“I inhabit a language rather than a country” – Emile Cioran

Femi Martin, who is judging our Made-Up Words competition with the Arvon Foundation this year, inspires polyglots everywhere to make up words (and win a place on an Arvon course as a result).

A newborn baby’s cry is perhaps our clearest indication that human beings communicate before we possess any linguistic ability. Although we enter this world with something to say, it is a couple of years before we learn how to give form to meaning through words, and how to use our mouths to relay this meaning. Everyone inherits a language at birth, but we do not all inherit the same language; there are indeed more than 6000 spoken in the world at this time, all ascribing meaning to different words in different ways.

All languages contain areas of scarcity where others are abundant; ask any polyglot and they’ll confirm that some words are simply untranslatable. Even those of us who have spent our lives communicating solely through our mother tongue will at times find it impossible to express ourselves. The declaration, ‘I’m speechless’ or, ‘I don’t know what to say’ or, ‘I can’t explain it’ are all ways of saying: ‘I do not have the words’. English, with its 500,000+ units of language, still does not have it – meaning – covered. That is where you come in!

I am looking for poems and flash fiction that give light to an area of meaning that remains dark in this ever-evolving language that we speak. Perhaps there is a colour, emotion, situation, or sound that is waiting for you to sum it up neatly. Perhaps you’ve recently found yourself using fifty words to describe something, wishing there was a single word up to the task. Whether your work is funny, dramatic, or full of whimsy; set in the past, present, or future; written in first, second, or third person; I mostly want to be affected by your made-up word. I want your word to inspire us to hide it under our tongues, reveal it in our future conversations, and wonder how we ever survived without it.


Made-Up Words is part of europolyglot, an English PEN festival of events, workshops, night classes and roundtables that celebrates multilingualism in the UK, in partnership with the European Commission Representation in the United Kingdom.

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