Horizontal Weasel Cookies

Sparking our linguistic imagination -- and making inside jokes -- using homophonic translations

One of the (almost endless) things I love about language, is how humans (and probably crows and dolphins and everyone else too) use it to delineate cultural belonging. Whether it’s the small but important differences between Croatian and Serbian, regional dialects, subcultures’ slang, or an inside joke, language expresses who we are – and which “we” we are. I love how fluid it is – how when I moved to Northern California my speech slowed, how when I moved to Montana my vowels tightened and incrementally“creek” became “crick,” then loosened again to “creek” when I moved away.

Anyhow, sometimes my classes will form their own verbal cultures. They’ll have phrases and jokes that only they understand. Regular old pencils become “pencil pencils.” The assistant teacher earns the title “Uncle.” People start to say “I guess I’ll just go back to my dirt,” when they feel left out.

One year, my class got obsessed with the mysterious phrase horizontal weasel cookies. I couldn’t tell you what it means, and I don’t think anyone else could either, but it was this recurring theme, the punchline to dozens of jokes, for several years. And while I don’t know what it means, I do know where it came from: a lovely little exercise called Homophonic Translation, which I learned from the also lovely book of poetry ideas for adults, The Practice of Poetry.

How it works:

Grab some texts in foreign languages, preferably ones that nobody in the room understands very well. I like to use poetry, but even instruction manuals would work. I use poetry because love having the chance to hear something beautiful in another language and to hear poetry I love in the original, even if from a less-than-fluent reader. Whatever the text, have someone read aloud slowly.

As they listen, everyone else should write down what they hear AS IF THE SOUNDS THEY ARE HEARING ARE ENGLISH.

For instance, Pablo Neruda’s line “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche” does not become “tonight I can write the saddest lines,” although that is the English translation of its meaning. It becomes something like “Playdough scrub ear low spur so moss tree stays Ester know Che.” Or maybe just “scrub…moss…no,” depending on how quickly a listener can transcribe. I like to encourage kids to think about it as a river of sound, and to just dip in and out, not to worry about catching everything.

Try reading a few things in a few languages. It’s OK to stumble around — stretch yourself to read something you’re unsure of how to pronounce. In this exercise, accuracy is irrelevant, and something of the rhythm and power of the words still comes through. I like to read some Spanish or French and some German, which pulls out very different sounds and words in English. And I like to try something in a language outside the Indo-European language family too.

Sometimes we pretend we are wiretapping spies, listening in for coded messages. Sometimes we’re just poets. Either way, we find the strangest, most pleasing phrases. Like horizontal weasel cookies.

Then, if we want to, we write something with them.

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