Thursday, 13 February 2014

Ur, Um - Friday Flash

One morning Patient Zero woke up no longer in possession of his mother tongue. He did not discover this immediately on rising, for as he sung into the bathroom mirror while shaving, he fully understood the words, though they did not scan smoothly with the ditty’s established rhythm. It was only on greeting his wife that the disjunction became apparent. 

She couldn’t quite make out his words so asked him to repeat them thinking him to be still half-submerged in sleep. He couldn’t comprehend her request, so accordingly asked her to repeat herself in turn. His words sounded familiar to her, but didn’t quite accord with anything recognisable. She thought he might have suffered a minor stroke that had afflicted his speech. But listening with sharper focus, she educed his words weren’t slurred but enunciated clearly in their own alien right. Their lifelong marital communication was preserved intact, though somewhat adapted, as he read the confusion in her face, while she gleaned the panic etched on his.

She grabbed a notepad and started writing down her queries, but he snatched the pad and creased his brow in utter bewilderment at the symbols scrawled there. He handed her back the pad and shook his head. She immediately made an emergency appointment for him at the doctor’s and accompanied him as his translator, albeit a non-proficient one. 

The doctor confirmed that the words sounded almost conversant yet remained just beyond meaningful reach. He summoned his Asian colleague who attested to a similar linguistic diagnosis, though when the two compared notes they found significant points of difference in what they had imagined they had almost grasped. The colleague asserted that he was actually bilingual and would attempt to receive this strange speech with both his linguistic portals ready to tune in simultaneously. The other doctor thought his peer a show off, but acceded to the suggestion all the same. The medic now nearly assimilated the man’s peregrine diction in two different tongues, causing him considerable discomfort as his mind was assaulted by a divergent assonance. When he recoiled holding his head between his hands, his associate smirked, even as he picked up the phone to dial the hospital.

The speech therapist was stymied, but had the stoke of insight to place a call with the languages department of the university the hospital formed part of. The benighted man was struck dumb as he was metaphorically prodded and pinched by a horde of eager linguists each trying to draw a bead on his babble that matched their own specialism. He defeated them all, though each felt they almost understood his verbiage but fell just short. Then one had a bolt of enlightenment when he proposed that since the man’s speech sounded familiar to each one of their diverse coterie in turn, his language must be related to them all. That is, the man was speaking the primordial human language, the Ur-tongue from which all subsequent languages were descended. That was why each auditor had perceived the foreign tongue to chime with that of their own native one.

The academics were delirious. A fully dead language, that longest extinct one, had miraculously been resurrected. Those of a less spiritual bent sardonically remarked that here finally was the reverse of the Tower of Babel. What better prospect for the world than if every one of its future citizens all spoke the same linga franca? The Esperanto contrivance had failed for a dearth of authority. But here was the wellspring of all human language, what could be more prestigiously legitimate?

There was the tantalising prospect of an end to all misunderstandings brought on by translation glitches. They still might not agree on ideas and devotions, but at least they could all argue using the same vernacular. Who knows, the linguists felt that in time the Ur-language could replace all languages and that could only foster unity in man rather than the divisiveness of different argots.

They sat the man down to start to debrief his knowledge. They asked him to write down his parlance but he just shrugged at their mime acts of writing. One of the philologists explained that axiomatically the Ur-language had to precede any written alphabet or other symbolic system. There could be no transcribing it into school primers and grammars for ease of transmission across the generations. Not to be outdone, another scholiast interjected that the Ur-language would not make for an efficacious tool for describing the modern world. It’s vocabulary would be extremely limited, lacking in any terminology for much of the extant technology. It would inevitably depend upon importation words from the johnny-come-lately lingos.

And with that the major nations furiously debated which words should augment the Ur-language so as best to represent and capture the world. These nations came to blows over their etymological claims and thus was the planet plunged into ever greater division and strife. Each country vied to bring the most words into the sacred vocabulary and to outstrip those of its rivals. And rather than resort to a dictionary of insult and point-scoring, the countries turned to arsenals of weapons for which the Ur-language would never possess terms to define them. So that the very language which had accelerated evolution immeasurably, ended up destroying all communication unutterably. 

From the flash fiction collection "28 Far Cries" available in print or for Amazon Kindle


Helen said...

Trust the worlds to fight over what to say!

Deanna Schrayer said...

I find it ironic that you Marc, master of words, pens a story about....words. :) And very well written!

Larry Kollar said...

Not only which words to add, but how to write them down! Latin, Cyrillic, Katakana, Mandarin script… they could have had a side war over that too! Clever piece, Marc.

David G. Shrock said...

Them be fighting words... Expresses how silly we look over some of our struggles and competitions fought on misunderstanding. Nice flash.

Stephen said...

The human race is a disappointing species at times. We've fought each other over some of the craziest things at times; why shouldn't we fight over language, too?

Steve Green said...

If they carry on fighting each other, they may well end up living like cavemen again, as well as speaking like them.

Sonia Lal said...

So it's the first and maybe the last language, too? Poor guy, how must he feel to have the world fighting over him?

Cindy Vaskova said...

Oh now, no interest in helping the guy retrieve his mother tongue, or somehow extracting Ur from him and returning him to his old life? Poor fella, having nations battle over the words he speaks. Savages we are. Clever piece, Marc, I really liked it.

Hawksword said...

Patient Zero - his name says it all. Not important enough to warrant a number. Though I get the feeling there may be more to it than that (maybe I should google him?) Has connotations of ground zero and zero hour. He is everything and nothing, the focus of attention, but not of care or concern. His identity as a human being forgotten amidst the excitement of discovery. What happens to him as the experts and the politicians squabble, and the world around him disintegreates?
Too much to think about, my comment will end up as long as your short!

Richard Bon said...

Just a fantastic piece, bravo. Comedic commentary on human behavior throughout - from the doctor thinking "his peer a show off" to the final battle between nations over words. And just the basis of the entire thing being language; taking us back to its beginnings and imagining if we were to try to start over without first erasing our collective memory. Loved it.

Katherine Hajer said...

Language is a virus. Poor guy, almost but not quite cured.

Lovely stuff.