"True creativity often starts where language ends"

Text of keynote paper presented at WorldCALL 98
University of Melbourne, Australia, July 1998

Graham Davies

Links checked 19 April 2012

This is the full text of my WorldCALL 98 keynote paper, originally completed on 31 May 1998.
In the meantime some of the hyperlinks have been updated and a few minor corrections have been made.

I am not a particularly creative person, and the title I have chosen for this paper is characteristically lacking in originality on my part. It is a quotation from Arthur Koestler’s book The act of creation, a long and difficult work, written in 1964, that proposes a theory of the act of creation, aiming to demonstrate that all creative activities - artistic originality, scientific discovery and comic inspiration - have a basic pattern in common (Koestler 1964:17). The quotation concludes the chapter titled "Thinking aside", in which Koestler makes some provocative statements about the limitations of language. He claims that "words are essential tools for formulating and communicating thoughts […] but words can also become snares, decoys or strait-jackets" (Koestler 1964:176). Language can become an obstacle to creative thought, he argues, which is why "true creativity often starts where language ends" (Koestler 1964:177).

The process of choosing the title and developing the ideas in this paper is far removed from Koestler’s theories about the creative process. If I had been a truly creative person then, according to Koestler, I would have had a flash of insight, unexpectedly and possibly while awakening from a day-dream or - like Coleridge - from a drug-enduced trance-like state. But that is not how it happened. It was a cold, sober act.

Stuck for ideas, I switched on my computer, inserted Microsoft Bookshelf (1994) into my computer’s CD-ROM drive and looked up the word "creativity". This gave me a number of fascinating quotations, including the title of this paper, the source of which I checked on the World Wide Web, using the Alta Vista search engine. I quickly found numerous summaries of Koestler’s book The act of creation. I had tried to read Koestler in the 1960s while still at university, but I could not understand him. Well, it’s never too late, I thought, so I accessed Blackwell’s Bookshop website and placed a credit card order for the book. Three days later the book dropped through my letterbox. This paper is therefore a true product of the computer age rather than an example of true creativity. It does, however, demonstrate a point that Koestler makes in his book, namely that "the history of discovery is full of [such] arrivals at unexpected destinations, and arrivals at the right destination by the wrong boat" (Koestler 1964:145).

An idea which must have seemed quite revolutionary in the 1960s is Koestler’s view of the scientist as an irrational being. As a university student of German language and literature at that time, I confess to having had a strong degree of antipathy towards the natural sciences. In those days there was a marked division in education between the arts and the sciences. Students who followed courses in the arts were considered imaginative, creative and irrational, while those who pursued the sciences were considered unimaginative, precise and logical. This was a simplistic view, of course, which Koestler dismisses, pointing out that while "large chunks of irrationality embedded in the creative process" are readily accepted in the arts this is not the case with the sciences, and he goes on to argue that many of the great scientists have more in common with "poets or musicians of a rather romantically naïve kind" (Koestler 1964:146). He cites the autobiography of Max Planck, the father of quantum theory, in which Planck states that the pioneer scientist "must have a vivid intuitive imagination for new ideas not generated by deduction, but by artistically creative imagination". Scientists, Koestler argues, depend on "mental processes which are subjective, irrational, and verifiable only after the event" (Koestler 1964:147). Like painters and musicians, scientists may make little use of language when formulating their thoughts, many of which are difficult to express in words, not only because words are not up to the job but sometimes because they suffer from over-precision: v. the limited concepts of the words "space" and "time" before Einstein came on the scene (Koestler 1964:174-175).

Koestler has little to say about computer scientists, who are barely mentioned in The act of creation. Computers were, of course, not in widespread use at that time. My first "encounter" with a computer was in 1963, when a fellow-student who was studying mathematics presented me gleefully with two metres of printed output that he had generated with the aid of the London University Atlas computer. I had no interest in these figures whatsoever, but my attitude changed when he appeared a couple of weeks later with a computer-generated picture of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa made up of letters of the alphabet and various other symbols. So computers might have some relevance to the arts after all, I thought. I studied Goethe, a creative universal genius who demonstrated that it was possible to bridge the arts/sciences divide. My antipathy towards the sciences mellowed, and I began to wonder to what to extent computers could contribute to the arts, but I had no opportunities to use computers until the mid-1970s, when I developed an interest in machine translation.

In 1979 I enrolled for an intensive course in literary and linguistic computing and got to grips with a string-oriented programming language called SNOBOL4. I joined the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC), later becoming deputy editor of the ALLC Journal. I was a regular reader of a magazine titled Creative Computing, which was packed with programming ideas, mainly for computer games, including word games. I discovered a book with the intriguing title Programming for poets (Conway & Archer 1979), which demonstrated to me that computer programming was undeniably a creative discipline and did not have to be embedded in mathematics. This was one of the sources of inspiration for my own publication Talking BASIC: an introduction to BASIC programming for users of language (Davies 1985).

In the course of writing Talking BASIC I created thousands of lines of computer code and I became aware of radical changes taking place in my thinking. I could read a piece of computer code and appreciate it as a creative work, and I would use words like "elegant" and "beautiful" to describe it. This was a strange way for a former student of German language and literature to behave. I began to think in computer code, and on one occasion the solution to a programming problem came to me in a dream, whereupon I jumped out of bed, keyed the code into my computer and tested it. It worked. I found, however, that when I tried to explain to a colleague how the code worked I lacked the language to describe it. "Language", as Koestler says, "can become a screen which stands between the thinker and reality" (Koestler 1964:176-177). Koestler seems to have a point: I have met many computer scientists who have not been able to explain clearly in words their thinking behind an imaginative piece of programming.

Let us come back to the question of creativity. I was quick to appreciate the value of computers in organising and analysing data, but this seemed somewhat limiting to me, and I set out to discover to what extent computers could be used as creative tools. While learning about machine translation I realised that composing the final output in a readable form presented an interesting set of problems. I began to experiment with programs that generated poetry, an example of which follows:

It is rumoured that the English teacher of a group of young students to whom I gave a copy of a similar piece of output rated it highly as an "inspired and creative modern work".

Further experiments led to the generation of text resembling advertising copy, for example:

I am delighted to see that the art of creating programs that generate language is not dead. I came across several recent examples on the World Wide Web. The first was written in Java by John Holland. It generates impressive-sounding sentences for insertion into critical essays, e.g.

John Holland’s program is known as BULL (Basic Unitary Literary Language).

The problem with computer-generated critical texts is that they are often indistinguishable from the real thing:

The above texts are authentic and written by two of the (human) winners of the Annual Bad Writing Contest conducted by Dennis Dutton, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, Volume 11, 82, Humanist Discussion Group.

So it appears that humans can certainly compete with computers in throwing up a smokescreen of language when the desire is to impress rather than to enlighten!

In a lighter vein, there are several examples of programs on the Web that generate Shakespearean insults, e.g.

The above examples were generated by a CGI program - which has now disappeared, but see the Shakespearean Insult Generator, which generates insults such as "Thou currish flap-mouthed harpy!"

However, I think Shakespeare was infinitely more creative in formulating insults:

Naturally, I located these quotations and their sources with the aid of new technology: the World Wide Web combined with the Shakespeare Study Guide on CD-ROM (1996).

It is symptomatic of the 1990s that I have taken it for granted that everyone knows what the World Wide Web all about. The Web is the product of the 1990s. It went public in early 1992 and took off in 1993. I would like to digress for a moment to pay tribute to its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, and to consider the reasons behind its invention. Berners-Lee is typical of the scientific creative genius, to which Koestler refers in The act of creation. Seeking a solution to the problem of information continually getting lost while he was working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Berners-Lee came up with the idea of the Web. As a newcomer to CERN, he found it difficult to find out what was going on. This is typical of many organisations, where information is structured like a web and details of past projects often get lost. The newcomer to an organisation gleans information haphazardly, through various documents and newsletters, gossip and discussions with colleagues in the corridor. Berners-Lee started work on the Web in 1989. He invented HTML, which subsequently spawned the browser, a layman’s way of getting at the information that computer scientists had been able to get at for years. In other words, he opened up access to information. It was a brilliant flash of insight (Koestler 1964: passim), building on the ideas of others, whom Berners-Lee (1996) freely acknowledges, notably Vannervar Bush, who is credited with inventing the concept of hypertext: see his article "As we may think", written as early as 1945, in which he describes an imaginary machine called "Memex" - essentially a hypertext device that takes account of the way the human mind associates ideas and follows a variety of different paths rather than moving on sequentially. Vannevar Bush wrote:

"[ The human mind] operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature." (V. Bush 1945)

Berners-Lee also mentions Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the mouse and the graphical user interface (GUI) in the 1960s, and Ted Nelson, who coined the word "hypertext" in 1965. Essentially, the Web is hypertext running across the Internet, a simple idea that no one had thought of before, but its potential is enormous. As Berners-Lee says in a later article, "The potential of the mixture of humans and machines working together and communicating through the Web could be immense" (Berners-Lee 1998).

The Web’s potential is certainly there, but the Web is not without its critics. In an article titled "Internet Mania", Michael Bush begins by referring to the chaotic organisation of the Web:

"The Web is like one great big, wonderful library. You enter the front door, and there are all the books... piled in the middle of the floor!" Bush also describes the Web as the "World Wide Wait", referring to its slowness and lack of interactivity (M. Bush 1996).

I am inclined to agree. Like Michael Bush, I find myself getting very impatient with the Web at peak times. I deplore the poor quality of sound and video clips that are offered at so many websites. I recall the high degree of interactivity that could be found in computer programs developed as long as 15 years ago, and the high quality of sound and video offered by the 12-inch analogue videodisc in the 1980s. The Web still has a long way to go in terms of interactivity and quality of sound and video before it catches up with interactive videodisc packages developed in the 1980s, for example EXPODISC (Davies 1991) and the even older MONTEVIDISCO (Schneider & Bennion 1984).

As Claire Bradin pointed out in her paper "The Dark Side of the Web", which she presented at the 1997 FLEAT III conference, University of Victoria, Canada, many newcomers to CALL assume mistakenly that "doing it on the Web" is the only way to deliver CALL and have little idea of CALL before the advent of the Web (Bradin 1997). The consequences of this belief are that the advantages of offline technology are often unknown to the new generation of CALLers. This sounds very negative and I do not wish to play down the imaginative use of the Web that is being made by many language teachers. There is a risk, however, that the technology offered by the Web will end up driving the pedagogy - or rather holding back the pedagogy as it is simply not yet possible to use the Web for certain types of applications. I’ll come back to this point later.

I recently attended a conference titled "Language teaching online" at the University of Ghent, Belgium, 8 May 1998. In a paper titled "Reconfiguring teacher training" (not published), an interesting point was made by Wim Veen, University of Utrecht, Netherlands. He referred to the new generation as the "Children of Chaos": children who sit watching television with a "zapper" in their hand, flipping from channel to channel; children who do not need instructions for computer programs because they work out the features for themselves simply by clicking with the mouse and experimenting; children who are uninterested in the rules of a game. Teachers have been slow to react to the changes that have taken place in children’s behaviour and thinking. What many teachers regard as chaotic behaviour and disorganised thinking could be no more than a different way of working, based on experimentation and discovery, which may be no less efficient in the long term. It is worth reiterating a point made by Koestler that I cited earlier in this paper: "the history of discovery is full of [such] arrivals at unexpected destinations, and arrivals at the right destination by the wrong boat" (Koestler 1964:145).

In his Ghent paper, Veen referred to two computer games that are typical of products that appeal to the "Children of Chaos": Myst (1994) and Riven (1997). The latter is the sequel to the former. I have copies of both games in my CD-ROM collection and I have grappled with them for hours. The setting for these games is a surrealistic world of weird and wonderful buildings on strange islands. Neither game has a clearly stated objective and, apart from a few video sequences, there are few signs of human life. The idea is that you work out the objective of the game for yourself by discovering relevant clues. Each game is predominantly visual. Language plays a very minor role.

Myst and Riven seem to fit in with Koestler’s concept of "true creativity". There is no doubt that the team of designers, artists and technicians that produced them display remarkable creative talents. The video film The making of Myst, which is included on the Myst CD-ROM, reveals some of their secrets.

So far, I have seen little evidence of this kind of creativity in multimedia CALL programs, with one notable exception: the series of CD-ROMs known as Who is Oscar Lake? (1996). The surrealistic setting for the Oscar Lake series reminds one of Myst and Riven. It looks like a city but it is clearly an unreal city. This proved to be a major bone of contention for one language teacher to whom I demonstrated the program: she did not like the setting because it was not "authentic". Enough said. As in Myst and Riven, the objective of Oscar Lake is not stated, but there is a major difference: language plays a key role in the Oscar Lake series, and the player not only has to engage in conversations with the characters in the game but he/she can also leave the game at any time to look up words and practise points of vocabulary and grammar. Navigating the world of Oscar Lake is very similar to moving around in Myst and Riven, but the means of transport are more conventional. Oscar Lake manifests the kind of interactivity I mentioned earlier in my reference to EXPODISC and MONTEVIDISCO. The difference is that the quality of the video sequences still leaves a lot to be desired. The 12-inch analogue videodiscs of the 1980s offered superior quality.

There is no doubt that the new generation in the developed countries is a "point-and-click" generation learning by discovery, surfing the Web with ease and only occasionally pausing to read substantial amounts of text. This is a trend that worries some educationists. It is underlined by a recent UNESCO survey which shows that more science students in England and Ireland live in homes with a computer than in homes with 25 books or more:

% of science students reporting having at home

Country Personal computer 25 books or more
England 89 81
Ireland 78 77
Iceland 77 94
Norway 64 92
Canada 61 86
New Zealand 60 90
Sweden 60 89
USA 59 79
Singapore 49 67
Lithuania 42 80
Hong Kong 39 50
Hungary 37 88
Czech Republic 36 95
Slovakia 31 87
Latvia 13 95

Source: UNESCO World Education Report, cited by Bright and Wynton (1998)

Other educationists are not worried about this trend, pointing to the effectiveness of the computer in promoting reading, writing and communication skills, particularly for low achievers. There is a danger inherent in the reputation of the computer in these areas, however. As Bright & Wynton (1998) point out, "Being ‘on the computer’ may become the latter-day equivalent of the dunce’s cap". What is not indicated in the UNESCO table, however, is what types of books the students had in their homes. I have numerous reference works on CD-ROM, for example, but I would not dream of reading a novel on a computer screen.

So far, I have considered only two of the areas of creativity dealt with by Koestler’s book: the arts and the sciences. The third is humour, which Koestler attempts to analyse at the beginning of his book: "Humour is the only domain of creative activity where a stimulus on a high level of complexity produces a massive and sharply defined response on the level of physiological reflexes" (Koestler 1964:30), i.e. jokes make us laugh. Analysing humour rarely works in my opinion, If you have to explain a joke, then the joke is lost.

I would like to conclude this paper by paying tribute to an Australian humorist. I could have chosen Clive James or Barry Humphries, both of whom I find funny, but I finally settled for Alistair Morrison, who is better known by his pseudonym, Afferbeck Lauder. I became acquainted with Lauder’s humour in the 1960s while hanging around with Australian students in Earls Court, many of whom spoke a variety of English that I found difficult to understand. The solution to my problems was Lauder’s book Let stalk Strine ("Let’s talk Australian") (Lauder 1965). The idea for the book arose as result of a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 1964. The British novelist Monica Dickens was signing copies of her latest book in a Sydney bookstore. A woman handed a copy of the book, saying "Emma Chisit". Monica Dickens dutifully wrote "To Emma Chisit" on the flyleaf. The woman responded, "No. Emma Chisit?", stressing that she was asking "How much is it?". This demonstrated to Afferbeck Lauder that there was a need for an Australian-English phrasebook.

Consider the following transcript of a conversation between two Australians:

A. "Sarn’s calmer nairt. Scona beer gloria sty. Mine jute still scold zephyr. Cheat was scold la snite."
B. "Weller corset Saul-wye school linnermore ninx. Buttered swarm nuddite-time. Spewffle climb a treely." (Lauder 1965:37)

If you read this aloud, all should become clear. The (English) translation follows:

A. "Sun’s coming out. It’s going to be a glorious day. Mind you, it’s still as cold as ever. Gee, it was cold last night."
B. "Well, of course it’s always cool in the mornings. But it’s warm in the daytime. It’s a beautiful climate really."

A few years later, Lauder applied the same technique to Upper Class English - or the Language of London’s West End, as he called it - in a book titled Fraffly well spoken ("Frightfully well spoken"):

A. "Sholleh you compy sirius. Shears a fess lecker bet lex, end four thombs. Ay fender paw stiffleh noss yetting."
B. "Meddier boy, youm snofferget her femmlair are Bocksher people, enchies fraffly clefferetter renching flozz." (Lauder 1968:55)

Again, the trick is to read the conversation aloud. The (English) translation follows:

A. "Surely, you can’t be serious. She’s a face like a battle axe, and four thumbs. I find her positively nauseating."
B. "My dear boy, you must not forget her family are Berkshire people, and she’s frightfully clever at arranging flowers."

Lauder may not rank with Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare in terms of the sophistication of his wit, but he’s both inventive and amusing - truly creative, perhaps?


I have not yet stated clearly to what extent I agree or disagree with Koestler’s statement, "true creativity often starts where language ends" (Koestler 1964:176). On the whole, I am inclined to agree, but I object to his use of the word "true". Creativity manifests itself in many different ways and language is certainly one of the most important. Language is the main vehicle of our thoughts but it is also a limitation, and an inability to use language does not imply a lack of creativity. There are hundreds of autistic people whose language and communication skills are minimal, yet they often exhibit remarkable skills in art, music and mathematics. Some ideas simply cannot be expressed through language. As Wittgenstein remarked, "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him" (Wittgenstein 1953:223).


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