“In the muddle is the sounddance” — another introduction to the reading of Finnegans Wake

Karl Reisman
(from FlashPøint, Summer 2009, Web Issue 12)
In the buginning is the woid,
in the muddle is the sounddance
and thereinofter you’re in the unbewised again


I am not making any large claims here, but I thought that looking at some of the ways in which Joyce plays with letters, and some relations of letters and language sounds and contexts, might be interesting to some readers and perhaps give a few who might not have yet noticed a glimpse of how truly complex and linguistically or otherwise profound Joyce’s manipulations of language and its symbols are. Nevertheless it is the last thing on my mind to claim that Finnegans Wake or its artfully constructed parts can be reduced to the set of games, puzzles, scrabbles, puns, and other devices that appear throughout the text.

Some readers, particularly those relatively new to Finnegans Wake, or others who might prefer not to begin with a general discussion of language and writing, and whole paragraphs of Finnegans Wake in which Joyce is or is not discussing what he is doing in the writing of the book, may prefer to skip a little way to Part II of this essay, where I attempt a presentation or representation of examples of some of the more elementary devices – games, plays with letters, typography and punctuation, and the sound dances – by which Joyce creates what ends up as the richest and most profoundly allusive writing in the history of literature.

Many readers approaching Finnegans Wake for the first time – or some even after a long time with Joyce’s book – are not really ready to be entertained by the detailed complexity of the text, the myriad kinds of play and games it contains, or by Joyce’s linguistic sophistication. Some people like the details of language or the play with it. Others have other ways of approaching works of imagination. Joyce writes for all of them. And play and games are only some of the ways by which Joyce creates his multilingual allusive book. It moves its language and its voices towards the most profound encounters with human experience. One thing leads to another. As Joyce says, “Hush! Caution! Echoland!” (013.05). And the full depth of its complexity may only come completely into awareness after many years.

What I want to do here is focus on some examples of his play with letters and sound – and typography. Hopefully such an exploration, while not always news and far from a general view of the nature of the text, may help raise consciousness about the nature of the writing in Finnegans Wake.


“Techniques”! Are we on the hunt for the technical key? The faith of Americans that there is some know-how that will give us a simple way into the mudmound, into the “authordux book of Lief,” that “whale’s egg farced with pemmican, as were it sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia: all those red raddled obeli cayennepeppercast over the text, calling unnecessary attention to errors, omissions, repetitions and misalignments” (120.11-17).1

Well, Joyce is your man for techniques. Puzzlemaster, linguist, lexicographer, encyclopedist, musician, historian. and writer of “an epical forged cheque” (181.16). And perhaps more – numerologist, palaeographer, philosopher, physicist.

Eugene Jolas (in transition 1929) proclaimed “The Revolution of the Word” – the right of the “literary creator” to “disintegrate the primal matter of words.” Jolas, an American born and raised in the French German borderland of Lorraine, was trilingual and part of his project in publishing transition and in publishing “Work in Progress” (Finnegans Wake) in his journal was to further the creation of a new super language which would unite the forces fighting it out inside his own experience.

Joyce, in one formulation of his version of the project, put it a bit differently:

“I’d like a language which is above all languages, a language to which all will do service. I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition.”

(Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, citing Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday 1943, 275). In other words a language which will encompass, at the least, not only the forms of other or multiple languages but multiple cultural traditions as well.

For Joyce the materials for such new or universal language involved both eye and ear, both letters and sound combined in what he called “an earsighted view of old hopeinhaven” (143.09-10 – which is also of course ‘a nearsighted view of old Copenhagen’2). This language was announced in the collection of essays supervised by Joyce and published in transition as Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1927), familiarly known as “Our Exag” and certainly still the key book for a reader of Finnegans Wake.

Since eventually the reader is expected to find the book, whether as song or as print, permanently in his memory (whether hypnotized by the sound or as a result of the process of working out connections in the text), it may be worth noting that memory is a place where differences between letters and sounds may not always be in focus or distinguished:

A scene at sight. Or dreamoneire. Which
they shall memorise. By her freewritten
Hopely for ear that annalykeses if scares for
eye that sumns. Is it in the now woodwordings
of our sweet plantation where the branchings
then will singingsing tomorrows gone and
yesters outcome as Satadays aftermoon lex
leap smiles on the twelvemonthsminding? (280.01)

We can catch a glimpse of Joyce’s play with both sound and letters in “now woodwordings” read as ‘narrowed wordings’ with a lisp to change the r to a w, although it is of course also something about the windings through the trees in the woods where “it” hides from our eyes and ears except for the singing. If we then actually ask what are ‘narrowed wordings’ in the contexts we can find here, then the going may get more difficult. “It” is in the ‘narrowed windings’ among the songs of the tree branches, or songs from the branchings of the winding paths. (That there are words present is echoed in “lex” four lines later.)

To “disintegrate the primal matter of words” Joyce, among other things, invoked a process he called “subjunction,” a process he associated with darkness and the night, which are the world of Joyce’s book. Here he discusses this process in the context of syntax, elaborating on the core phrase:

“Have your little sintalks in the dunk of subjunctions.”

Subjunction being not only the ‘subjunctive,’ what might be or have been, but also the breaking up of the language, both word and sentence:

269.01 that often hate on first hearing
269.02 comes of love by second sight. Have your
269.03 little sintalks in the dunk of subjunctions, dual
269.04 in duel and prude with pruriel, but even the
269.05 aoriest chaparound whatever plaudered perfect
269.06 anent prettydotes and haec genua omnia may
269.07 perhaps chance to be about to be in the case to
269.08 be becoming a pale peterwright in spite of all
269.09 your tense accusatives whilstly you’re wall-
269.10 floored like your gerandiums for the better
269.11 half of a yearn or sob. It’s a wild’s kitten, my
269.12 dear, who can tell a wilkling from a warthog.
269.13 For you may be as practical as is predicable
269.14 but you must have the proper sort of accident
269.15 to meet that kind of a being with a difference.
269.16 Flame at his fumbles but freeze on his fist.
269.17 Every letter is a godsend, ardent Ares, brusque
269.18 Boreas and glib Ganymede like zealous Zeus,
269.19 the O’Meghisthest of all. To me or not to me.
269.20 Satis thy quest on. Werbungsap! Jeg suis, vos
269.21 wore a gentleman, thou arr, I am a quean. Is
269.22 a game over? The game goes on. Cookcook!
269.23 Search me. The beggar the maid the bigger
269.24 the mauler. And the greater the patrarc the
269.25 griefer the pinch. And that’s what your doctor
269.26 knows. O love it is the commonknounest thing
269.27 how it pashes the plutous and the aupe.
269.28 Pop! And egg she active or spoon she passive,
269.29 all them fine clauses Lindley’s and Murrey’s
269.30 never braught the participle of a present to a
269.31 desponent hortatrixy, vindicatively I say it,

“. . . may perhaps chance to be about to be in the case to be becoming” is only one example of Joyce showing us how the tenses and other features of English grammar may be stretched out and twisted and taken apart and put together in new ways. I will leave it to you to work out all the puns on grammatical terms in this passage. Lindley Murrey wrote the most popular school grammar of the late 18th century, still present in the oral tradition of the West Indies and long in wide use throughout the British colonies, including Ireland. “Sintalks” is itself a playful West Indian pronunciation of ‘syntax.’ Later we will see how Joyce also takes apart words and plays with syllables (which often leads to phrases in West Indian Creole languages).3

All this taking apart becomes part of what he describes to Harriet Shaw Weaver as his “war on language” (Letters of James Joyce [3 Vols], Edited By Stuart Gilbert and Richard Ellmann, 1966; Vol. 1, p.237: Nov. 11, 1925 to HSW): “What the language will look like when I have finished I don’t know. But having declared war I shall go on jusqu’au bout.” French “bout” means ‘end,’ ‘right to the end.’ But French has another word that sounds like bout (the t is silent), namely boue, which means ‘mud.’ As in all the wars of Joyce’s time, we end up in the “muddle.”

Linguistics – to make a semi-digression – contains arguments about these matters.

Roman Jakobson believed language began with the sound. Language selected from the sound so as to make possible the patterns that related to and carried meaning. So his favorite title was “Sound and Meaning.” Chomsky emphasized the patterns more than the sound and his view of the patterns was sufficiently abstract so that writing/spelling could tell us things about the patterns that we could not find directly from speech. Jaques Derrida, himself a commentator on Finnegans Wake,4 felt that linguistics only began with the ability to look at language and for him this began with “writing.” We may think that as language existed for at least 300 thousand years before what in any usual sense we call writing, that speech has some claim to primacy in our understanding of language. But for Derrida, such an approach was a privileging of the apparent “presence” of speech over writing. He felt that language could not be separated from the study of language and that this required an ability to see language as an object of study and that this required something that fell within his larger concept of “writing.” At a certain level of abstraction – where I do not normally dwell – one may agree with him. But in down to earth history, any idea that such study requires writing to examine language in terms of how it is made and what are its parts and rules – or to “disintegrate” it – is not historically true.

Linguistics began in an oral tradition. The Dutch linguist J. F. Staal has wonderful descriptions of how the concern for the accuracy of the ritual recitation of the Vedas led by a gradual process to the five hundred odd ordered rules of Panini for the description of Sanskrit.5 Behind each person reciting the Vedas, there was put someone who recited the lines syllable by syllable. And behind this person was put – differently according to the different “schools” of the Vedas (into which one was born, not recruited) – a third person who recited rules for combining the syllables to achieve the correct ritual recitation. And it was out of these rules that Panini’s orally created and orally transmitted rules for Sanscrit grammar were later created.

There have been discussions of both Vico and Finnegans Wake as being related to pre-print traditions of manuscript transmission and oral traditions of language memory – whether to the various bards including Homer, or to the Classical “art of memory” taught by among others the Dominicans and Giordano Bruno, or the changes in oral traditions associated with the advent of manuscript writing (see comments on Vico and the manuscript tradition by Patrick H. Hutton, History as an Art of Memory).6 Joyce comments: “has been reconstricted out of oral style into the verbal for all time with ritual rhythmics” (36.09). And says: “and my drummers have tattled tall tales of me in the land” (545.26), including drum language in the traditions he is working with.

Whatever Joyce’s perspectives on the history of memory, he certainly saw language as moving historically and in a way in which writing did not always play a major part:

253.02 He dares not think why the grandmother of the grand-
253.03 mother of his grandmother’s grandmother coughed Russky with
253.04 suchky husky accent since in the mouthart of the slove look at
253.05 me now means I once was otherwise. Nor that the mappamund
253.06 has been changing pattern as youth plays moves from street to
253.07 street since time and races were

One thing that emerges from all these considerations is a reinforcement of the idea that it is not possible to see Finnegans Wake as just a bunch of letter games or sound games or an example of puzzlemania. We have to move from seeing the text just as a kind of punning to an understanding that involves much more complex relations of sound and meaning, and to broader and deeper explorations of the world and its echoes, and the various conditions and forms of language art.

It may also be relevant to ask was Joyce in fact creating a new language or something more specialized. And was his book a text (letters), or the totality of its readings, including its myriad of sounds, the puzzlings of scholars or the echoes, song(s), or dreams in the memory of its readers? (Or a testament or divine revelation? Or a deconstruction of divine revelation?) In any case the book can be reached only through the letters that make up its text. So that letters are the immediate, if not sufficient, material out of which the sounds and meanings must reach us. The construction of the book, then, is not the same as the analysis of language. In his disintegration of the primal matter of words, he did not limit himself to one approach or one technique or one of anything.

I am not going answer the question whether the creation of his book did change language itself, but it is worth asking.

Joyce’s “precision”

Joyce’s close attention to detail in everything was noted by his friend J.F. Byrne in his book, The Silent Years, 1953 (Farrar, Strauss): Joyce, says Byrne, discussing a scene before a fireplace in Portrait of the Artist that theoretically required seven candles only wrote in four. Byrne notes that Joyce had added the three candles he had put in this scene in Stephen Hero to the four in Portrait of the Artist so that in his mind he got the seven necessary.

This way of thinking about numbers also appears in a note the late “Riverend” Clarence Sterling (see below)7 wrote about the number of chapters in Ulysses:

“The Odyssey and the Iliad were each divided into 24 chapters by post-Homeric scribes, a tribute perhaps to their newly developed 24-character alphabet. One scholar has it that, in fact, the Greek alphabet was designed, probably by a Euboeian scholar, specifically for the purpose of recording Homer’s epic in written form. Joyce, in following an ancient Irish tradition of adapting Homeric themes to an Irish setting and mythos, reduced the 24 Homeric chapter divisions to fit the 18 letter Irish alphabet. He used, as far as can be told, the version of the Irish alphabet given by Father Patrick Dineen, who also gets a cameo appearance offstage in Ulysses (Scylla and Charybdis). Every so often I send (to) a(n email) list the alphabet entry from the version of Dineen’s dictionary which Joyce was known to own. This is useful, because many Irish alphabets are given with only seventeen letters, but the Dineen version has eighteen since it features the ‘rough breathing’ as a full-fledged character.”
   Yours, in her grace’s watch, the Riverend Sterling”

Joyce’s usual process seems to have been to at least begin by being as encyclopedic as was possible for him. This way of proceeding helps the illusion that its author was omniscient, the illusion that Joyce was able – as he often surprisingly was – to be encyclopedic about everything that came within his view.

But he shows some sense of his own limits in his search for accuracy, describing himself as “hapless behind the dreams of accuracy as any camelot prince of dinmurk” (143.06 – in the same passage in which he discusses the “earsighted view of old hopinhaven” mentioned in the opening discussion of letters and sounds). Here he seems to be describing the way Finnegans Wake itself was written – the suspension (“suspensive exanination”) of time (“futule preteriting unstant”) involved in its creation, as well as the letters, the “awes” “ayes” “ease” etc that build his “Hoel” (‘whole,’ ‘hole’). The call at the beginning “to be on anew” seems to echo Jolas (as well as Ezra Pound’s call to Make It New) (see: 292.20 “would real to jazztfancy the novo takin place of what stale words”).

143.03  9. Now, to be on anew and basking again in the panaroma of
143.04 all flores of speech, if a human being duly fatigued by his dayety
143.05 in the sooty, having plenxty off time on his gouty hands and va-
143.06 cants of space at his sleepish feet and as hapless behind the dreams
143.07 of accuracy as any camelot prince of dinmurk, were at this auc-
143.08 tual futule preteriting unstant, in the states of suspensive exani-
143.09 mation, accorded, throughout the eye of a noodle, with an ear-
143.10 sighted view of old hopeinhaven with all the ingredient and
143.11 egregiunt whights and ways to which in the curse of his persis-
143.12 tence the course of his tory will had been having recourses, the
143.13 reverberration of knotcracking awes, the reconjungation of
143.14 nodebinding ayes, the redissolusingness of mindmouldered ease
143.15 and the thereby hang of the Hoel of it, could such a none, whiles
143.16 even led comesilencers to comeliewithhers and till intempes-
143.17 tuous Nox should catch the gallicry and spot lucan’s dawn, by-
143.18 hold at ones what is main and why tis twain, how one once
143.19 meet melts in tother wants poignings, the sap rising, the foles
143.20 falling, the nimb now nihilant round the girlyhead so becoming,
143.21 the wrestless in the womb, all the rivals to allsea, shakeagain, O
143.22 disaster! shakealose, Ah how starring! but Heng’s got a bit
143.23 of Horsa’s nose and Jeff’s got the signs of Ham round his
143.24 mouth and the beau that spun beautiful pales as it palls, what
143.25 roserude and oragious grows gelb and greem, blue out the ind of
143.26 it! Violet’s dyed! then what would that fargazer seem to seemself
143.27 to seem seeming of, dimm it all?
143.28  Answer: A collideorscape!

A kaleidoscope (“collideorscape”) constantly reassembles a fixed number of elements. But of course Finnegans Wake is not merely a kaleidoscope. Still Joyce often seems to indicate he is taking things apart and rearranging them:

613.13 Yet is no body present here which was not there before. Only
613.14 is order othered. Nought is nulled. Fuitfiat!

As Andrzej Duszenko points out in the Quantum Mechanics section of his The Joyce of Science: “Joyce’s working method and the scope of the book were unprecedented and he adjusted to the requirements of his new work by adopting a more scientific procedure. . . . He started to approach words in the scientific, analytical way, breaking them down into syllables and phonemes, then recombining them according to his own purpose. Etymology, that most scientific approach to words, became an important factor in shaping the texture of Finnegans Wake.” (http://duszenko.northern.edu/joyce/)

One way, in my view probably not correct, to follow up this notion is to think of Finnegans Wake as made by reworking syllable elements in a kaleidoscopic manner. Joyce seems to hint at this in a letter to his young grandson Stephen:

“P.S. The devil mostly speaks a language of his own called Bellsybabble which he makes up himself as he goes along.”

– ‘a babble of beautiful syllables, or sybables.’ Stephen was very young, and the ba syllable raises many issues about baby talk, from Dante on, with reference to the name for father in the Joyce household, Babbo. Joyce signs the letter to Stephen as Nonno, ‘Grandfather.’

He even declares such an approach to the Wake in terms of syllables or at least roots in an analytic way in the line: “aprioric roots for aposteriorious tongues” (also a description of his view of the hypothesis of “Indo-European,” see below).

83.10    (in the Nichtian
83.11 glossery which purveys aprioric roots for aposteriorious tongues
83.12 this is nat language at any sinse of the world

(A ‘night,’ or ‘Nietschean,’ or ‘nihilist’ glossary for nat language – Danish ‘night.’) Did Joyce begin with syllables or did he END when everything had sufficiently subjuncted meanings so it was all dissolved into syllables? Or is this a phoenix like circular construction?

But the most reliable description of Joyce’s process seems to me to come from Joyce himself as he talked – towards the end – to Jacques Mercanton:

“Revived by that activity which was his whole life, he showed me how he worked – seeking out the richest, the most intense concentration of multiple significations in order to bring together in a sentence or a phrase, in a single word sometimes, all of the space and duration of great and of slight events; yet he was always careful to observe the phonetics and the semantic phenomena of the languages that he combined, since that was his only guarantee of truth.”8

We need to take this statement very seriously – his attention to the specific linguistics of languages as his “only guarantee of truth.”




A very limited example of a kaleidoscopic shifting of the allignment of letters is the “dodgemyeyes” in the line:

025.02   Not shabbty little imagettes, pennydirts and
025.03 dodgemyeyes you buy in the soottee stores.

Thinking about the “dodgemyeyes” image or toy he was putting here, Joyce decided to make the word itself optionally dance before us, dodging our eyes. For there are two ways – at least – to read this name.

By closing up the words ‘dodge my eyes’ into the name of a presumed toy or doll (“shabbty little imagettes”) said here to be sold in the Indian (“soottee” – ‘suttee’: widow burning), or Egyptian (“shabbty” – ‘shabty’: small figures of the dead put in tombs in ancient Egypt), or ‘black’ (“soottee” – ‘sooty’: burnt) stores, he creates a shifting set of letters that actually illustrate the meaning, ‘dodge my eyes.’ For bumper cars, popular in amusement parks in the 1920s and 30s, are also known as “dodgem” cars, or simply “dodgems” (“the last name being the usual term in British English”). So reading “dodgemyeyes” we can be struck by the double ‘ye ye’ and see the word as ‘dodgem ye yes’ with a stammer on ‘Yes.’ (Stuttering and stammer are main themes in both Finnegans Wake and Vico that have been commented on widely.) Or following Joyce’s use of the Jamaican “yeye” for ‘eyes’ in

293.23    Now (lens
294.01 your dappled yeye here . . .

we can read it as ‘dodgem yeyes,’ thus simply a way of saying ‘dodgem eyes.’9

A somewhat similar little game is found in the line:

348.27 Hulp, hulp, huzzars! Raise ras tryracy! Freetime’s
348.28 free! Up Lancesters! Anathem!

where “tryracy” suggests ‘piracy’ in this battle context. “Raise” is both ‘lift up’ or ‘build up’ but also ‘tear down to the ground.’ If however we break up the word into ‘try racy’ then the word “ras” shows itself as a West Indian (also Anglo-Irish?) very rude word for ‘ass.’ So we get ‘Raise your ass – try a racy meaning’ Racy also suggests race, and we can read perhaps ‘Raise (‘destroy’ ‘eliminate’) race piracy.’


“pierced butnot punctured”

Let me look at an example that seems as close as we can get to a simple breaking up of the stream of letters.

“accentuated by bi tso fb rok engl a ssan dspl itch ina” (124.07)

Everything is in order here except the spaces. But we may not be too happy or satisfied with the reading we get when we fix the spaces. This is a description of a wall topped by a vault (the vault descibed by a punctuation sign, a ‘circumflex accent,’ in “circumflexuous wall,” – punctuation being one topic of the paragraph).

124.06 following up their one true clue, the circumflexuous wall of a
124.07 singleminded men’s asylum, accentuated by bi tso fb rok engl
124.08 a ssan dspl itch ina,

And so, adjusting the spaces, we read:

‘accentuated by bits of broken glass and split china’

placed there to prevent intruders from vaulting over.

It was so much more interesting before we put the spaces in order. We could find ‘brok Englas (English or angels?)’ and suggestons of dispatches from China (with elements including one that looks like General Tso’s chicken and a Japanese honorific ‘San’). And the circumflexuously walled asylum for singleminded men had an “itch” in it.

But of course when we read this way we have moved from simply looking at letters to imagining sounds. ‘Brok’ for ‘broken’ sounds West Indian among other possibilities – accompanying the “ina” for ‘inside.’ And ‘tsof’ sounds Russian. So now we have gone further and reallocated the spaces. Did Joyce mean us to do all this?

The context says we have been looking at a manuscript (a letter?) that has been stabbed in several different ways by a pronged instrument somehow the agent of various items of punctuation, mostly “stop”s (British for ‘period’) – a manuscript or letter which originally had no punctuation (and may be in Morse code or be one of the books of Moses). And on closer examination the vault of the “circumflexuous wall” may be only an accident of the attack of punctuation (‘circumflex accent’), an accident that is perhaps the cause of the “bi tso fb rok engl a ssan dspl itch ina.” Really “circumflexuous” is a lovely description of this flexible surrounding wall that forms “a singleminded men’s asylum” (and Scotland Yard’s “one true clue”), and that has an “itch” in it. One reading of the nature of this itch resonates later in: “all thinking all of it, the It with an itch in it, the All every inch of it, the pleasure each will preen her for, the business each was bred to breed by” (268.03-).

Here is the whole passage in which our “bi tso fb rok engl” etc. occur:

 The unmistaken identity of the persons in the Tiberiast du-
plex came to light in the most devious of ways. The original
document was in what is known as Hanno O’Nonhanno’s un-
brookable script, that is to say, it showed no signs of punctua-
tion of any sort. Yet on holding the verso against a lit rush this
new book of Morses responded most remarkably to the silent
query of our world’s oldest light and its recto let out the piquant
fact that it was but pierced butnot punctured (in the university
sense of the term) by numerous stabs and foliated gashes made
by a pronged instrument. These paper wounds, four in type,
were gradually and correctly understood to mean stop, please
stop, do please stop, and O do please stop respectively, and
following up their one true clue, the circumflexuous wall of a
singleminded men’s asylum, accentuated by bi tso fb rok engl
a ssan dspl itch ina, — Yard inquiries pointed out → that they
ad bîn “provoked” ay Λ fork, of à grave Brofèsor; àth e’s Break
— fast — table; ; acùtely profèššionally piquéd, to=introdùce a
notion of time [ùpon à plane (?) sù ’ ’ fàç’e’] by pùnct! ingh oles
(sic) in iSpace?!
    123.30 ff and 124.01 ff

At the end the “rush” or paper of the manuscript has been replaced by a geometric plane – and an image of Oliver Wendell Holmes (The Autocat at the Breakfast Table) creating a spate of wild punctuation by punching holes in the plane of space with his “Λ fork.” What are we to make of these lines with their remarkable assemblage of “punct!”?

Yard inquiries pointed out → that they ad bîn “provoked” ay Λ fork, of à grave Brofèsor; àth e’s Break — fast — table; ; acùtely profèššionally piquéd, to=introdùce a notion of time [ùpon à plane (?) sù ’ ’ fàç’e’] by pùnct! ingh oles (sic) in iSpace?!

Our starting line (bi tso fb – etc) is child’s play compared to this, with its pictorial representation of the “Λ fork” that is being “piquéd”10, a spraying of accent marks, parentheses, brackets, question marks, exclamation points and equal signs. Some of the questions in reading such signs are taken up by the late “Riverend” Clarence Sterling, in his note on punctuation marks and typography presented below. But clearly the misaligned spaces are indicated to have broader possibilities than simply letter play. They invoke punctuation, varieties of actual speech and, in the police report, actual writing. And beyond writing and language, other kinds of inscription. And our broken English is proclaimed in Spanish: (inglés “ingh oles”) with an Olé! (itself an additional allusion to the “piercings” of a bullfight). (For the problems of time and space that appear to be invoked at the end, see Marcel Brion, “The Idea of Time in the work of James Joyce”11 and Andrzej Duszenko, The Joyce of Science12).

So Joyce’s game goes far beyond the simple temptation to fill in letters where the gaps are, and to make whole new sets of readings. The resolution of Joyce’s simple game with spaces, though necessary, resolves nothing, and takes us back to the mysterious appearance of the line with which we began – to start again:

“acce ntuated by bi tso fb rok engl a ssan dspl itch ina.”


One game with breaks between words involves what we can call Joyce’s translation habit:

63.10    His feet one is not a tall man, not
63.11 at all, man. No such parson. No such fender. No such lumber. No
63.12 such race. Was it supposedly in connection with a girls, Myramy
63.13 Huey or Colores Archer

I want to argue that Joyce often provides translations immediately after a word, sometimes in the word itself. But he usually does this in ways where what he is doing is not easy to prove, and with languages at the edge of the European cultural tradition. For example:

93.10 “but, took us as, by surprise” where “but” = Yiddish “took us” tokhes (sometimes tochas) = “as” ‘ass.’ With someone taking someone by surprise.
Such an image.

183.36 “gloss teeth for a tooth.” West Indian teet’ is used for one tooth, in a language where singular and plural are not distinguished in form. So that teet’ = ‘tooth’ s(sg.).

223.28 “A darktongues, kunning. O theoperil! Ethiaop lore, the poor lie.” This one is a little more complicated.13

“Darktongues” is first a reference to the song “The Darktown Strutters Ball” (tongue is to town as “ongly” – a West Indian pronunciation four lines later – is to ‘only’ – “where ongly his corns were growning”). But one of the ‘dark tongues’ invoked is in the word “kunning.” In Fulfulde, the language of the Fulani of West Africa, kuna means ‘oath.’ And this is the translation given by Joyce, appearing, along with many other meanings, in “O theo” – ‘Oath! O Peril,’ but where an oath is of course a “theoperil.”14

The phrase pronounced [Na Ta Taal Man] in Jamaican and other English based West Indian creolized speech means ‘Not at all, man’ and Joyce has provided the translation. This is an example of real language playing the same game, moving the word breaks or spaces, that we have been looking at Joyce doing with the letters of the text. Although Joyce clothes his opening line as a discussion about height – “Not a tall man” – what he has also represented here, intentionally, is just this same Jamaican shift of the breaks, followed by its English translation: “not a tall man, not at all, man” (63.11 – [na ta tall]). Then come references to “race” and the hues of Miami and the colors of the rainbow arch (also ‘my lover’ – my ami and the ‘rainbow girls’ in the colored lights of a nightclub):

63.10    His feet one is not a tall man, not
63.11 at all, man. No such parson. No such fender. No such lumber. No
63.12 such race. Was it supposedly in connection with a girls, Myramy
63.13 Huey or Colores Archer


The solution Joyce gave to the riddle given in the passage from page 143 that includes the reference to “an earsighted view”: gives a very basic example of letters shifting before our eyes. The riddle is long, but ends:

143.26 what would that fargazer seem to seemself
143.27 to seem seeming of, dimm it all?

And the answer is:

143.28  Answer: A collideorscape!

A ‘kaleidoscope’ which breaks down – into ‘collide or escape’ with the first letter of ‘escape’ dropped (suggesting African American parody among other possibilities).


Mark Troy, author of the wonderful book Mummeries of Resurrection: The Cycle of Osiris in Finnegans Wake20, gives us a last example of simple rebreaking of the text in the line on page 24: “Have you whines for my wedding, did you bring bride and bedding, will you whoop for my deading is a? Wake? Usqueadbaugham!” (24.12-14). In a note he wrote for A Wake Newsitter, “Will you whoop for my deading is a? (24.14)” (AWN XII:5,92) Oct. 1975, he points out that “deading is a” can legitimately be read as ‘dead in Gisa,’ where the Great Pyramids are. These are the final monuments in the commemoration of the dead just before Finnegan is revived – marked by the word “Wake?” – by the ‘water of life’ (‘whisky’ Irish “Usqueadbaugham!”) – with a pair of question marks after “is a?” and “Wake?” (that show just how uncertain everything is).


Some of the issues raised by Joyce’s ways of using punctuation and their consequences for our reading were noted with great eloquence by the late “Riverend” Clarence Sterling, and in tribute, and to further distribute his notes, I put them here as written by him.7

Here is the whole passage that Clarence Sterling is discussing:

116.21   and that the beautiful presence of wait-
116.22 ing kates will until life’s (!) be more than enough to make any
116.23 milkmike in the language of sweet tarts punch hell’s hate into his
116.24 twin nicky and that Maggy’s tea, or your majesty, if heard as a
116.25 boost from a born gentleman is (?).

About which he says:

I read it the same way, that is, that the symbols are read as words, not punctation. Thus < until life's (!) be more > [116.22] reads "until life's exclamation be more"; < a born gentleman is (?) > reads "a born gentleman is [the/a] question."

This brings in some mildly interesting counters:
1) the reader has become a translator, and has the translator's problems -- why not, for instance, "is questionable," or, "is a questionable thing";
2) the introduction of, and choice of, implied articles ("the question" or "a question") -- Mr Joyce would be quite familiar with this phenomenon from his days as a Latin skollard (Latin has neither the definite nor the indefinite article, so translators must add them in appropriate languages);
3) the marvelous hall of Joycean mirrors in that the punctuation mark conundrum of the text has its own mini-tempest of punctuation mark controversy in its printics --

/\a. In FW [Viking: NY, '39], we read < from a born gentleman. > with no question mark, just a standard one dot stop.

/\b. In FW [Viking: NY, '45], the author's corrections of first edition misprints states (p. 632) that < for "gentleman" read "gentleman is( ? )." > with < is( ? ). > all being additions, so that technically the text should have to wind up having TWO stops, < gentleman is( ? ).. > since a stop was already present after gentleman.

Such nitpicking would be silly in another book, but is not in FW.

/\c. In FW [Viking: NY, '58], with the author's alleged corrections allegedly incoporated into the text, we read < a born gentleman is (?). > with only one stop, and the parentheses have lost two internal spaces and are no longer agglutinated to < is >.
It seems that the painstaking and not quite possible task of editing FW into a nonpermutative text has broken down at this particular juncture, giving some weight to the contention of, I believe, Bob Williams that the stop should be a comma anyway (in order better to make sense).
Strangely, or logically, as you will, the drift of the contextual passage seems to focus on printics, a quasi main theme since the recent uprooting by the hen of her letter, and along with the exposition of vowels and consonants we should see the other elements which fill a galley, such as punctuation marks – and we do.

This, I am guessing, is why the patronymic < O' > of < the bold O' Dwyer > is set to stand alone. It points the attention to the printics by playing with a device of punctuation and thus putting both reader and printer through their paces. It reinforces the meaningfulness of punctuation, as the O- apostrophe device is both traditional and significant.

Traditional in that it is associated with the Irish; significant in that it intends "the son of."
Thus, as with the ! & ?, the reader is invited to say the apostrophe aloud as it were, to expand "oDWYer" back to "SON of DWYer." All part of the Chymical Marriage, I suspect, in terms of the spin from Shamus that Chymical Marriage is an allegory for the composition of ink, and thence to other matters which pertain to the advent of moveable type in Europe.

Yours, in her grace's watch, the
Riverend Sterling7

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Letter Games


Lost Letters

One name for the loss of letters (or technically of sounds or of syllables), particularly from the interior of a word, is syncope, a term which leads also to the term for the dropping of beats in music, syncopation. (In medicine syncope becomes a term for loss of consciousness.) Joyce extends it even further to refer to reasoning:

109.04 given to ratiocination by
109.05 syncopation in the elucidation of complications


“spch spck”

023.04 and he ordurd and his thick spch spck for her to
023.05 shut up shop, dappy. And the duppy shot the shutter clup

There seems to be some connection in Joyce’s scheme between dropping vowels and excretion (as in “ordurd,” French ordure, ‘excrement’). Elsewhere he says:

515.12 Secret speech Hazleton and obviously disemvowelled

“spch spck” also seems to be a motif that has echoes elsewhere in the Wake. For example we find: 250.10 “Spickspuk! Spoken.” where the insult of the ethnic slur ‘Spick’ is emphasized by the blending of ‘spoke’ with ‘puke.’ And then we find “spuk” transformed to “spook” (‘spirit’ ‘ghost’) in the haunting

427.32    Spickspookspokesman of our
427.33 specturesque silentiousness! Musha, beminded of us out there in
427.34 Cockpit

The [spVk] pattern here ties spick spook and spoke to “specturesue” (V = any vowel): which combines ‘specter’ (‘apparition’) with ‘picturesque.’ And “Cockpit” adds at least two living (if historical) images to the realization of “specturesque.” In the earlier conditions of aviation the lone pilot risking his life, say to deliver the mail as in Saint- Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars, in his cockpit distant in space, is combined here with the additional image of a runaway slave of the 18th century living in the society of runaway slaves who have freed themselves by living in the enormously difficult “Cockpit” country of Jamaica, the “Maroons,” where they could defend themselves or not be found, specters in that Jamaican world. Which would explain the capital letter C in Joyce’s text. To be sure that we do not overlook this reading Joyce provides the word “annymaroner” (426.03) on the previous page in conjunction with Ahriman the Zoroastrian principle of evil who introduced death into the world. Finally to drive all these connections home Joyce says:

“he would wipe alley english spooker, multiphoniaksically spuking, off the face of the erse” (178.06)

So the removal of the vowels in “spch spck” is worthy of Holmes’s investigation (assuming that in part “Hazleton” is a stand-in for Watson – who appears more directly in “behaviouristically pailleté with a coat of homoid icing which is in reality only a done by chance ridiculisation of the whoo-whoo and where’s hairs theorics of Winestain” (149.25-28) – where he is joined by Sherlock Holmes and Einstein and John Watson the founder of “behaviorism,” advertising’s contribution to the deformation of social “science” – pailleté meaning ‘spangled,’ giving an appropriate superficial and ‘star spangled’ tone to John Watson’s theories).

As for loss of consonants, this raises more complex issues which we will come to in another place.


Simple reversals

b – h

bide in your hush / hide in your bush

305.23 Thou in shanty! Thou in scanty shanty!!
305.24 Thou in slanty scanty shanty!!! Bide in your
305.25 hush! Bide in your hush, do!

George and Ira Gershwin: ‘Come to Mama Come to Mama, Do’ (Embraceable You). And there is another popular song echo: Ted Lewis,

“It was Only a Shanty in Old Shantytown
Its roof is so slanty it’s low to the ground”
(thanks to the late Lewis Leary).

But the Gershwin echoes carry the passage to a warmer clime. If we simply reverse the initial consonants we get closer to the idea. Not “bide in your hush” but ‘hide in your bush, hide in your bush, do’ This is a strong association for Joyce:

165.17 This genre of portraiture of changes of mind in order
165.18 to be truly torse should evoke the bush soul of females
89.29: That a head in thighs under a bush at the sunface.

“You is feeling like you was lost in the bush, boy?” (112.03)

But “slanty scanty shanty” also leads us to something softer. The last line of “The Wasteland” is famously “shantih shantih shantih.” Eliot’s note on this last line of “The Wasteland” reads “Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is a feeble translation of the conduct of this word.”

2. God / dog

At one point Joyce says, “why spell dear god with a big thick dhee” (123.01). Is this goDH? He also ties the dh to dog in “in full dogdhis” (596.02 – where “dog” is a verb in the phrase ‘dog this’). In the following lines someone is trying to tell Finnegan, who has just revived suddenly and is asking where is his drink, to lie down again and stay dead:

024.16 Now be aisy, good Mr Finnimore, sir. And take your laysure
024.17 like a god on pension and don’t be walking abroad.

The implications are that as a spirit he is in some way like a god, but there is an overtone of the security of being like a dog on a leash.

So all through when one sees either word, one suspects the other.


But some of the most elaborate games with letters involve interrelations between syllables or among words – sometimes with words next to each other, sometimes in words across pages, and sometimes between words in different parts of the book. Letters added, letters exchanged, letters taken from one place and added in another.


We can begin with a lovely case of chaining of sounds and letters in a complex word:

370.13 these remind to be sane? ( f ) Fool step! Aletheometry? Or just
370.14 zoot doon floon?
370.15  Nut it out, peeby eye! Onamassofmancynaves.

Onomastics is the study of proper names and their origins. Onomancy or Onomamancy or Onomatomancy is divination based on a subject’s given name. Joyce gives us both.

We can start with the fourth syllable, “of.” This contains the letter f, but the sound v. We can leave the sound but move the letter, replacing the m of “mancy” with the f. This leaves the m floating. And as we moved the f forward to the next syllable, now we move the m forward to replace the v of “naves” – moving the v of “naves” back to replace the f that we took from “of.” And so we get: ‘On a mass ov fancy names.’ And no element has been lost. Except perhaps the “tics” of ‘onomastics’ which is not directly in the text anyway. So you can “Nut it out” with your “peeby eye!”

I have not figured out “peeby,” although we can read it as the initials P. B. or P.B.I. The FWEET Finnegans Wake reference site tells us that P.B.I. is ‘poor bloody infantry’ and its creator, Raphael Slepon, tells us: “the term ‘P.B.I.’ is mentioned in Hargrave’s Origins and Meanings of Popular Phrases & Names, a book Joyce is known to have used for picking up WWI slang.” (I assume Slepon found this on his own.) But this reading clearly does not fit with our concern with onomastics, although it may be appropriate to the marching rhythms of “Fool step!” and “zoot doon floon?.” What any of these have to do with “Aletheometry?,” which presumably is the ‘measurement of truth,’ Joyce’s spraying of question marks might indicate that he is none too sure himself, although I am sure he has something in mind. As he says, ‘these remain to be seen,’ “these remind to be sane?” (370.13).

Nor am I clear as to who the lady is ‘on a mass of fancy knaves.’ It may also be worth remarking Joyce’s use of “zoot” which is normally said to have been coined in African American and Latino communities of the Midwest and Western United States at the very end of the 1930s and to have become well known in the 1940s, in any case after this was written.

Ethiaop lore

223.28 A darktongues, kunning. O theoperil! Ethiaop lore, the poor lie.

Ethiaop Lore, Aesop, Esop, Esiop’s foible, Athiop, Aethiopian

As we saw above, page 223 line 28 contains the Fulfulde word kuna and its translation ‘oath’ in “O theoperil!.” ‘Oath’ in turn gives a tie to William Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (as noted by Hugh Staples in “A Few Gleanings from Carleton,’ AWN XII, 5, Oct. 1975, p. 83, the line 299.27 – “And be the powers of Moll Kelly” – refers to a section of Carleton’s book called “The Geography of the Irish Oath”)14. The subtitle of this section, “an essay in folkloristic fieldwork,” ties to the “lore” that appears in “Ethiaop lore.” So that ‘oath’ and ‘lore’ in 223.28 are connected and both have ties to Africa – Fulani (Nigeria) and Ethiopia.

What is Ethiopian folklore?


“Aesop (also spelled Æsop or Esop) (620-560 BC), known only for the genre of fables ascribed to him, was by tradition a slave in mid-sixth century BC in ancient Greece. The place of Aesop’s birth is disputed: Amorium, Phrygia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Samos, Athens, Sardis, Thrace and many others have been suggested. Richard Lobban, Professor of African Studies, has argued that his name is likely derived from “Aethiopian,” a word used by the Greeks to refer mostly to dark-skinned people of the African interior. He continues by pointing out that the stories are populated by animals present in Africa, many of the animals being quite foreign to Greece and Europe.”

So ‘Ethiopian Lore’ = The writer of fables, Aesop, said by some to come from Ethiopia. As we shall see, Joyce was well aware of a tie between Aesop and Ethiopia. In one interesting place in the section called “Going to Maynooth,” from which Joyce takes a number of spellings (“avick,” “sorra,” “beyant,” “avourneen,” “throth,” “frinds,” “matther,” and “sate.” “Avick,”), Carleton spells Ethiopian as “Athiop.”

And from this Joyce begins a game with a and e, and then with i. Carleton’s spelling, “my learned Athiop” (in a passage about how to tell the difference between black and white) is marked in “Ethiaop lore” by adding an extraneous a into “Ethiaop.” To balance adding the a here he removes it from his spelling of Aesop almost two hundred pages later in “esiop’s foible” (422.22). This also points at the fact that the ae in Aesop is pronounced e. The i he adds into “esiop” he marks by adding it also into the accompanying “foible” (‘fable’). And this i is the second link between “Ethiaop lore” (223.28) and “esiop’s foible” (422.22), and also brings the pronunciations of Ethiop and Aesop closer together. Also “Ethiaop lore” is followed by “the poor lie,” an allusion to the Jamaican animal tales (paralleling Aesop’s animal tales) called Nancy stories, which often have the tag, “And so I came to tell you this little lie.”15

If I want to stretch a little I could read “Ethiaop lore,” dropping the a also as ‘I thee plore,’ otherwise ‘I wail for thee’ (Latin: plor ‘wail’; French pleurer ‘cry’), as Joyce’s comment to the reader. (On dropped A, see “The Story of A” by Aida Hunter, AWN XII, 4, pp.74-5).16


Finally, in this economy of letters, I want to look at a set of passages that I see as relevant to Paul Léon.

James Atherton notes: “Indeed the motto for the Wake might well be ex ungue Leonem” (162.29 ‘We know a lion by its claws’). This in a section in which Atherton is describing Joyce’s use of the myth of Osiris, where the body of this corn (‘wheat’) god is torn apart, divided up, scattered, and eaten (recirculated, redistributed). Atherton uses this Latin tag to explain that the language is so concentrated that the explanation of any one item could entail explaining every detail in Finnegans Wake.

From the early 1930s Joyce worked daily with Paul Léon, who had a wonderful sense of languages and language play. Léon’s wife indeed called herself Lucie Noél, ‘Lucia Christmas,’ reversing the letters of Léon’s name.

342.36 and, for tasing the tiomor of
343.01 malaise after the pognency of orangultonia,

What is this “orangultonia”?

Please allow me to indulge myself in a reading that is more than hard to prove, but which seems reasonable to me.

This word has connections with ‘orangutans’ in the East Indies (Sumatra) in a passage set among the voices of West Indians:

“tendulcis tunes like water parted fluted up from the westinders while from gorges in the east came the strife of ourangoontangues” (541.32-4)

‘While from the throats (gorges – French) in the east came the strife of our own goon – or Rangoon – tongues.’

“tangues”: tangué French ‘to pitch’ or ‘stumble’ – as to be tossed about by a boat. Roy Benjamin has said: “he (Joyce) used stumbling, falling, and erring as ‘portals of discovery’ in his never-ending linguistic adventure.”17

Eva Tanguay – 1910 great music hall performer – ‘emancipated woman’ – see “amanseprated” (239.21).

And Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, who was close to André Breton and the surrealist circle in the late 1920s and so clearly known to Joyce. The “tangues” in Rangoon moves us also to Argentina in the ‘tangos’ of “orangotangos”:

019.04   Right rank ragnar rocks and with these
019.05 rox orangotangos rangled rough and rightgorong. Wisha, wisha

(although Indonesia still echoes in “gorong” – perhaps as in the dish nasi goreng – ‘fried rice’ – or the Gorong Islands. Or “rightgorong” might be ‘Right or Wrong,’ an echo of an attitude Joyce seems to see as ‘right going wrong,’ also reflected in an allusion to Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Rough Riders’).

The “goon” of “ourangoontangues” may echo some goons lurking across the page in a reference to the ‘Black and Tans’ (mixed with some German “horneymen” references that may carry Nazi echoes):

540.20    New highs for
540.21 all! Redu Negru may be black in tawn but under them lintels
540.22 are staying my horneymen meet each his mansiemagd.18

Which I read as: ‘New Eyes for all! The “New” (or redone) Negro may be black in a tan skin, but on the Unter den Linden horny men are meeting emancipated maids’ (see also Ulysses “New worlds for old”). So “black in tawn” reverts to a discussion of color (also ‘back in town’), which relates to the ‘orange’ color of the orangutans.

The word orangutan is also written orang-utan, orang utan and orangutang. Orang in Indonesian and Javanese means ‘people, person, man, soul.’ While utan, also spelled utang, means ‘the woods.’ This alternation of utan and utang in the word for ‘the woods’ (n and ng) is one pointer that we might also notice a presence of ‘Oran’ in all this “Orangultonia.” Oran is a city in Algeria, the setting for André Gide’s signature novel, The Immoralist (1902).

Algeria is another ‘tan’ area – highlighted by Gide’s concern with the “exotic” character of the place. And the theme of Gide’s novel, and the sensation it caused in its time makes us also begin to notice syllables pronounced as ‘gay’ that start appearing, as in the reading of “tangues” as ‘tan gays.’ A buried reading which Joyce echoes again in “orangetawneymen”: “A lark of limonladies! A lurk of orangetawneymen!” (361.24). This reads as ‘orange tawney men,’ but might also be read as:
‘Oran, gay tawney men.’

Some of you, as does the OED, may think the use of gay to mean homosexual began in the 1950s. Joyce in Finnegans Wake gives evidence that many words used in relation to drugs and sex were present in the 1930s or earlier. A little Internet research gives the following: “The term later began to be used in reference to homosexuality, in particular, from the early 20th century, a usage that may have dated prior to the 19th century. . . . “gey cat,” ‘homosexual boy,’ is attested in N. Erskine’s 1933 dictionary of “Underworld & Prison Slang;” The term gey cat (gey is a Scot. variant of gay) was used as far back as 1893 in Amer.Eng. for “young hobo,” one who is new on the road and usually in the company of an older tramp, with catamite connotations.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Other slang terms in Finnegans Wake include “horse” (‘heroin’) in

111.28   what you do get is, well, a positively
111.29 grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values
111.30 and masses of meltwhile horse. Tip.

and “shoot up” in:

473.16 The phaynix rose a sun before Erebia sank his
473.17 smother! Shoot up on that, bright Bennu bird! Va faotre!

Where Bennu not only has Arabian/Egyptian references, but includes Benin in Nigeria, which may suggest other African related contexts for “shoot up,” to accompany

359.09 “haschish, as coked”
539.16 “So hemp me”
104.11 “Ik dik dopedope,” where ‘dig’ is another example of a 1930s appearance of a term we think of as appearing later
025.05 “poppypap’s a passport out
599.18 “nomo morphemy for me” (also an echo of the song “No more auction block”)
344.24 “heroim” (in a Wagnerian context)
and others.

Gay is also used more explicitly.

020.30 or of golden youths that wanted gelding; or of what the
020.31 mischievmiss made a man do. Malmarriedad he was reverso-
020.32 gassed by the frisque of her frasques and her prytty pyrrhique.
020.33 Maye faye, she’s la gaye this snaky woman!

(with a lisp on “faye”). And

179.05 who, supposedly, had been told off to shade and
179.06 shoot shy Shem should the shit show his shiny shnout out
179.07 awhile to look facts in their face before being hosed and creased
179.08 (uprip and jack him!) by six or a dozen of the gayboys.

Joyce plays with Léon’s sybaritic side, as in a postcard he writes to Lucie Noél when he and Léon were on a trip together: “Léon is at his fourth bath and turning a delicious Nubian,” with ambiguity as to whether he is talking about Léon’s suntan, or a girl that he is playing with. So associating Léon and Oran is not beyond possibility.

Looking at


we see that they are not that difficult to read, even when they carry multiple meanings. But what are we to make of “orangultonia”?

I think of Fredonia – including Groucho Marx’s Fredonia in Duck Soup. And Amazonia. (And Galtonia, the name for the summer hyacinth. Hyacinth appears in 603.28 “Hyacinssies with heliotrollops,” or ‘Moon sins with Sun trollops.’ In C. K. Meek’s Tribal Studies in Northern Nigeria,13 which Joyce used in several ways, there is a section on the Kilba, with a wordlist. And there we can find the word hya meaning ‘moon,’ which we do not find in any of the eymologies that have been offered for hyacinth. The context provides a lead to Africa, for the line before is 603.27 “darkies they is snuffing the wind up.” Joyce clearly intends hya to mean ‘moon’ (by contrast with “helio”). But these associations do not help much in decoding “orangultonia.”

Looking again at the passage with which we started perhaps we can get some clues to tease out something more interesting:

342.36    and, for tasing the tiomor of
343.01 malaise after the pognency of orangultonia

We can see ‘teasing’ right in the lines themselves if we insert an e into “tasing.” And with this as a starter we can start playing some letter games.

According to the rules I have been following, if a letter is added in one place then it must either be taken from someplace else, or added in parallel someplace else.

If we add e to “tasing” then where would we add an e to “orangultonia”?

Words ending in onia are not all that common, although Joyce gives us a fairly large sample, mostly place names: “Calumdonia,” “Suetonia,” “sunny Espionia” (‘the sunny spies of Spain’), “Pannonia,” “Euphonia,” “Hawkinsonia,” and “semitary of Somnionia.” And in the plural, “babilonias” (‘Babble on ia’) – 103.12 “by the waters of babalong” (see discussion of the role of syllables below). And a whole set of adjectivals that name national or other social groups: “Tuonisonian” “Hibernonian” “Parthalonians” “Ultonian” “Auxonian” “Momonian” “Papylonian,” not to mention the “Serbonian bog.”

We have the clue of the other associations of “orang” with “orange” – “orangetawneymen” etc. – so we might want to try orangeultonia.

First transformation: orangeultonia

And lo and behold this is made a bit reasonable by the existence of the Ultonians: “in the Queen’s Ultonian colleges” (385.13). Along with “Auxonian” which we can take as a respelling of ‘Oxonian’ (463.07). It’s just a bunch of college boys engaged in some college homosexual frolic.

463.01 blushing like Pat’s pig, begob! He’s not too timtom well ashamed
463.02 to carry out onaglibtograbakelly in his showman’s sinister the
463.03 testymonicals he gave his twenty annis orf,

And a Protestant college – orange not green.

If we added a second e after the l, the image of an orangutan having a ‘geuleton’ (French ‘a feast’) suggests itself: oran geuleton ia. The “ourangoontangues” of 541.34 are accompanied up the page by a reference to Daniel in the Lion’s Den: “Daniel in Leonden” (541.16). Joyce as Daniel in the claws of Léon. So at this geuleton are the lions eating the orangs or vice versa?

Second transformation: orangeuletaion

If we look at geuletonia, then exchanging on and a would replace ton with ta, leaving ion at the end-orangeuletaion. Ton could be treated as a masculine form, and ta would be its feminine counterpart. Geuleton in French is masculine, while geule is feminine (related to English ‘gullet’ – these are often spelled gueule and gueuleton). So ‘ton’ would be appropriate for one and ‘ta’ for the other.

Third transformation: orantageuleion

‘Geule ta’ makes no immediate sense, however. But there is a well known rude way of saying ‘Shut up,’ namely ‘Ta Geule.’ This inversion would leave “Oran” cut off from the g, simply the name of a place. And the L at the end of “geule” would carry over to make ‘Leion’ at the end, or possibly ‘Léon.’

So I wonder if it ever happened that Léon started talking one afternoon, perhaps during a mention of Gide, about taking a trip to Oran. And Joyce teasingly said, ‘Oran! Ta geule, Léon.’

About the alphabet

Having delivered myself of that speculation on a letter game, I shall return to the simple alphabet and a couple of children’s songs.

107.34 it’s as semper as oxhousehumper!

is a well known version of ‘it’s as simple as ABC,’ although the “humper” gains resonance from the sourrounding lines:

107.34 down the long lane of (it’s as semper as oxhousehumper!
107.35 generations, more generations and still more generations.

018.36 When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit.

Baa Baa Blacksheep – “The Alphabet Song”

133.25 passed for baabaa blacksheep till he grew white woo woo woolly

Apart from the presence here of the song “Baa Baa Blacksheep”19 and the intimations of presence of the Mary who had a white little lamb, the complexities of the passage in which this appears are far too great to explicate here. Suffice it to say that we are concerned with bags and wool and perhaps the Fir Bolga, the ‘bags people,’ the supposed ancestors of the Black Irish. One part of the passage refers to “boro tribute”:

133.25 passed for baabaa blacksheep till he grew white woo woo woolly;
133.26 was drummatoysed by Mac Milligan’s daughter and put to music
133.27 by one shoebard; all fitzpatricks in his emirate remember him, the
133.28 boys of wetford hail him babu; indanified himself with boro tribute

where “boro” refers both to Brian Boru who first fought for the Danes (“indanified himself”), and then freed Ireland from them at the battle of Clontarf (recounted elsewhere in Finnegans Wake as barroom boasting with belches). And to the tribute paid to the Danes. That tribute would have been in cows, but in this text (“boro”) it is in “bags” (Fulani “boro”: ‘bag,’ ‘tribute’ – “boro tribute” is another example of Joyce’s “translation habit”) – a presence reinforced by a number of other references in the passage – including the “full” in Baa Baa Blacksheep’s “three bags full”). This is also the tribute paid by the Fir Bolga (the ‘bags people’) to the people of Danae in Irish semi-mythological history. The song’s concern with ‘bags’ was emphasized by Joyce in a footnote on page 300 in which the song occurs again as:

“Bag bag blockcheap, have you any will?” (300.f3).13

The “passed for” (in “passed for baabaa blacksheep”) most usually occurs in the phrase ‘passed for white’ but here refers to someone passing for a “blacksheep,” someone who then becomes white – “til he grew white woo woo woolly” – invoking that other children’s song, Mary had a little lamb.

Baa Baa Blacksheep, have you any wool?
Yes Sir Yes Sir, Three bags full.

Mary had a little lamb
whose fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary went
the lamb was sure to go.

Mary shows up again with echoes of all these themes:

“And her troup came heeling, O.
And what do you think that pride was drest in!
Voolykins’ diamondinah’s vestin.
For ever they scent where air she went.” (250.30-32)

air ere Eyre Eire – The last line, “where air she went,” carries an echo of Handel’s aria (air) from Semele:

“Where ere (air) you walk, Cool breeze shall fan the glade.”

And to digress on “air” for a moment, this cool air not only contrasts with the “scent” of the “troup” of sheep that smell everywhere that Mary went, but shows up in a line which combines the cool breeze of Handel’s aria with the “cool” of Louis Armstrong, who is inserted into a list of “classical” composers as “Lou must wail to cool me airly! Coil me curly, warbler dear!” (360.13), with a reference to the song “Shine” and its line, “Just because my hair is curly.” And where “cool me airly” again indicates Handel’s air from Semele – in a list of composers, which includes Pergolesi, Meyerbeer, Beethoven, and Bach (who appears with the Well Tempered Clavier in “badchthumpered peanas”).

To look just a little further at the permutations of “air,” the cool breeze is contrasted by Joyce with the often fatal dry hot air of Australia’s south coast desert the length of which Edward Eyre explored on foot. (Edward Eyre, later the disgraced Governor of Jamaica and cause of a controversy which split the intellectual world of England – “this most unmentionablest of men (mundering eeriesk . . .” (320.12). There is an account by Henry Kingsley in his “Eyre’s March” (1865), which Joyce who was interested in every detail about the Kingsleys had no doubt read. Eyre’s two Aboriginal “companions” died. For which he was given the title, “Black Protector of the Lower Murray.” As we saw at the beginning, Finnegans Wake itself is a “dreamoneire,” an airy dream of Ireland.

Eventually all these complexities come to tire us and we are drawn back to some other words set to the melody of “Baa Baa Blacksheep,”19 words Joyce uses to taunt us:

Think How Happy You Will Be
When you learn your A B C.

Shishkebab BAB

170.32    None of
170.33 your inchthick blueblooded Balaclava fried-at-belief-stakes

The Battle of Balaclava was celebrated in many ways, in poetry by Tennyson, in the naming or renaming of many towns, even in Jamaica.

All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
. . .
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“Fried-at-belief-stakes” as a description of such foolhardy martyrdom applies also to Christian martyrs and to Joan of Arc and to Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome. The passage in which this occurs however is about food. But “Fried-at-belief-stakes” does not really fit ‘baclava,’ the nearest food name. Baclava seems to be a mask for another Near Eastern food more fitting to the description – ‘shishkebab.’ Kebab originally referred to fried meats, but came to mean meats grilled on a skewer or sword. Joyce indicates both meanings in “Fried-at-belief-stakes.” So shishkebab, not actually written, is a quiet word:

‘Shshsh! Key, B A B,’

where the letters set out the circular form of Finnegans Wake.


SOUND CHANGE – syllable and root

There is no room or time to begin to treat in any thorough way the subject of Joyce’s treatment of sound, sounds, and the relation of sound and languages. So let me just indicate some of the directions in which we might look and give a few examples that hopefully may give some sense of what is involved.

1. Ringing the changes on the vowels

Joyce often treats vowels as interchangeable, although we have seen the care he used in adding them or moving them in particular passages, and the care he used in the context of particular languages. So even when he does this he usually seems to have good historical reasons for what he is doing.

“Ten men, ton men, pen men, pun men, wont to rise a ladder. And den men, dun men, fen men, fun men, hen men, hun men went to raze a leader.” (278.18-21)


“Tem, too, if he had time to? You butt he could anytom” (88.35)

Mark Troy tells us:

For example, tracing the Osirian presence at the trial, we are confronted with the statement, “But, of course, he could call himself Tem, too, if he had time to? You butt he could anytom” (88.35). This is certainly a reference to the god Tem or TM, and to the multiple identity of the FW father-figure, who could call himself Tem, too,{8} but this seems arbitrarily placed at this point. That is, until the reader checks to see what role Tem plays in the trial of the dead. In his treatment of Osiris as Judge of the Dead, Budge writes that the deceased (as depicted in the Papyrus of Anz) addresses, at one point, not Osiris, but Tem. This is done so that the belief in immortality can be affirmed: Tem is equated with Ra, the father of Osiris. As Budge explains, “to all intents and purposes the question . . . was addressed to Osiris” (Gods, IL 141).

By addressing the father embodied in the son (or the son in the father) the ancient Egyptian affirmed not only the immortality of his gods, but also the immortality inherent in man, who was to become like a god. Thus, when we have studied it more closely, “he would call himself Tem, too” contains an affirmation relevant to the trial of Osiris, and to the immediate context, for, in speculating on the identity of the defendant, it has been arrived at that he was “the very phoenix!” (88.24). It can be seen that Tem, in the trial sequence, is also a prime symbol of rebirth. In order to see through the verbal static, or what seems to be static, we must be flexible and receptive to a variety of perspectives: we must take the trouble to read, and to listen. {8} “Tem, too if he had time to?” also suggests that he could call himself “Tem, too”: Temtu is a minor god of time, of the ninth hour, who lives in a hidden circle of the Otherworld (Gods, I, 244).20

Afro-Asiatic languages, like Egyptian and the Semitic languages, often leave out the vowels or indicate them in contextually specific ways, because internal vowel changes indicate grammatical functions or different types of derivatives of a common root, rather than changing the fundamental meaning of the word. So a form such as TM can have several vowels and still be TM. Joyce gives us Tem, Time, and Tom (and often Tim) as alternatives. Here for example “anytom” is clearly a stand in for ‘anytime,’ and yet it also talks about ‘any Tom’ or presumably ‘any Tom, Dick, or Harry.’ And then there is not only the Egyptian god Tem, but there is Temtu, a god of ‘Time’: “Tem, too if he had time to?.” And this ring of vowel changes keeps adding meanings. Time may be the principal idea, at least here. But as we see the Egyptian god Tem has other meanings, and Tim (+Timma) get other meanings from association with ‘timidity’ and with the Fulani word for ‘end,’ timma. As Tim Finnegan carries two words for ‘end’ – French fin and Fulani timma ‘end’ – so “Finnegan” with the surface meaning ‘end again,’ echoes this doubleness by having the Wake part of Finnegans Wake built into “Finnegan” itself. For although fin in French means end, in Fulani fina means ‘wake up.’

Tim Tom Tem – as we read Finnegans Wake we need to be always aware of what meanings might be lurking if we were to use a different vowel.


din, dyn (dine), den, dan – dence, dance.
syn, sen, sun, sen

These two sets do not go back to an Egyptian form as far as I know. And they do not stand alone like Tom and Tim. But they do relate. As for example in: “sendence of sundance” (615.02): “of the past; type by tope, letter from litter, word at ward, with sendence of sundance.” Still what “sendence” by itself is is not all that clear. Perhaps “dynasdescendanced” (109.06) may help us to combine it with a prefix “de” – ‘descend’ – or in this case we can read ‘descendants.’ Such a reading however does not fully explain “sendence.” “In the muddle is the sounddance”


Some of these vowel shifts seem to be simply the result of Joyce’s creativity and not to have any other particular linguistic basis. Josephine Baker, for instance, turns up as “Jazzaphoney” (388.08).

Sel, Sol, Sole (soul) – and Indo-European.

One of Joyce’s ways of looking at sound change is in relation to the sound changes that created the differences among the Indo-European languages. The discovery and documentation of the correspondences among these languages – Indic, Italic (including Latin), Greek, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic and others – was one of the great achievements of 19th century scholarship. Some of the early major correspondences discovered were given names, such as Grimm’s law (actually discovered first by the Dane Rasmus Rask) and others. Joyce both uses these correspondences and sets out to confound the whole basis of the theory in terms of which they were described (the reconstruction of a hypothtical ancestor for all these languages – “Indo-European”). As he says:

“Hang coersion everyhow! And smotthermock Gramm’s laws! (378.27-28)

And he puts it even more strongly, declaring nuclear war on etymology:

The abnihilization of the etym” (353.22 – also ‘atom’ [Tim and Tom again]).

One way he does this is to realize how many different words the Indo-Europeanists take back to “roots” that are marked differently, but which come out with the same sound. So we get *sel 1 *sel 2 *sel 3 *sel 4 etc., all different items in that they represent independent sets of correspondences among the languages, but if they were really pronounced, i.e. if a real Indo-European language had existed, then they would all have been pronounced the same way. Which makes nonsense out of the action of sound laws. The root forms of the eymologies turn out to be forms useless in a living language, or at the least that language would have a major overload of homonyms.


We should point out that this was an actual academic contribution by Joyce, although few if any linguists have noticed it.

*sel 1 ‘human settlement’ – source of sala ‘room,’ salon and saloon, Latin solum ‘foundation,’ and source of the sole of the foot or shoe.

*sel 2 – source of silly and hilarious, o-form solace.

*sel 3 – ‘to take or grasp’ – source of English ‘to sell’ (= ‘to cause to take’), ‘sale’; Germanic: handsel ‘bargain.’

*sel 4 – ‘to jump, leap’ – source of sault, sauté, somersault, insult, salmon ‘the leaping fish.’

soul and sun

But although the Indo-European roots overload us with *sel 1234, when we get to essential S_L syllables Indo-European fails to give us all the answers we need. The root for the reflexive -self (French se as in “Il se donne” ‘He gives himself’) is *seu 2, also the root behind ‘suicide’ and Latin solus ‘alone.’ But the root for one’s soul is unknown. Meanwhile the root that sounds like soul, *sol, means ‘whole,’ and is the source of words such as solid, catholic, solemn, and save. And finally the source of the word for the sun, Latin sol, is none of these, but is *sawel (long a). So the like sounding English words, whose related meanings we and Joyce play with all the time, soul, sun (sol), sole (‘only’ ‘alone’), and the sole of the shoe, have no relationship at all.

2. articulatory universals

a. Sound pairs s / z

Well, since Indo-European was not going to give us the key to the ways words and sounds relate to each other, Joyce turned to other perspectives. One of the more universal perspectives one can bring to bear on sound variation is by looking at the physiology of the human vocal tract. Joyce seems to have an overarching sense of articulatory universals. Some kinds of sound variations tend to recur in different language groups. Thus the shifting and association of voiced (sung) consonants and voiceless ones occurs in different languages and in different ways.

We can see Joyce playing with this in “dynasdescendanced” (109.06), which we can read as involved with the descendents of a dynasty – with voiceless s and t, in which the first “d” of “descendanced” (in “dynasdescendanced” read as containing ‘dynasty’) would be pronounced as a t. But which we can also read as ‘Dina’s descendants’ with z (voiced s) and d (keeping the voiced phonetic quality of the “d”). (English possessive and plural are, of course, spelled with s, but are normally pronounced with z when they come after a vowel or a voiced consonant such as b, d, or g.)

Something similar occurs in:

024.16 Now be aisy, good Mr Finnimore, sir. And take your laysure
024.17 like a god on pension and don’t be walking abroad.

where reading “laysure” as an Irish pronunciation of ‘leisure’ has a voiced version of the sound we spell when voiceless as sh, which we might represent as zh and which occurs also in azure, and Asia, and rouge. But if we take the word apart as ‘lay sure’ then the “sure” is pronounced with a voiceless sh.

Joyce plays with the s and z again in the same passage:

024.22 and wet your feet maybe with the foggy dew’s abroad. ([z])

This suggests the folk song “The Foggy Foggy Dew”:

I wooed her in the wintertime,
Part of the summer, too,
And the only, only thing that I did that was wrong
Was to keep her from the foggy, foggy dew.

Read this way the “dew’s” would be pronounced with a voiced z. But ‘the Duse broad’ suggests Eléonora Duse (two syllables and a voiceless s), the famous late 19th century actress and longtime lover of Gabriel D’Annunzio and others, who Joyce travelled to London to see in his teens. He is reputed to have been an admirer of her acting, but here he has some fairly catty things to say about the sex life of this ‘broad.’

b. Sound pairs r / d

Some pronunciations of r and d are articulated on the ridge behind the teeth, but in different manners. So there is often a tendency for r to be replaced by d or vice versa. Joyce gives a lovely example of this: “and she was stout and struck on dancing and her muddied name was Missisliffi” (159.11) where the mud of the Mississippi is confounded with the state of marriage, and the status of Missis Liffey of Dublin if you please; with overtones of the song “Wet your feet in the Mississippi Mud.”

c. cluster reduction

Some languages like clusters of consonants and others, such as the Polynesian languages avoid them almost entirely. In any case when English met other languages in its intercourse with the rest of the world, some of its consonant groupings were reduced to single consonants. So the sk of ‘skin’ sometimes shows up, as in West Indian creoles, as “kin” in, for example, “kinly civicised” (550.23) and “Some in kinkin corass, more, kankan keening” (6.21).

Joyce also plays with such processes:

331.03 He’s herd of hoarding and her faiths is altared.

which reads as both ‘her faiths are on the altar’ – or ‘changed,’ or ‘her face is altered’ – or ‘worshiped.’ So ‘faiths’ also is ‘face,’ ths reduces to simple s.21 And again in 465.09 “smallclothes for the bothsforus,” where “bothsforus” also reads the ‘Bosphorus’ (after war disaster).

Language Sound in particular languages

“yet he was always careful to observe the phonetics and the semantic phenomena of the languages that he combined”
(Joyce paraphrased by Jacques Mercanton).

Insertions and other particular language processes


“for to ishim bonzour” (199.13) ‘to wish him Bonjour (good day)’

If you actually pronounce “to ish” in English, a w will phonetically appear between the two parts. So a letter not on the page, w, appears in the reading because of a phonetic reality among English speakers. ‘To wish him’ is also a common phrase that the reader may read into what Joyce has written, and thus become aware that the w is there and that he is reading that phrase as he reads “to ishim.”


A more particular context reinforces the phonetic basis for the insertion of y in: “Dear Brotus, land me arrears.” (278.17). As “Brotus” indicates, we are dealing with Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

ANTONY. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!.

To pronounce me a invites insertion of a y between the two vowels or perhaps the loss of the y when pronouncing ‘me your.’ Particularly in this special dialect (Irish?), “land” for ‘lend,’ and somehow the feeling that the r in “arrears” in this context is pronounced with the kind of r one finds at the end of your in various dialects when saying your ears, rather than a clear pronunciation of “arrears.”

nd > n

590.20 puddigood, this is for true a sweetish mand!

The loss of the d here is related to the actual linguistic processes of the Scandinavian languages. We can note that the Scandinavian pronunciation of nd as n points us to the reading of “sweetish’ as ‘Swedish.’ The spelling “sweetish” when combined with ‘man,’ however, brings us the African New World American expression, a sweet man, whose sexual implications are brought out by “puddigood.” “Puddigood” is not only ‘pretty good’ but also a reference to the West Indian use of ‘pudding’ to refer to female genitals – related also to the southern U.S. corn p’one referring to ‘corn pudding.’ Like the Scandinavian languages, West Indian and some African American speech also may reduce nd to n. The phrase “for true” in this place in the sentence is both Irish and West Indian.

Between languages

Of course most of Joyce’s sound plays are between two or more different languages. I will just give examples from relations between Danish and other languages. As an intro I’ll give a quick example that shows that Joyce was also capable of the fairly simple minded joke. At 444.11 there is a lady addressed as “Miss Forstowelsy.” In Danish a misforståelse is a ‘misunderstanding.’

To move to a more serious example:

186.32 Where ladies have they that a dog meansort herring?

Ladies may have a dog, but “meansort herring?”

Dounia Bounis Christiani, author of the not properly appreciated Scandinavian Elements of Finnegans Wake (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), read this in Danish as: Hvorledes har De det idag min sorte Herre – ‘How are you today, my black sir?’ which is a standard Finnegans Wake motif. But there are other ways to read the Danish here which those times and perhaps her nature did not admit to Dr. Christiani’s repertoire.

‘Dog, med en sort herring?’ Dog in Danish could be translated as an exclamation ‘What! (shock and surprise).

Sort in Danish is ‘black,’ a meaning Joyce uses more than once.

In a first example Joyce parallels “Monsieur Ducrow, Mister Mudson” (133.22) with another Frenchman, “Pierre Dusort” (219.12). In a second example, sort describes the visions of the end of night as ‘black’ – “In the Wake of the blackshape, Nattenden Sorte” (608.28) (Danish Nattenden, ‘the end of night’; also Sortir in French ‘to go out’ – ‘the coming out of night’ – and Danish sort ‘black,’ ‘the blackness of the end of night.’) And finally a third example of sort used with the meaning ‘black’:

329.30    It was joobileejeu that
329.31 All Sorts’ Jour. Freestouters and publicranks, hafts on glaives.
329.32 You could hear them swearing threaties on the Cymylaya
329.33 Mountains, man.

This is in fact a description equating the emancipation of slaves to Carnival. And going by the accent and the geography, it is “Emancipation Day” in Trinidad. Threats are equated with treaties in “threaties.” “All Sorts’ Jour” is, in French, ‘All going out day.’ Marching in Carnival is described as ‘going out’ and begins with “jour ouvert,” which would explain the “Jour” in the text. (Trinidad has pockets of French Creole populations which have had a strong influence on phrases in popular speech.) It is also ‘All Blacks Day’ “All Sorts’ Jour.” The “Freestouters” are emancipators (free tout, free ‘all’), or just people looking for ‘free stout.’ And we have Trinidad’s small imitation of the ‘Himalaya’ mountains, the “Cymylaya” or ‘similar’ mountains. “Cymylaya” can also be heard as a Trinidadian swearing “threaties,” saying ‘See my lawyer.’

Besides “dog” and “sort” we also have mean. Christiani treats “mean” simply as Danish min, ‘My.’ But Joyce also sees it as the ordinary speech pronunciation of Danish med en, ‘with a.’ Danish med is pronounced not with a d, but with a voiced dental fricative, ð (like a weak version of the th in the). Putting ð and en together the ð gets swallowed or left out altegether, which is well represented by a two syllable pronunciation of “mean” [me an]. Herring (Danish sild) is not a Danish word (although Christiani extracts Herr, ‘Sir,’ from it). So we should read it as English “herring.”

And the final reading of “dog mean sort herring” that I get from all this is ‘What! With a black herring?,’ which you can take any way you want.

The house of keys

A last example with Danish has the benefit of also including play with Old French, Dutch, Irish (Gaelic), African English dialects and Creole languages, and in extension with Haitian (French based) Creole, and Swahili. And it involves us in key Joyce themes: whiskey and house/door keys. And we might also wish to consider: “Lps. The keys to. Given” (628.15) , “Keemun Lapsang”22 (534.11), and “Who was he to whom? . . . Whose are the placewheres? Kiwasti, kisker, kither, kitnabudja?” (56.32-34). And Kiswahili (key Swahili). And the “shining keyman of the wilds of change” (186.15). Not to mention “our Harlotte Quai from poor Mrs Mangain’s” (434.15) – see Joyce’s early Essay on Mangan in which he proclaims, “The time is come wherin a man of timid courage seizes the keys of hell and of death, and flings them far out into the abyss, proclaiming the praise of life” (compare Ulysses: “Burial docket letter number U. P. eightyfive thousand. Field seventeen. House of Keys. Plot, one hundred and one.”).

We start by returning to the moment when Finnegan wakes up.

you whines for my wedding, did you bring bride and bedding,
will you whoop for my deading is a? Wake? Usqueadbaugham!
 Anam muck an dhoul! Did ye drink me doornail? (24.12-15)

“Usqueadbaugham!” is of course Irish for ‘water of life’ or ‘whiskey’ (Anglo-Irish ‘wiskey’). But how are we to drink a “doornail.” Has revival made Finnegan mad? The narrator, taken aback by Finnegan sitting up, is certainly talking backwards, or in Annamese: “Anam muck an dhoul!.” (Notice that “dhoul,” ‘loud,’ gets the h that is involved in the dropping of the h in the Anglo-Irish spelling of whiskey as wiskey and in other connections we shall see to “doornail.”) To solve the puzzle of “doornail” we can begin with Danish, and note that there is a word that sounds quite a bit like a twisted version of “nail” although the spelling wouldn’t let you know that. The word is nogle (pronounce the g as a phonetic i (ee) and the o is very open as in English ‘ought’ and gets the stress) and it means ‘key.’ (It may be worth noting for some readers that Ole Vinding, a Danish journalist who attached himself to Joyce on his only visit to Denmark in 1936 and who didn’t like him, nevertheless wrote that on his second day in the country he spoke accent and idiom perfect Danish.)

So now we have a ‘doorkey,’ certainly more reasonable than a “doornail,” although still a little hard to drink – Did ye drink me doornail?.” So if we want to make it drinkable, we need to parallel it to “Usqueadbaugham” – ‘Whiskey.’ Well, the words ‘house key’ seem to sound a little more like it, but hardly satisfactory. Why not try Dutch for ‘house’? huis [pronounce each vowel phonetically – very rough American English equivalent ‘hooeess’]. That’s a bit better.

But the text says “door,” not ‘house.’ Well, it turns out that huis is not only a Dutch word for ‘house,’ but is also a medieval French word for ‘door.’ In modern times it survives in the phrase huis clos23, ‘in private,’ used particularly when a judge closes the doors of a courtroom and keeps the public out.22 And so “doornail” becomes ‘Whiskey’ (‘huiskey’ – with the h in French silent). Very drinkable.

John Szwed once noted that the “whoop” in “will you whoop for my deading” is, like the pyramids, a funeral monument, a phallic pillar among the Vere in Northeastern Nigeria, and features in a photograph of this mud pillar as “Woops” in C.K. Meek’s Tribal Studies in Northern Nigeria. This minor connection with Africa may suggest also another reading of “Usqueadbaugham.” Not only the translation as ‘whiskey’ contains a ‘key,’ the second syllable “que” may also be a ‘key,’ and might lead us to break up “Usqueadbaugham” (by “subjunction”), into African English or creole – parody language (not the only time Joyce uses it) – to get ‘Us key a de beau ham,’ read as ‘Our key is the beautiful ass.’ (see also “usses” in “when usses not to be, every sue, siss and sally of us” (019.29). (The “ham” is another example of Joyce’s steatopygic fixation: “We’d be bundukiboi meet askarigal” [201.24]; ‘Bundu key boy meets ass carry gal’; “But the still sama sitta. I’ve lapped so long” [625.27] – where the Bundu and the Sama are African peoples and “bundukiboi” and “askarigal” are both Swahili words in Joyce’s notes.)


In the buginning is the woid,
in the muddle is the sounddance
and thereinofter you’re in the unbewised again

In the BUGinning is the “woid” – the Brooklyn Dodgers are playing baseball. And it is the ‘big inning,’ and “buginning” IS the ‘word.’ Oh Yes, the Gospel of John begins “In the beginning was the word.” And in another cosmology, In the beginning was the VOID. And in the middle the many religions that worshipped the sun and did the sundance. And then individually and collectively we head into the ‘unknown,’ “unbewised” (Old Danish ubevidst ‘unknown’; German unbeweist ‘unproven’ and in Joyce’s version we haven’t gotten any wiser). But there is another version of the word “buginning” – “biguinnengs” (129.10) – in which Joyce laments, and shows his admiration for that American poet, Monsieur “colporteur” (221.03), in an allusion which like most of Joyce’s allusions refers back to Joyce and to Finnegans Wake:

When they begin the beguine
It brings back the sound of music so tender
It brings back a night of tropical splendor
It brings back a memory ever green

I’m with you once more under the stars
And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine

To live it again is past all endeavor
Except when that tune clutches my heart
And there we are, swearing to love forever
And promising never, never to part

What moments divine, what rapture serene
The clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted
And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted
I know but too well what they mean

So don’t let them begin the beguine
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember
When they begin the beguine

O yes, let them begin the beguine, make them play
Till the stars that were there before return above you
Till you whisper to me once more: “Darling, I love you!”
And we suddenly know what heaven we’re in
When they begin the beguine



1. Assembling a list of different possible descriptions of Finnegans Wake is, perhaps, an interesting notion. My own list includes for starters:

2. Following long time American linguistic practice I use single quotation marks for glosses (‘translations’), and double quotation marks for quotations from Finnegans Wake and other actual quotations from text and people.

3. A discussion of “subjunction” and West Indian Creoles can be found in my “Whagta Kriowday!”: Creole languages in Finnegans Wake at http://fadograph.wordpress.com/finnegans-wake-african-world-fulani-west-indies-dubois-garvey/ (or just http://fadograph.wordpress.com)

4. Jaques Derrida, 1982, “Two Words for Joyce” (“Deux Mots pour Joyce”) trans. Geoff Bennington, in Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer, eds., Post-Structuralist Joyce pp.145-158. (See from my letter to Derrida at: http://fadograph.wordpress.com/finnegans-wake-african-world-fulani-west-indies-dubois-garvey/.) (or just http://fadograph.wordpress.com)

5. Staal, J. F. 1961. Nambudiri Veda Recitation. ’s Gravenhage.

6. Patrick H. Hutton, History as an Art of Memory, University Press of New England, 1993, Burlington, Vt.

7. © The Estate of Clarence Sterling. A remarkable Wake scholar: the late Clarence Sterling of Ojai, California.

8. Jaques Mercanton, “Les Heures de James Joyce” Mercure de France, 1963, translated in the Kenyon Review, 1962, 1963, as “The Hours of James Joyce,” reprinted in Willard Potts, ed., Portraits of the Artist in Exile, Harcourt Brace, 1986.

9. yeye
A discussion of ‘double eyes’ on page 293 leading to “lens your dappled yeye here” at the top of 294 can be found in my paper, “Soullfriede”: W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Mosiah Garvey in Finnegans Wake at:
http://fadograph.wordpress.com/finnegans-wake-african-world-fulani-west-indies-dubois-garvey/ (or just http://fadograph.wordpress.com)

10. Piqué
“Piqué, or marcella, refers to a weaving style, normally used with cotton yarn, which is characterized by raised parallel cords or fine ribbing. Twilled cotton and corded cotton are close relatives. The weave is also part of white tie, and some accounts even hold the fabric to have been invented specifically to hold more starch for use on stiff shirt fronts, replacing earlier plain fronts, which remain a valid alternative. Piqué is now used in the tie and waistcoat as well. Another use for the weave is in the collars of polo shirts. Piqué work, a type of jewelry made from tortoiseshell inlaid with gold or silver, popular in the Victorian Era” (Wikipedia)

11. Marcel Brion, “The Idea of Time in the work of James Joyce,” in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1927), reprinted by New Directions (1939, 1962, 1972 [paper]).

12. Andrzej Duszenko, The Joyce of Science, available at: http://duszenko.northern.edu/joyce/

13. For evidence on these translations and readings, and on Joyce’s several uses of Charles Kingsley Meek, see my article “Darktongues”: Fulfulde and Hausa in Finnegans Wake in the Journal of Modern Literature (jml), Volume 31, Number 2, Winter 2008 – also available at http://fadograph.wordpress.com/finnegans-wake-african-world-fulani-west-indies-dubois-garvey/

14. Hugh Staples, “A Few Gleanings from Carleton.” AWN XII, 5, Oct. 1975, p. 83, has noted Joyce’s allusion at 299.27, “And be the powers of Moll Kelly,” to the section of William Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry called ‘The Geography of the Irish Oath.’

15. On Joyce’s use of Ananse and folklore see my review of Children’s Lore in Finnegans Wake. By Grace Eckley. (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1985. pp. xxii + 250, preface. Journal of American Folklore, 1986, now available at: (http://fadograph.wordpress.com/finnegans-wake-african-world-fulani-west-indies-dubois-garvey/)

16. Other operations relating A-omitted to D(a)edalus, Earwicker and the Battle of Hastings can be found in AWN XII, 4, pp. 74-5, “The Story of A” by Aida Hunter.

17. Roy Benjamin, “The Stone of Stumbling in Finnegans Wake” in the Journal of Modern Literature (jml) – Volume 31, Number 2, Winter 2008, pp. 66-78.

18. “Redu Negru”: ‘Radu Negru’ or ‘Rudolf the Black’ (1290 A.D.) was the founder of the principality of Walachia (in present day Rumania), But “Redu” refers to the “New (or ‘redone’) Negro” of the Harlem Renaissance. Many of its leaders were “black in tawn” or light in color. The Harlem Renaissance had echoes in Paris; Joyce certainly knew Nancy Cunard, who was very involved, in her own way, in African American and Pan- African cultural movements. Yet “black in tawn” in a contrary violent image is also a reference to the ‘Black and Tans.’

19. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is a nursery rhyme, sung to a variant of the 1761 French melody “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman.” The original form of the tune is used for “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “The Alphabet Song.” The rhyme was first printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, published c. 1744. For “shoebard” Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake lists Schubert’s Die Forelle, ‘The Trout,’ a setting of a poem by G.F.D. Schubart – the coming together of Schubert and Schubart provoking Joyce’s “shoebard.”

20. Mark Troy, Mummeries of Resurrection: The Cycle of Osiris in Finnegans Wake. Uppsala 1976, pp. 35-36. HTML version prepared by Eric Rosenbloom, Kirby Mountain Composition & Graphics 2002, available at http://rosenlake.net/fw/

89.11    The gracious miss was
89.12 we not doubt sensible how yellowatty on the forx was altered?
89.13 That she esually was, O’Dowd me not!

“altered” = ‘spayed’ Esu is a Yoruba trickster, Dowd in Irish means ‘black’
Alterations of ‘face’ are also involved, among other alterations in this passage.
The gracious miss was yellow, “O’Dowd me not!” can read ‘O Do not blacken me.’
Tricks are being played. Transubstantiation.’

22. “Keemun Lapsang.” Two Chinese teas.
But also Haitian ki moun ‘which person’ or ‘Key man.’ Key man is identification of male with male organ, + Irish mun ‘urine.’
– the interlocutor in a minstrel show
– the “shining keyman of the wilds of change” (186.15)
‘Every man’
“Lapsang” is Lap blood, the Laps call themselves the Same
So we can read ‘Every man same blood.’
Lap blood is menstrual blood, read ‘goo.’

Kimungu is Swahili for ‘God’ in missionary writing.

23. ATILF CNRS Analyze et Traitement Informatique de Langue Française Le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé “A. Vieilli, littér. Porte extérieure d’une maison. Frapper à l’huis de qqn.” http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/advanced.exe?8;s=4194643920. After Joyce died, in 1944, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a famous play with the phrase Huis Clos as its title.