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Towards Transverbalism

By Jack Young.

to bring such need to utterance, to arrive before words are ready[i]

In Spanish the word for tongue is lengua. This also means language. To have a tongue is to have language: an indication of the privileged place the verbal takes in the hierarchy of languages in the West. I recently moved to Cataluña, where my own ability to verbalise my emotional landscapes and identities has decreased dramatically as I work in new and unfamiliar languages. I have never felt more keenly this privileging of the verbal within dominant Western society and I’ve  come to rely on the other languages of the body, the transverbal, as a means to understand others and to make myself understood.

The world beyond the verbal: the first means by which we learn language. The gestures and glances of our parents before the entrance of the Symbolic. The Symbolic, the patriarchal language that casts sheaves of reality upon the social body, stamping it and violently shaping it, as Monique Wittig so devastatingly put it[ii]. The boundedness of gendered signifiers in Standard French, as well as Standard Spanish, often requires people to declare a binary gender in verbal and written interactions[iii] and such declarations inevitably exert pressure upon the social body. They can be a means by which those in power exert control over those who are not and this potential weaponisation of language is of course not limited solely to gender but extends to race; class; age; sexuality and other categories.

My mother tongue, English, is a language more easily gender neutralised than its European Latin counterparts. Yet the connotative universes contained within dominant society’s use of binary pronouns can also play a crucial role in exerting pressure upon people to conform to certain ways of  being or knowing in the world, ways of being which many people do not feel comfortable existing within. An emphasis on solely the verbal, for people learning a new language for the first time and negotiating deep disparities of power, often denies people the agency to articulate the nuanced intricacies of their identities across languages.

The world beyond the verbal—the transverbal—endures through and past the entrance of the Symbolic in our lives, and there is deep understanding that comes from engaging other languages of the body alongside that of the tongue. I have noticed how much more I use facial expressions in Spanish, and how much more my hands come into play with the way in which I gesture in order to articulate the movement of time or to evoke a sense of scale and a sense of space. The way in which I lean on the transverbal has become crucial as I try to carve out meaning alongside spoken languages that are strange and unfamiliar to my tongue.


En qüestions sobre les que no tinc coneixement, mantinc la boca tancada[iv]

         In questions where I have no knowledge, I hold my tongue

 In Barcelona, where I live, the linguistic negotiations are complex. The city is largely bilingual between Catalán, the majority language, and Castille (European Standard) Spanish. Until Franco’s death in 1975, and the subsequent transition from the fascist dictatorship, Catalán was outlawed and actively persecuted by the state. Its resurgence has been a phenomenal feat of regional education policy and initiatives led by the Generalitat (regional government) and citizen-led language activism, and it is now held up as one of the most successful revivals of a once-endangered language globally. Added to this, Barcelona has a hugely diverse population of migrant communities: with Arabic, Berber, French and Romanian examples of other widely spoken languages in the region. It is within this complex and multi-faceted linguistic landscape that my own negotiations take place.

I recently went to see a Catalán-language production of Oedipus Rex (if my Spanish is intermediate: my Catalán is barely existent) and found myself intoxicated by the power of the imagery in the play, the potent force of the way bodies interacted as the action charged to its brutal conclusion. The words, emptied of their usual significatory value to my ignorant ears, became like the timbre of an instrument, another sonic texture, where rhythm and tone reach out, like a tenor saxophone’s location in a jazz ensemble. I lost a lot of the meaning I would have had if the play been in my mother tongue (or even Spanish) but gained so much elsewhere in the visual and rhythmic textures of the play. As one previously learned attunement—the verbal—became deadened by my ignorance of Catalán, my attunement to the visual became acutely heightened.

I’m interested in the possibility, and necessity, of holding these languages—the transverbal and the verbal—in place simultaneously, and examining the potential of flattening the hierarchy currently existing between them in dominant Western society. It seems this possibility may be best explored within and through art, especially in the realm of theatre.                                            


Image is a language [v]

 Actively employing images, rather than only words, allows a way of knowing that has to involve the body as well as the mind. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the world of feeling, and its connection to the body, should not be so keenly separated from the world of intellect. This echoes the line of thought so eloquently put forth by Audre Lorde in her classic 1974 essay ‘Uses of the Erotic’[vi] and aligns with the renewed interest in the occult expressed by contemporary writers such as Rebecca Tamás. Tamás argues for the radical position of exploring areas of so-called ‘irrationality’—realms of emotion and feeling that have been denigrated and pushed down as invalid forms of  knowing by white patriarchy, but could provide ways of challenging what power and knowledge are and might be… forms of knowledge that fill in the gaping wounds that rationalist capitalist society leaves in our communities and beings.[vii]

In Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’, a framework from which much of my teaching practice derives, the realms of emotion and feeling are foregrounded in his ‘Image Theatre’. Participants in this theatre do not need to understand the precise meanings of each image, they rather feel an image and let their memories and imagination wander.[viii] There are of course ethical implications in all of this kind of work, particularly when working across difference with marginalised communities, but it can be transformative to see how people from different backgrounds, without a shared spoken or written language, can articulate their stories and identities through image.

Ntozake Shange’s ‘Choreopoems’ represent another attempt to break from Western theatrical conventions to fuse music, dance and poetry into a transverbal art, seeing the poet’s role, as she did, to create an emotional environment/felt architecture. Shange perceived it as tantamount to a decolonising project in the theatre, where she could take apart colonial language and art to the boneleaving us space to literally create our own image. [ix]

Boal’s work also involves translating between different forms of expression—the articulating of words as movements. Or the closing off of one sense, such as sight, to enhance other senses. This is something akin to my experience watching Oedipus in Catalan: as my significatory understanding of the verbal decreased, my other languages were enhanced.

With the work of both Boal and Shange, the focus is on promoting the emotion of experience, of the image, without always needing to turn it into words. This, of course, may come later, but we often arrive before words are ready to express our feeling worlds, and there is an empowerment in carving out space for these feeling worlds to exist without the constant pressure to confess in spoken or written language. Not least because of the privilege invoked by our centralising of the spoken and written as the fulcrum of linguistic forms in the West.

I’m interested in de-centring these hierarchies, thinking more horizontally, and giving people space to articulate their identities on their own terms and from the languages of their own choosing.


there is no such thing as silence[x]

Whilst teaching at a primary school in London I worked with young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds who were learning English as an additional language (EAL). For those young people who arrived in the UK with little to no English it was very common for them to go through what is problematically called a ‘silent period’. This ‘silent period’, could last from around 6 months to a year, sometimes more. This stage was often misinterpreted by school staff, and management in particular, as ‘rebellious’ in some way, and at odds with their desperation to show ‘progress’ amongst students for the sake of data crunching and school reports.

It was also often misinterpreted by some over-worked and exhausted teachers as a ‘resistance’ to language learning. Even if this was ‘resistance’ from the young people it would be more than understandable: forced as they were to assimilate to a ‘one language-one nation’ education system with no recognition or incorporation of their own cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The system enforces a one-way ticket to the British state education system’s neo-colonial vision of language and culture.

Yet this period was actually one of the most active of all the language learning stages. The young people were watching and gathering, absorbing information, building up their understanding of this unfamiliar language—an especially radical process if the young person’s first language did not share the same phonetic range or alphabet as standard English. They were watching the body, listening, building knowledge, till the words were ready. In these so-called ‘silences’ we would carry out applied theatre techniques that would engage the body, develop play, use music and other transverbal arts, to enable these young people to feel confident in the unfamiliar and daunting context in which they found themselves. Often coming from histories of deep personal and collective trauma, the enforcement of spoken language at such an early stage in language acquisition is devastatingly inappropriate to young learners. We should not be forcing young people, particularly with such complex histories, to speak before they are ready. Nobody should ever be forced to speak. Speaking must always be a choice. This privileging of the verbal, before they were ready, reflected how out of touch the British state education system was and is to the diverse communities that participate in it.


one should desire to pay attention to everything… it’s this view… that leads to the art of the inventory, the catalogue, surfaces, also “chance”[xi]

 “Chance” spontaneity, a getting out of the head and into the body and its languages. Paying attention to more than that which is spoken. A whole world of language surrounding the word, existing beyond the word.  How much more relaxed these young people became, how much more willing they were to experiment with their spoken English and bring forth their mother tongues and other languages—when they felt ready—through the emphasis on play, spontaneity and engaging the body.

As part of my teaching in London I also worked with a young person B, aged 5, who had a diagnosis of selective mutism (SM). SM is defined as a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings. [xii]

B and her family had an incredibly precarious experience of the housing crisis in London and were forced to live in sub-par conditions over an hour commute from the school. Every week B’s mum and I would bid together on new social housing options, despite being told by Lambeth council the waiting list was 8 years. This is just a tiny snapshot of the conscious cruelty[xiii]of nearly 10 years of Tory austerity and formed some of the context to B’s diagnosis of SM. How brutally the housing crisis has wreaked misery and poverty on vulnerable families in the UK. B was withdrawn and visibly unhappy in class, speaking very little (if at all) in front of her classmates.

I began to work closely with B alongside a music therapist each week, where we would use music and dance as a means to carve out a safer space for B to communicate away from the mainstream classroom. Within this safer space, away from the stresses of the classroom and its white noise (as perceived by B) she became more and more expressive, stomping her feet, banging drums, and allowing her body to claim presence in the room. Gradually the words followed. We realised that she had a relatively large vocabulary in English and she began to tell stories to us from within the safety of the sensory room. After about a year she was talking freely in the space, and gradually we began to slide our safe space away from the sensory room: first into the corridor outside and, once B was ready, into her classroom. Music had provided the mask, the safety net, through which she could begin to experiment with the verbal: to feel confident hearing her voice in space and to feel her body claim presence and to share this presence with others. For B, musical language became intertwined with the language of words.


we sit and talk
quietly with long lapses of silences
and i am aware of the stream
that has no language[xiv]

The silences, the unspoken, are a part of language. They are something I have learnt to become more comfortable at sitting with. So often the verbal is late for its subject.

With the young people I worked with in London, language emerged through the body before the words did. Space and time was essential for them to begin to weave the full tapestry of how they wanted to communicate in the unfamiliar context in which they found themselves. In the yellow parts of my personal life, too, the verbal has often come late.

we are in the living room of my flat in Barcelona in spring. the light is fluorescent and shivelight golden and we are sitting with silence not in but with letting its contours shape itself around our bodies the things unsaid the memories beyond words for now bile-yellow not golden. Memories trauma-swollen, long-buried deep. we are working within a language that exists beneath the verbal beneath the sentence. our roots intertwining entangled in the substrata beneath the spoken. the glances the looks the bodies engaging and disengaging. these yellow things you are not ready to name yet. i am trying to articulate in the space between words in the space beneath that there is no rush there is time we have time the growing-towards the substrata-intertwining the sharing of the joy and the pain of the life we are living together and apart carving out space expanding as we grow

The non-verbal—the glances the looks the bodies engaging and disengaging—are as much a form of articulation as the words. There is often such a pressure to testify to trauma all at once, yet sometimes a space can be opened up in the transverbal—one not enforced through authority or oppression—a space that is safe to inhabit. The old clichéd metaphor of people being afraid of therapy for fear it will open up ‘a can of worms’, still remains so prescient, and I have witnessed and felt for myself how this all-at-once feeling or pressure, can be relinquished through sitting with the transverbal—the glance, the touch, the holding—until the words are ready. How important it is for people to reveal as much or as little as they feel they are ready to. To allow a person to feel like an actor and not a patient in their own lives. To work within languages that exist between and beyond the sentence.


What I’m getting at is our need for a more horizontal view of language. Let us take inspiration from Boal’s Image Theatre and Shange’s Choreopoems, whereby the spoken sits hand-in-hand, not towering above, the visual; the gestural; the spatial. We would flatten these linguistic hierarchies not to render people silent, in fact the opposite: to give people access to the full linguistic repertoire they have at their disposal as a means to articulate their hybrid and multifarious identities and histories. I want people to feel empowered to express their complex and ever-shifting emotional landscapes and I’m striving towards transverbalism as a better way to understand one another and ourselves. There are so many ways that the body can speak: let us carve out space for all of them.


[i] Claudia Rankine, The End of the Alphabet (Grove Press: 1998)
[ii] Monique Wittig, ‘The Straight Mind’ in The Straight Mind & Other Essays (Beacon Press: 1992)
[iii] It is important note here that there is an rapidly increasing movement towards gender neutral language in Spanish-speaking contexts, both in Europe and Latin America, with the use of the neutral ‘e’, in place of the binary ‘a’ (feminine) or ‘o’ (masculine). For example ‘amige’ for ‘amigo/a’.
[iv] Taken from Jeroni Rubió Rodon’s Catalán version of Sophocles play Oedipus Rex. Performed at Auditori de Manacor, Barcelona, October 2018.
[v] Augusto Boal, The Rainbow of Desire (Routledge: 1994)
[vi] Audre Lorde, ‘The Uses of the Erotic’ in Your Silence Will Not Protect You (Silver Press: 2017)
[vii] Rebecca Tamás, ‘The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and the Language of the Occult, published online (2019) in The White Review: http://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/songs-hecate-poetry-language-occult/
[viii] Boal, see above.
[ix] Ntozake Shange, ‘foreword/unrecovered losses/ black theater traditions’ in Three Pieces (St Martin’s Press: 1992)
[x] John Cage, ‘On Silence’ in Silence: Lectures and Writing (Wesleyan University Press: 1973)
[xi] Susan Sontag, ‘Aesthetics of Silence’ in Styles of Radical Will (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1969)
[xiii] Quote taken from Ken Loach’s acceptance speech at the Baftas for I, Daniel Blake
[xiv] William Carlos Williams taken from the poem ‘Paterson’ (Penguin:1983)

Jack Young is from Nottingham and currently lives in Barcelona, where he is co-founder of multilingual literary collective Anemone. He is interested in writing that crosses boundaries of genre and form in order to open up new spaces, wherein he attempts to articulate the fractured nature of experience and loss. He is particularly interested in the translations of memory and trauma and the lacunas- such as silences- that exist between these translations. His current writing focuses on identity; familial relationships and care and he is in the process of finishing a novel exploring these themes.

Alongside writing, he works with young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, where he develops arts-based critical pedagogy with a particular emphasis on multilingual filmmaking, applied theatre and creative writing. As part of this he carried out an MA in Multilingualism, Linguistics and Education at Goldsmith’s University, where he was awarded the 2017 Hayley Davis Linguistics Prize for his participatory work with Latin American families in South London. Website: https://www.jackmyoung.net/ Twitter: @JMDemus 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 13th, 2019.