FIFTY SOUNDS, by Polly Barton - Lucille Turner FIFTY SOUNDS, by Polly Barton - Lucille Turner

FIFTY SOUNDS, by Polly Barton

Oct 25, 2021

A Book about Language and Life

This book is a love affair with the country of Japan, its people and its words. I’ll say words not language because Fifty Sounds, winner of the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Essay prize, contains a glossary of random Japanese words thrown together as pairs, with each word pair recalling a sound made in a particular context. It’s language learning, but not exactly text-book oriented. It talks about philosophy but wraps it up in personal experience. So, is this an essay, an autobiography, or a dictionary? It’s probably all of these, which makes it quite unique.

 The premise of the book is how language must be bound up with experience in order to be really understood. Language is context dependent. A word can change its meaning in any given context quite subtly, and Barton plays around with these subtleties, alienating the reader then hooking them back in through the medium of story. As her command of Japanese deepens she succeeds in breaking the linguistic code that made her feel like an outsider. Words can be feelings, and feelings are the switch that turns a language on…

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