“The point is that to get a range of step, stride and gait means you have to use some long words, some short and some, well, just run of the mill, those whose place is in the mid range. What’s more, though you may find you can write with just short words for a while, in the end don’t you have to give in and reach for one of those terms which, like it or not, is made up of bits, more bits and yet more bits, and that adds up to a word which is long?”
Here was my first thought, especially after reading the part about “more bits”: Could something comparable be done in German, in which nouns grow like metastasizing cancers? But then I remembered a more heartbreaking experiment in literary brevity.
Chidiock Tichborne (1562?-86) was born into a noble Catholic family in England, and joined the Babington plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and put the Catholic Mary Stuart on the throne. After the plot was foiled and Tichborne was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he wrote a letter to his wife Agnes in which he included three poems. The best known, “Tichborne’s Elegy,” is also known by its first line, “My Prime of Youth is but a Frost of Cares.” The poem is written entirely in one-syllable words. In the eighth line, “fallen” is sometimes written as “fall’n” to keep the monosyllables consistent. The poem works even without knowing the circumstances in which it was written: “My fruit is fallen, and yet my leaves are green.” On Sept. 20, 1586 – purportedly the day after he wrote the poems -- Tichborne and six other conspirators were executed. One of his longer-lived contemporaries, William Shakespeare, memorably uses monosyllables when they serve his dramatic and linguistic purposes. Here is Posthumous speaking in Act V, Scene 4 of Cymbeline:
“`Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen
Tongue, and brain not; either both or nothing,
Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such
As sense cannot untie.
Be what it is,
The action of my life is like it, which I'll keep, if but for sympathy.”
Posthumous is awaiting execution in a British prison, but is spared, unlike Tichborne. Thirty-nine of the forty-eight words in his speech are of one syllable. No one would fret that the speech plods, makes no sense or goes on too long.