Sunday 28 February 2016


Of all the bizarre linguistic aberrations the most compelling is surely glossolalia - speaking in tongues.

Here, for instance, in conversation with the popular telly astronomer Patrick Moore, is a Mr Bernard Byron from Essex. He claims to speak three alien tongues, and does so fluently.

Three things strike me about this performance (because that's essentially what it is):

a) that his loquacious utterances are unconvincing because they are unrepeatable. He would not be able to replicate the same sounds in the same order with any degree of accuracy if invited to do so;

b) that his stream of 'Venusian' is just that - a stream. There are no pauses, no redundancies, no hesitations (but there is, to be sure, an awful lot of repetition, specially in the ullulations); 

c) that when he comes to write down some of this unearthly language he does so in a conventional manner from left to right starting at the top of the page, in a rapid scribble that vaguely resembles Pitman shorthand. What's intended, perhaps, is a sense of urgency (although the message is entirely inconsequential) as well as his own virtuosity. But what is actually happening here? Is Byron simply demonstrating his ability (in which case why doesn't he take his time over it?) or is he in a state of possession, channelling his Venusian masters (in which case why are they happy to chat inconsequentially to the man they chummily address as 'Patrick'?)

Patrick Moore! A howling eccentric who for more than half a century fronted The Sky at Night, the BBC's long-running late-night programme about the universe. At the end of the Byron clip Moore says, kindly, that his subject 'moves in a realm of the unknown which,  I think you'll agree, makes it very difficult for us to disprove him. And yet he has the charm, the cheerfulness and the courage which is common to all independent thinkers, and for which I myself have the warmest admiration.'

That's nicely said. Today Mr Byron would be presented as a sideshow freak to a shrieking audience by some nasty young telly host. He would be ridiculed.

I'll write more about glossolalia in a future blog, and particularly it's religious function - 'speaking in tongues'. While on the subject of alien communications I like Kurt Vonnegut's dazzling paragraph, in Breakfast of Champions, attributed to the imaginary science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout: 

As for the story itself, it was entitled "The Dancing Fool." Like so many Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot: A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.

My kind of alien.

Extract from Breakfast of Champions (1973)  © The Estate of Kurt Vonnegut

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