In Lewis Carroll’s childhood classic Alice in Wonderland, Alice hears a curious little poem about a creature called a Jabberwock that begins with the following enigmatic lines:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
As readers, we, like Alice, are left to wonder, “what is a tove, and what does it mean for a tove to gyre and gimble?” But I want you to notice what you’ve intuitively grasped about this nonsensical sentence. You already know that toves is a noun, that slithy is an adjective modifying that noun, and that gyre and gimble are verbs that explain what that noun is doing. But since you don’t know what any of these words mean, how could you possibly know their function in the sentence?
As it turns out, the grammatical syntax of a sentence helps us to decode meaning even when we encounter unfamiliar words. This is a core part of how young children grow their vocabulary at such an exponential rate. We use all sorts of context-clues to help us construct our understanding, and this happens mostly on the level of intuition. This explains why preschoolers can follow along so easily with a Dr. Seuss book, and it also explains why we can often infer the meaning of new words without a dictionary, just based on the surrounding context of a sentence or paragraph.
Look again at this poem’s opening: we can spot a number of words that linguists call function words. “It was,” “and the,” “did,” “and,” and “in the” signal to us how to understand who is doing what, when, and where. Even in the case of a nonsense word as cryptic as “brillig,” the preceding “it was” function lets us know that this nonsense word has some reference to time within the sentence: iit could be that brillig is a special holiday or a season or a time in the day, or it could be a descriptor of the quality of the time like maybe it was hot. But regardless, we know something about how this word is structuring the rest of the sentence. Similarly, we can immediately identify “toves” as our noun, because English sentences typically place the subject of the sentence toward the beginning, and because of the preceding “and the” function. In the case of “slithy,” the y-ending of the word, plus its relation to the “and the” function before it as well as the noun-sounding word following, suggests its role as an adjective.
You can continue this same kind of analysis for the entire poem. Consider the next two lines: “All mimsy were the borogoves / And the mome raths outgrabe.” Again, without knowing the meaning of these nonsense words, I’m guessing and your student can likely parse the grammatical parts of speech very easily.
Jabberwocky and Sound Association
The Jabberwocky poem has inspired many linguists and cognitive scientists in their study of how we acquire and utilize language skills. In fact, you can find many interesting research studies with titles like, “Grammatical Processing without Semantics? An Event-related Brain Potential Study of Preschoolers using Jabberwocky Sentences.” One key insight is that our word usage is often tied to the texture of language, by which I mean the ways that sound and sense extend meaning beyond literal denotation. For example, consider the word “splash” – if you say the word aloud, you’ll notice that the word itself sounds like the verb/noun it signifies. Splash is an example of onomatopoeia, a technique that poets often explicitly use to enhance the power of their work. While the sound of a word is not always related to its meaning, the frequency of this effect is powerful enough to shape how we interact with words.
Think back to that opening line from Jabberwocky: when you hear the nonsense word “slithly,” what do you immediately picture? I’m guessing you picture a snake, or at least some creature that slithers on the ground. And that word slither is another example of onomatopoeia. Here’s a whole family of related sound-words like slime, slide, slip, slick that also have related meanings. Carroll’s nonsense words are so effective because they activate these associations in our mind subliminally. As it turns out, these kinds of implicit associations even with nonsense words are so strong that one study found that a majority of participants will similarly associate certain nonsense words with curvy objects and other nonsense words with rectangular objects based solely on sound and texture. (source)
Jabberwocky in Translation
Poets are not the only wordsmiths interested in sound association and texture. Translators also consider these dimensions when working with multiple languages. Carroll’s poem was written in English, but has been translated into many languages including French and German. But wait, how do you translate nonsense words? Scholar Douglas R. Hofstadter has a short article on that very question. He explains that a lot of the complications in translation arise from the fact that nonsensical words often rely on sensory associations.
In the brain of a native speaker of English, “slithy” probably activates such symbols as “slimy”, “slither”, “slippery”, “lithe”, and “sly”, to varying extents. Does “lubricilleux” do the corresponding thing in the brain of a Frenchman? What indeed would be “the corresponding thing”? Would it be to activate symbols which are the ordinary translations of those words? What if there is no word, real or fabricated, which will accomplish that? Or what if a word does exist, but it is very intellectual-sounding and Latinate (“lubricilleux”), rather than earthy and Anglo-Saxon (“slithy”)? Perhaps “huilasse” would be better than “lubricilleux”? Or does the Latin origin of the word “lubricilleux” not make itself felt to a speaker of French in the way that it would if it were an English word (“lubricilious”, perhaps)?
Ultimately I think any good translator of this poem has one main goal: delighting the reader. And the more that the would-be translator, poet, or any type of writer can explore semantics and syntax, sound and sense, the more their written works will delight their reader.
Language arts development is not about memorizing word lists or compiling a grammar rulebook. Instead, what the research shows us is that the most effective approach to grammar, vocab extension, spelling etc., is the kind of deep learning that occurs when context is emphasized and intuition is developed through layers of meaning both thought and felt.
I believe that we enjoy wordplay because it is creative, comedic, and unexpected. I also believe that language-arts education is enriched by interacting with wordplay. While the title of this post suggests that Jabberwocky can teach your student grammar. I think the most important pedagogical aspect of the poem is found in just reading it aloud, and enjoying it for what it is – an exercise in delight. Of course you can use the text to analyze parts-of-speech, maybe even using different colored pencils to differentiate nouns from verbs. But the broader point is that so much of our language learning is like an ocean with treasure waiting for us the more that we explore. If you and your student are having fun as you interact with language, you can be confident that profound learning is occuring, and the kind of learning that endures beyond the years of formal education, setting your student up to be a lifelong learner.