An imperfect system

We can all picture our parents complaining about the decay of language.
This kind of complaints is on record from the beginning of historical time: it stems from the illusion of grammar as a machine, spawning beautiful language according to fixed rules.

Rather, grammar is the beautiful product of our order-seeking brains: language evolves, grammar catches up*.

A fascinating example is Michif, a combination of a variety of Canadian French and native Indian Cree, where grammar is a surprisingly complex merger of the two**.

All of this to say that one should not be surprised to find plenty of grey areas when dealing with grammar.

I care to emphasise this because Tower of Bubble (ToB) specifically, and G-Space generally, are often (initially) misunderstood as an attempt to encase “true grammar” within precise, rigid bounds.

This, however, is not the idea. ToB is just a tool for visually representing the key elements of grammar structure as the reader sees it: there are plenty of nuances that may be missed (tool is too blunt) or deliberately omitted (to keep things simple) when using ToB notation.

For example, when describing a noun in Latin-based (and other) languages it is important to go through the effort of indicating gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) or number (singular, plural) as both adjectives and verb endings related to that noun would be impacted. In English, instead, it would make little sense to focus on these characteristics because they are of comparatively little consequence.

There are also special or ambiguous constructs that can be tricky to represent. When coming across these in examples, I will look to explain my choices.

Depending on purpose, one may wish to be more or less precise: as an aid to translation for more advanced students, a skeletal notation is sufficient; when teaching beginners more detail will be useful.

In all cases, the main point of ToB is to make grammatical elements visible and therefore easy to review, discuss, analyse. Specialist uses of ToB will no doubt stretch the initial model and will drive a progressive evolution of it.
Practice makes perfect.

*Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language is fully dedicated to explaining the creative and destructive forces of language.

**You’ll find many more fascinating examples in Larry Trask’s Why do languages change.

The language of space

Space is quite clearly a central concept in G-Space.  This is because it is also central concept in Language.

When my daughter Maia was seven, one summer afternoon I found myself trying to explain to her about subject, verb, object, indirect object, agent.  We went out into the garden and I got her to place a stone in the center: that was meant to represent the verb.  We then acted out simple sentences, like “Maia kicks the ball”.  As she sounded the word “Maia”, I told her to stand to the left of the stone, and then jump over to it and say: “kicks”; finally, move to the right and utter: “the ball”.

Getting Maia to move into space felt like the easiest way to represent the logical flow of the sentence.  Within a few minutes we came up with an abbreviated version: i) lift your left arm for “Maia” (subject); ii) draw your hands to your chest for “kicks” (verb); iii) lift your right arm for “the ball” (object).

I then remembered we live in England and that summer would be over in the next couple of minutes to give way to random rain… and that’s when I sought to represent all of this on a piece of paper.

And this is how the journey from crux logica to tower of bubble started.

That day, of course, I stumbled into something that has been pretty obvious to linguists for some time.  If you dig this stuff, Guy Deutscher’s “The Unfolding of Language” is a must.

Although we will never be able to know for sure how exactly language as we know it came into being, it is clear that its foundations lie on the description of basic survival actions and concrete objects within a familiar spatial environment: “fetch me that spear”, “let’s kill the mammoth”, “where’s my dinner?”.

At the core of it all is perhaps the brain’s most powerful creation, the metaphor.  We think of the first words as metaphors for the objects they described: a phrase uttered inside the cave could describe a dangerous animal outside the cave without any need for going out and pointing it out.

And why stop at space? In the world we experience, there are also more abstract dimensions, like time and mood (or feeling).  It is no coincidence, however, that the grammar used to describe different states and transitions in physical space (from Athens to Rome) finds perfect equivalents in the description of time (from last year to next year) and mood (from angry to happy).

Metaphors enable grammatical polymorphism across the dimensions of space, time and mood.

It is when I write phrases like the one above that I am reminded of the need to bring down-to-earth that beautiful pyramid of metaphors that is the foundation of language.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to describe the concepts, axioms and rules of grammatical structure… it’s just that you can easily spin yourself into an whirlpool of abstraction and that’s when you find that the reader or the listener has made a runner or dropped dead.

I remember reading that Richard Feynman’s most dramatic contribution to quantum physics was that he came up with diagrams to describe the almost unintelligible mechanics of this new branch of research.  And everybody knows that “a picture is worth 1,000 words”.  It is in this spirit (si parva licet componere magnis) that I set out to reduce grammar to the humble drawings of  the tower of bubble, using bi-dimensional space (a piece of paper) to represent something that has its roots in the description of space.

I promise that the next post will be more concrete.

PS – …and yes, I know about Sentence Diagrams: my American friend Carmine pointed them out to me when I told him all about my exciting G-Space endeavours. Let’s just say that it’s similar but different.

Want to try Tower of Bubble? Download the Template | Cheat Sheet (Key Symbols)

The music of grammar

G-Space evolved from a cross-like, bi-dimensional notation (originally named “Crux Logica”) into the Tower of Bubble. This is what Crux Logica looked like:


And in this pdf is an example of how it could be used.

Tower of Bubble, instead, is inspired by a musical score: you can write the text (lyrics) underneath and, above each word, the grammatical symbol that represents it. The positioning of the bubbles on the pentagram represents a simplified logical analysis (syntax of the cases).

The evolution of Crux Logica into Tower of Bubble did not happen suddenly or by chance. There were two main issues with crux logica:

– representation was limited to logical analysis;

– as you “graphically positioned” the text according to grammar, you lost the order of the words from the original text.

One day towards the end of 2013, I read an article about child musical-prodigy Alma Deutscher (YouTube | Wikipedia). At that time, I had just finished reading The Unfolding of Language, a fascinating and insightful book written by Alma’s father, Guy Deutscher.

My brain must have put two and two together (Language and Music) because, a couple of weeks later, I decided that Crux Logica could be represented with a musical score. Not only would that resolve my issues, but there was also plenty of music-writing software available, which would have made it easy to “compose” analytical representations of grammar on any text.

This provided the added bonus that you could also “play” it: …a truly synaesthetic experience! With my enthusiasm renewed, I spent a few weeks dabbling with musical software prior to opting for a more targeted, purpose-built notation: the Tower of Bubble.

Ultimately, I wanted to stay focused on visualisation and optimised notation rather than euphony: the challenge with music was to think about how best to represent grammar with notes in a way that it actually sounded good! I eventually decided that this task would be best served by a more experienced musician who could focus on the music.

Tower of Bubble allowed me to make the most of Crux Logica and music for my purposes: a simpler notation that would permit spatial visualisation whilst preserving word order. So… even if I abandoned the musical representation at this stage (until a geeky musician volunteers to help!) I thought it would be nice to share this part of the journey:

– here is a musical representation of the grammar of the initial verses of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid: MusicEpics

– here is a summary of the grammatical rules I was looking to represent:


– …now hear the beginning of the Iliad… you can see why I think a musician should be able to do a better job: click here!

Want to try Tower of Bubble (ToB)? Download the Template | Cheat Sheet (Key Symbols)

Tower of Bubble


What is the “Tower of Bubble”?

It is the culmination of a 5-year project (very, very part time) – called G-Space – into the visualisation of grammar: it is a little bit like an x-ray inside the body of language.

Why? Because grammar is a compounded abstraction and visualising it can help students grasp it better.

Why grasp it better? Because it helps learning other languages. The logic underlying the “bubble-based” notation brings grammar into life, emphasising in particular the syntax of the cases (particularly useful for Latin and Ancient Greek, as help in translating Classical languages was one of my primary focuses).

It is designed so that it is easy to write with pen and paper (so long as the pentagram watermark is used).

It draws deliberately from the format of sheet music, where a musical score may be written above the lyrics of a song (here the rule is one bubble-symbol above each word)…and yes, a good musician who likes this stuff could help me convert the bubble structures into musical equivalents for a true synaesthetic experience of grammar!

Finally, the model was perfected by overlaying the concept of antifragility, drawn from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, exploring the notion that grammatical choices (deliberate or subliminal) may make a speech or a poem or a literary work convey different degrees of “fragility”.

Here is an example that uses the Tower of Bubble:


Want to try Tower of Bubble? Download the Template | Cheat Sheet (Key Symbols)