better still have someone read them to you (or make a recording you can listen to).

Do you notice how once you have heard one or two words, they form a context that primes you to go on and hear the rest of the sentence in a meaningful way, effectively making the nonsensical alternatives fade away from your consciousness?

Finally – if you do have someone else to read the poem to you – ask them to choose to read either the ‘Hagger Nigh’ version, or the ‘How can I’ version. Can you tell which one they are reading, just from the sound?

The other philosophical question

The poem certainly poses a philosophical question in its own right – but it also raises another one for us to consider:

Hagger New Tell if the words you hear are really real? Could they just be a shadowy idle fancy – or even a phantasmabloodygoria?

But you don’t need to wait for the poets!

Afferbeck Lauder and a few other gifted writers have taken the time to craft delicious works like these for the enjoyment of all. But you don’t need to wait till you stumble across one of their works to start thinking about what they tell us about the nature of speech and how it works.

We all have experiences like this poem going on inside our heads all the time! Well – maybe not quite like this poem – but pretty entertaining and enlightening. We take a look in the next topic…