Over the Christmas break I acted on the promise to myself that I would read more. As a child I could devour a whole book in a single sitting, completely lost in another world. These days I find myself distracted by many unnecessary things. Anyway, I digress, sort of. As well as trying to work through my rather large and ever growing reading list, I have decided to revisit some of my childhood favourites too. Stacked beside me are a few of the Famous Five adventures, the Chronicles of Narnia and a dozen Roald Dahl classics. It’s with the latter pile that my reading frenzy began.
It took 15 minutes to decide which Dahl book to read. I wanted to become reacquainted with all of the characters, and I will in due course but I settled on one I hadn’t read for quite some time, The BFG.
I managed to read this in three sittings which was quite an achievement for me these days. I had forgotten so many of the details in the book and having now been reminded of so many wonderful moments, I’m more excited than ever for Spielberg’s adaptation of the book that’s due to be released in 2016, the centenary of Dahl’s birth. There will also be an official Roald Dahl dictionary released during 2016. Exciting.
But the thing that really makes The BFG such a joy for me is the language. I caught myself chuckling aloud on more than one occasion. One example that drew a giggle from me on more than one occasion is a phrase that crops up a few times throughout the book where The BFG asks his little human friend, Sophie, ‘am I right or am I left?’ meaning am I right or wrong. Here’s a quote from the book to put this into context:
The human beans is making rules to suit themselves,’ the BFG went on. ‘But the rules they is making do not suit the little piggy-wiggies. Am I right or left?
The BFG himself tells Sophie that ‘words… is oh such a twitch-ticking problem to me all my life.’ In the example above we can also see that the BFG refers to human beings as human beans. In fact the BFG has a very distinct vocabulary. The story tells us this is because he hasn’t been formally educated and some of the words used in Dahl’s writing really are a testament to his creativity and imagination. He wrote many lists of words for the BFG, words which make his language very unique. The BFG’s language has a name too, it’s called Gobblefunk.
There’s a page on the Roald Dahl website that defines some of the words used in the BFG. Here are a few:
Hopscotchy: Cheerful, as in, “Whenever I is feeling a bit scrotty,” the BFG said, “a few gollops of frobscottle is always making me hopscotchy again.”
Whoopsey-splunkers: Splendid, as in, “How whoopsey-splunkers! How absolutely squiffling! l is all of a stutter.”
Sqiubbling: Writing, as in “But I cannot be squibbling the whole gropefluncking dream on a titchy bit of paper.”
As well as these made up words, the BFG often gets them muddled, making the way he speaks even more creative. What’s clever about the way Dahl has written the language though is that it never makes the story itself muddled. It doesn’t detract from the scene, in fact, it makes it more engaging. It gives the BFG a personality of his own, it makes him funny, likeable and of course, friendly.
I had a dabble once before with trying to create my own words for something I was writing. I found it incredibly difficult, mainly because what I wrote was either too nonsensical or it was too reminiscent of existing words and language. My admiration for Dahl’s ability to create such a unique language also extends to other authors such as J K Rowling. Some of the terminology in the Harry Potter series is nothing short of genius.
It’s well documented that Dahl wrote many long lists of words when defining Gobblefunk for the BFG. He used the yellow American legal paper he is known for favoring and those lists are now on display at the Roald Dahl museum. It seems it took a bit of time to get the final vocabulary that made it to print.
Some of the words that make up Gobblefunk are totally unique. Others offer more of a hint at similar terms that mean the same thing. Squibbling (defined above) isn’t a million miles from scribbling for example. He also refers to a catterpillars as ‘cattlepiddlers’ and a child as a ‘chiddler.’ Small changes in spelling but a big shift in sound and tone.
Sometimes the small changes are the most effective. Esio Trot, Dahl’s story about a woman, her tortoise and the man that lives above them, is clever in that things are written backwardsl. Esio Trot itself is ‘tortoise’ written backwards and in the story Mr Hoppy passes a note to Mrs Silver to help her tortoise grow that says:
ESIO TROT, ESIO TROT,
TEG REGGIB REGGIB!
EMOC NO, ESIO TROT,
WORG PU, FFUP PU, TOOHS PU!
GNIRPS PU, WOLB PU, LLEWS PU!
EGROG! ELZZUG! FFUTS! PLUG!
TUP NO TAF, ESIO TROT, TUP NO TAF!
TEG NO, TEG NO, ELBBOG DOOF!
When reversed that reads as – Tortoise, tortoise, get bigger bigger! Come on, tortoise, grow up, puff up, shoot up! Gorge! Guzzle! Stuff! Gulp! Put on fat, tortoise, put on fat! Get on, get on, gobble food.
Dahl could have made up a spell or unique words like those in the BFG but he chose to write them backwards and I believe the story is all the better for it. Not only does the language and style of writing define the characters in his books, but it also defines Dahl as a writer.
I rarely write non-fiction these days and there’s little place in my articles for words like Delumptious or ucky-mucky, but whenever I have a spell of writer’s block I am going to dust off my own American legal paper pad, sharpen my Dixon Ticonderoga pencil (Dahl’s pencil of choice) and write a list of made up words. A list that will doubtful be published in a Robert Mills dictionary in 2081 but may keep my words flowing and be a fun way of combating writer’s block.
I’m also going to read the rest of my Dahl collection. Next up is Danny the Champion of the World. I can’t wait to explore these characters and their worlds once more. I’m clearly not alone in being a huge Dahl fan. There are lots of reasons why his books are loved across generations. The stories are imaginative and clever, the characters are well crafted, the good and the underdogs prevail but above all else, they are beautifully written whether using traditional language or something as creative as Gobblefunk.
Images used in this post are illustrations of The BFG by Sir Quentin Blake and taken from the official Roald Dahl website.