Some Things I’ve Learned Lately About Words

Words have gotten me into trouble in my life. By which I mean: as a writer, I have a ‘style,’ a heightened way of using language, and this style has often been perceived as ‘beautiful.’ And so, while I try to write plays that I perceive as action-packed and playful and funny, I have, at times, struggled with directorial interpretations that show how beautiful the text is, slowing it down, or matching it with beauty of design, or foregrounding the image evoked by the text over the action of the play.

Maybe it’s the way I talk? The way my family talks?  I don’t know. I’m stuck with it. But if a character I’ve written is rhetorically heightened, I don’t think it’s necessary for them to be dressed in a powder blue suit stencilled with cumulus clouds. I think they can look like a real person. 

I’ve had greater and lesser success with this dynamic, eventually working in the nineties and aughts on several projects with Victoria’s Theatre SKAM, whose comic sensibilities, outdoor venues, and small budgets meant there would never be any attempt to match the visual aesthetics to the language in my plays.

But I, too, have occasionally been seduced by the idea that I could win over an audience with the beauty of an idea rather than the dynamics of an action. I could argue, defensively, that my first play at the Tarragon, A God In Need of Help, had an emotional impact on a lot of people. But my oldest friends were annoyed by it (and by me), because I was presenting a Rashomon storytelling structure that was as rhetorically heavy as the painting my four strong men were carrying over the Alps. 

I’ve always wanted to figure out how to be a champion of the inarticulate: the struggles and failures of expression.

The development of the play concentrated on clarifying the ideas that were in it: I always needed my characters to explain better — and again better, and again — their version of the miracle they had witnessed halfway through the Alps. It bogged us down, I think. I’d always wanted to work at the Tarragon, and, after twenty-five years, I’d finally arrived there. But I had also become the playwright that some readers had thought I was the whole time: static, idea-driven, word-heavy, inactive. 

How it pains me to say it. I love that play. 

And this might sound funny in the middle of a two-thousand-word essay on language, but I’ve always wanted to figure out how to be a champion of the inarticulate: the struggles and failures of expression. I’ve always wanted to show that in my characters.

Still, the play was successful enough that I was invited to pitch something else. But I didn’t want to make the same rhetorical mistake ever again. My career-long dilemma was more pressing than ever: I wanted to hold on to my taste for heightened language, but I didn’t want it to bog me down ever again.


In 2014, the year Tarragon produced A God In Need of Help, my wife Kat Cizek and I adopted a thirteen-month old toddler. During the first two years she was with us, I didn’t write much at all, but I did get a masterclass in communication: at an early meeting with the doctor, we tried to explain that our fifteen-month old had already mastered more than fifty words. The doctor was skeptical. Reading the room (or seeming to), our daughter stood up, toddled over to the wall, put her hand on it, turned back to the doctor, and said, ‘wall.’ 

To me, her communicative mastery extended beyond spoken language: she particularly enjoyed finding imaginary bits of dirt on the floor, picking them up and displaying them, then popping them into her mouth. When I came running, she would laugh and show there was nothing there. 

I wanted to illustrate the challenge presented by the need to foster attachment, and then raise the stakes in a hostile environment.

In those days, she sang a private eating song in the manner of silverback gorillas. She had me thinking about animals all the time, and it follows that she had me thinking about nonverbal communication all the time, too. Just after she turned three, I conceived of an idea for a play about adoption that would be set in prehistory, where the child was a Neanderthal and the parents were Early Modern Humans. I wanted to illustrate the challenge presented by the need to foster attachment, and then raise the stakes in a hostile environment. I then wanted to compound the problem by having my separate human species not share a common language, or even a language type. So I was giving myself the problem of creating two separate language types, whatever that meant. I wanted my humans to be easily understood by the audience, which meant using a form of English, but I wanted it to feel basic and ancient and elemental. I wanted them to be people of few words

My early efforts failed unspectacularly, becoming exercises in futility that dulled my own capacity for communication, tamped down my imagination, and barely expressed anything beyond repetition: 

Mo: Safe.

Gor: Oh.

Ka: (nodding, pointing) Safe.

Mo: Safe.

Ka: Safe.

Gor: (nodding) Safe.

I wanted to have limitations. But I also needed to express. I started to wonder if there was anywhere I could find a list of the oldest words; or, more specifically, the oldest concepts that had words attached to them. I thought I could use such a list as a limitation for communication and a starting point. So I wrote for help to my linguist friend Susana Bejar:

Susana turned me on to something called The Swadesh List — a list of 200 words that linguists use as a touchstone when investigating the origins of language. More formally , according to Wikipedia, it’s ‘a classic compilation of basic concepts for the purposes of historical-comparative linguistics. Translations of the Swadesh list into a set of languages allow researchers to quantify the interrelatedness of those languages.’ 

I decided to try using the English edition of the Swadesh List as my complete vocabulary for all dialogue. With the list sitting by me, I found that these words, rather than imposing a limitation, created whole new opportunities for communication. With no words for feelings, very few adjectives beyond colours or hot and cold, my list created its subject matter:

Gorse: We walk far, Mo. All night we walk.

Mo: We walk with moon, Gorse.

Gorse: Moon not here, Mo. Clouds here. Day here. Rain near.

Mo: Moon there. (Pointing up)

Gorse: Ne, Mo. All clouds. 

Mo: (to her knees with the swaddled body of their child) Here.

This was a bit surprising. I didn’t have to think of dialogue; it was, instead, always suggesting itself to me, asserting itself out of these words. 

But that wasn’t all. The biggest surprise was how the 200 words of the Swadesh List also effectively built the world of the play: not merely its verbal exchanges but the actual physical environment in which it took place. Words like bark, burn, bird, liver, moon, hold, here, there, night, clouds, rain, fight, guts — they served to remind me always that there would be rain; there would be fire; bodies were fragile; the moon was a presence at night. 

We theatre-makers are always aware of the limitations imposed by an evening’s span of time and the small empty space in front of an audience.

We theatre-makers are always aware of the limitations imposed by an evening’s span of time and the small empty space in front of an audience. Those 200 words reminded me that such limitations are also strengths: you can create an epic, as Gorse does in the play, by cupping your hand and creating a little performance right there in your palm. 

In this world, people and animals would swell in the sun; and, when falling into a river, they would swim or not swim. They could spit or split or squeeze or stab. There was no word for sick but there was for die. There was no love but there was heart, no depression but dust and ashes. Metaphor demanded itself into existence out of dire necessity. Time was difficult to convey beyond the cursory day and night. No time to think about the past or the future, then. Everything is here and now.

I made some mistakes: the word why was not on the list (unlike the words how, when, where, who what). I thought I was always using what for. But it crept in, several times, most notably in a repeated adage: Moon not say why. Who know why? I decided to keep it because I didn’t want to be precious, and anyway, my limitation had done its work. I also had my characters coin some curse words, variants of yes and no, proper names, pipers.

It felt very satisfying to watch the world of the play get built, not through terraforming but through voxaforming or verbaforming. I wrote a draft and was foolish enough to think I was done. It turns out, though, I had allowed my taste for heightened eloquence to creep in another way: via stage directions. 

I’ve always been familiar with the allure (and the danger) of stage directions in a play. My first novel, The Girls Who Saw Everything, was written because the stage directions in the play I was writing got out of hand, eventually evolving into an authorial voice. 

In the case of Orphan Song, I painted action-packed pictures with my stage directions: of bear attacks, of carrion birds, of hedgehogs and rabbits, of lice being combed out of hair and gobbled up. I depicted the scratching and struggling and biting of a traumatized child along with the occasional fleeting triumph of successful communication. 

Most importantly, I described eloquently (in my stage directions) how the Neanderthals, with whom my early modern humans shared this world, twittered and sang like birds. 

In short, the first draft of Orphan Song featured no songs for my orphan. I thought I was giving the actors free reign in terms of how to perform Neanderthal language. What lucky actors they were, getting to do the work of the playwright!

There is no better note I have ever been given: cut the stage directions.

We did a workshop reading. The play fell flat. My early modern humans had expressed themselves, but they were alone in their expression. The Neanderthals had expressed nothing, and neither had the various beasts of the forest and birds of the air. 

At the end of the day, Richard Rose challenged me to cut all the stage directions and replace them with sound. I said, ‘but… there are animals. Can I not identify the animals?’ My early modern humans couldn’t identify the animals: the Swadesh list didn’t have words for them

He suggested I not identify the animals. He suggested I spell out the sounds, not just the words. ‘And you’re a musician, aren’t you? So give us the Neanderthals’ lines too.’

Reader, my musical ability is this: I’m a banjo player. 

Still, there is no better note I have ever been given: cut the stage directions. Let the director and actors chart their path through the story by following the lines of the text — verbal, musical, onomatopoeic.

This was a challenge of pure playwriting. But I also wanted to continue to work within sets of limitations that had worked for me so far. I didn’t want to be a musical composer so much as I wanted to find a new rule to govern any musical ideas I might come up with. An onomatopoeic version of the Swadesh list. 

I had recently acquired an iPad with a childproof Otterbox to use as a portable writing tool in a house where everywhere had become toddler-occupied space. I started to explore the sound-related apps that were available to me on this machine. I found an app that translated music into notation. I spent a lot of time feeding birdsong into it, looking at the results, playing them back in midi files, and isolating the bits that were beautiful and/or made sense to me as communication. 

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Then, after incorporating these bits into the text, I researched verbal birdsong mnemonics (the way people will call “cheeseburger” to remember the rhythm and intonation of a chickadee) and created a series of vowel sounds that the actor could use to sing them. In an attempt to help the audience remember patterns of birdlike song from the Neanderthals, I felt I needed the mnemonics as much as the pure sound. 

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What I finally ended up with was a text that was: 

20% onomatopoeia (encompassing grunts, cries, roars, and hysterical laughter), 
30% pasted bars of musical staves, 
and 
50% weird English poetry with a limited vocabulary of just over 200 words. 

I submitted the new draft. 

Richard took a look at it and told me he couldn’t make head or tail of it: I was going to have to come into the theatre and read the whole thing to him. 

Ha ha ha.


2 Responses to “Some Things I’ve Learned Lately About Words”

  1. Chickadees chirp, ‘chickadee chickadee chickadee not cheeseburger cheeseburger cheeseburger ‘what are you talking about?

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Sean Dixon is a playwright best known for his work with Victoria’s Theatre SKAM and Winnipeg’s renowned Primus Theatre. He’s written several plays for B.C.’s Caravan Farm Theatre and Ontario’s Blyth Festival, and will be publishing his fifth novel next year with Calgary’s Freehand Books. In 2014, he was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for his play A God In Need of Help, first produced here at the Tarragon. Other plays include The Wilberforce Hotel, The Orange Dot, Jumbo, France (or, The Niqab), Falling Back Home, The Painting, Sam’s Last Dance, Billy Nothin', and The Gift of the Coat. Sean lives in Toronto with his wife, the multi-award-winning documentary maker Katerina Cizek, and a nine-year old daughter whose brilliant, funny, stubborn character inspires much of his current work.