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The Alan Moore Jerusalem tapes, #7: the lost language of Northampton

3 Oct

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Following my feature on Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, I’ve been posting edited highlights from the 30,000-word interview transcript. In the last two, Alan Moore managed to make even Milton Keynes interesting. Here he’s back on his home turf of Northampton, but along the way he lays down some pretty deep riffs on our perception of the universe…

Alan Moore: “Words and literature run all the way through Jerusalem. This is all somehow about language, right from John Wycliffe translating the Bible, which is a spiritual act, it’s a linguistic act, and it’s a massively political act, all at once. Which is kind of how I see Jerusalem, I suppose.

“If you think about it, words build more than books. Words pretty much build everything, because we are not experiencing the universe directly. We don’t perceive the universe, we perceive our perception of the universe. It’s the vibrations in our tympanums, the photons in our retinas, the signals in our nerve endings.

“We are composing, moment by moment, the universe inside our own neurology.

“And according to Alfred Korzybski, the language theorist, he more or less says that words are how we put together the whole universe: we’re not conscious of a thing until we have a word for it. I mean this is standard language theory.

“To be able to read the Sun, I think you need 100,000 words in your vocabulary; that’s a Sun reader’s vocabulary. [NB: Alan Moore is massively overestimating here, perhaps owing to his own sesquipedalian range. The average vocabulary is 20,000-35,000 words.] So that is painfully limited. And by the opposite thesis, if you expand the amount of words within a person’s reach, you’re also expanding their consciousness, potentially.

“It’s this whole thing of perception, and our perception is made of words. Language precedes consciousness, we are told, and also you can see it even in the present day. Say, for example, before we had the word ‘paedophile’. Or before we had that word in common clearly understood usage. Isn’t it funny how all the paedophiles appeared after that word? You’ll sometimes talk to old people, and they’ll say, ‘well, we never had those paedophiles when I was a girl or I was a boy’, and I’m ‘yeah you did, you just didn’t have a word for it’. So it was worse then, because you couldn’t even conceive of them.

“So yeah, in Jerusalem there is a strong strand about the development of language. Take ‘Third Borough’ [which in Jerusalem is the word used for the deity]. In the early 20th century there was a Third Borough in the Boroughs [the area of Northampton in which Jerusalem is set]. What they were was a combination of rent man and policeman. If somebody defaulted on their rent, they would be collecting the rent and also punishing the defaulter. “The word ‘Third Borough’ doesn’t exist anywhere outside Northampton, and is believed to be a corruption of a Saxon term, ‘frith burhh’, which meant a tithing map.

“As far as I know, ‘deathmongers’ [who assist at both births and deaths] didn’t exist outside the Boroughs. Maybe there were people who fulfilled that function, but they weren’t called deathmongers; and they probably didn’t have quite the same aura. So I wanted to be build this up from the language, the lost language of Northampton.”

Jerusalem is out now in hardback from Knockabout in the UK and Liveright in the US. For the full interview feature, click here. In part 8, Alan Moore talks about giving Anonymous and Occupy their face.

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