(this article also first appeared on www.63xc.com)
Cycling, like speech, has become an essential tool for navigating our day-to-day lives. Both things incorporate aspects of anatomy, physics, biology, neurology and psychology – and, of course, linguistics – and both deal with a complicated array of tubes and mechanisms designed to channel the vibrations caused by our interactions with the physical world around us.
Cyclelinguistics is a vast subject, too complex and wide-reaching to be adequately covered in a single article. The focus here is on the realm of the fixed gear, a discipline which was something of a springboard for the entire cyclelinguistic field in the early part of the 20th Century, but has also seen a resurgence in academic attention at the beginning of the 21st.
Below, I have detailed some of the points that have become the foundation of the science christened le véloparle by the influential French cyclelinguist, Henri Sansengrenages in his groundbreaking text, Voix Du Rouleur Fixe (1903). If you spend any time riding one of these graceful contraptions, you are sure to find that the ideas listed are speaking your language.
It was during the 60s, a time of self-discovery for many, that noted American professor of cyclelinguistics at MIT, Chammy Nooks, spotted the close relationship between the fixed bicycle and dynamic verbs of modality ie. verbs expressing ability and willingness – for example:
• I will spin at 180rpm until I reach the bottom of this hill.
• I won’t be defeated by this 20% gradient.
• I can trackstand until the lights turn green.
• I can’t believe how light my bike is.
What these verbs show is that the subject of the sentence (in this case the rider) is controlling the situation rather than being a passive element which is acted upon from without.
Be-Type State Verbs
There is a greater distribution of these verbs amongst samples of speech collected from riders of fixes – for example:
• It’s as if I am one with the bicycle.
• My legs feel like they’re pushing an easier gear.
• The bike looks so much more elegant and refined.
• I seem to be helped along by the direct drivetrain.
This correlates with the Zen label that is often attached to fixing, and is simply a sign of greater awareness of the psyche, or what the famous British gentleman trackie of the inter-war years, John ‘Sprint’ Rimmer, called “a chinwag with the inner rider”.
Although the use of adjectives is not unheard of in the fixed cyclelinguistic arena, it’s generally accepted that the single-sprocketed riding experience is difficult to describe.
There is an ongoing dispute amongst contemporary cyclelinguists regarding how to express participants acting within the framework of a psychological state. Normally there is a stimulus and an experiencer, and yet the distinction is blurred when considering the fixed rider and the fixed bicycle.
Who or what is the stimulus? The bike or the rider? And the experiencer is…?
The current academic trend is to assign the roles of stimulus and experiencer to both rider and bike; in tandem*, as it were.
Connie Hubbard, in her seminal work, Speaking Without Brakes or Pauses (2001), tweaked the geometry of the profession’s phonological framework to provide what has become a standard textbook across the globe. Below are listed a small number of the phenomena she explains are synonymous with riding fixed:
• Fluency – an uninterrupted flow.
• Voiceless postalveolar fricatives – the ‘sh’ sound is produced somewhat excessively by brakeless fixies.
• Stress – individual sounds made by fixies will inevitably carry more stress when the contour of the road has a rising intonation.
• Absence of clusters – despite the word ‘fixed’ containing a quite complex consonantal cluster with the sounds ‘k’, ‘s’, and ‘t’, the bicycles themselves lack this feature. The net result is a lack of awkward noises from the rear of the machine, which aids fluency (as mentioned above) and facilitates what is known as lingual souplesse.
*It should be noted that cyclelinguistic study of fixed tandem riding is a particularly esoteric subject which is still in its infancy at this juncture.
© S. W. Parker 2005