Feature of the Week: Tongue Untied


Feature of the Week: Tongue Untied

British autistic savant Daniel Tammet learned Icelandic in one week. On a dare. This summer the 28-year-old returned to Iceland, where he feels the landscape rivals only the number pi in beauty. Some might find this an odd comparison, but because of a rare condition called synesthesia, numerals and letters are more than facile figures to Tammet’s mind: they express entire worlds of color and emotion.

Published in the 2007 autumn issue of Iceland Review – IR 45.03. By Jonas Moody, photo by Páll Stefánsson.

Jonas Moody: I’ve spent five years in Iceland and still stumble through my declensions, but then you blow into town and in a week make me look like beginner. What’s your trick?

Daniel Tammet: Words are beautiful to me, with relationships between them. Some of the relationships have to do with their meaning, but some are based on their colors and textures or how I feel about them. For example, the word háskóli (university) is white and blue. It’s because of the letters in the word. “H” is always white. “L” is blue. Reykjavík is red because it begins with an “r”.

JM: How many languages have you collected in this way?

DT: Ten. My French is good because I learned it in school. My German is okay, but it doesn’t seem to help me with Icelandic. Icelandic stands out. It’s like Old English, like the English we would have spoken before the Normans invaded.

JM: As someone who speaks many languages, what characterizes Icelandic?

DT: Ordin eru svo gagnsae. [Words are so transparent]—even the word “gagnsae” [literally “see-through”]—whereas with the English word “transparent” you have to speak Latin to be able to understand the parts. What I like about Icelandic is that you feel as if you’re getting inside the language. The words are simple and logical: hvítlaukur, the word for garlic, is literally “white-onion”, or handleggur [arm, but literally “hand leg”]. All these are words that make sense, and there’s a beauty to that. Icelandic is artistic.

JM: Is there any other language where you find that kind of lexical artistry?

DT: Finnish tends to use those combinations as well. Like Icelandic, it doesn’t like borrowing words; it likes to make its own words. But even then, Icelandic is much more visual. Like how the word tölva [computer] is a combination of “number” [tala] and “witch” [völva]. And sími for “telephone,” which comes from a very old word for “thread.” I can’t think of any other language that does that.

JM: But it’s not just the Icelandic language that entices you. I’m told you see the country’s scenery in a rather unusual way: through the number pi.

DT: When I first came to Iceland I found it such a beautifully visual country. There were places I thought looked a little bit like pi, such a vast number. I set a European record memorizing it to 20,514 places. When you see all these numbers pulling together color and textures they make a landscape in my mind. When I see a distinctive landscape, stark and beautiful standing out on the horizon, I see pi.

JM: So in addition to your knack for languages you are also a mastermind when it comes to math. How do you experience numbers, then?

DT: I have a very emotional relationship with numbers. For most people, numbers are just squiggles on a page. For me they’re much more dynamic and visual. When I think about numbers it’s immediately an emotional experience, and a visual one that involves me and interests me. It has always been that way. Since I was very small.

JM: From zero to 10,000 you claim that each number has a distinctive shape and feel. What’s it like to be in such an involved relationship with numbers?

DT: It’s difficult for me to understand when people say, “Oh! I hate numbers. I can’t do any calculations at all. I have to use a calculator for everything.” I think, wow, you’re missing out on a lot. Numbers are everywhere. Barcodes and telephones. If you don’t have any connection with them whatsoever then it’s a big part of the world you’re missing.

JM: What about your boyfriend, Neil? Are there any numbers you associate with him?

DT: Probably nine because he’s tall. It’s a tall number. And dark blue. Sometimes people ask me if I associate love with any number, but I can’t. It’s just too complex to associate with any one number.

JM: Is there any number that sets you on edge or gives you some kind of solace?

DT: Six I don’t like so much. It’s a small number—tiny, in fact. So it’s the converse of nine, which is big and blue. Six is tiny and black. It’s a cold number and hollow. I get very few feelings from it, so I don’t like it. When I was younger and couldn’t understand a concept like sadness, I would imagine myself inside a number six.

JM: There are some numbers that already have certain associations determined by superstition, like the link between 13 and misfortune or 666 with the devil. Do these popular notions have any effect on how you feel about a number?

DT: No. I really like 13. It’s a prime number. It’s blue-green, the color of the sea. Superstitions have no exercise over me whatsoever. 666 is 18 times 37, which is a lucky number. It’s like porridge—or oatmeal, as you say in America.

JM: Oh, I see you speak American as well. There’s another feather in your cap.

DT: I also know “kick ass” and so on.