By John Byrne
No one complained when those harsh four-letter words that teens thrust into every sentence unaccountably disappeared. Nor was anyone concerned that political talk-show hosts seemed no longer able to verbally compare everyone they disliked to devotees of a genocidal former German Chancellor. And nobody but nobody complained that door-to-door preachers were suddenly rendered speechless when hoping that their victims enjoyed the ensuing 24 hours.
But when previously common and less controversial words became suddenly unsayable, concern and then panic set in.
Take Stan, an Oregon State University graduate student enthusiastically pursuing linguistic anthropology, and his girlfriend, Sue, an OSU graduate less enthusiastically pursuing paychecks to keep their household above the poverty line. Sue’s prime reward for the time she spent harvesting a very modest wage was that Stan was a verbally attentive lover, ready at all moments to put down the latest article about abstract nouns among the unfortunately extinct Tikiwadda people to express a sincere, over-the-top admiration for Sue’s allure.
On the afternoon of July 17, as Sue struggled in the front door with two armfuls of groceries, Stan looked up from his latest find, a sixteenth century Jesuit’s report, complete with sample words, about the Quaquanantuck on Long Island in what is now New York State, and said, “Tswa incomconque tswinginging.” Which, he hastened to add, was Quaquanantuck for, “You are truly…” Only the intended last word of the sentence did not emerge.
Sue feared that Stan had had a stroke, but there he was, breathing normally while looking puzzled and taking a second, and a third, and then a fourth, and then a fifth run at rendering the Quaquanantuck phrase into English, only to stop dead each time at the end of “truly.” Stan finally chose a side route by saying, “You are truly of an appearance that is remarkably appealing.” Sue decided that instead of a stroke, Stan must be suffering early onset dementia, a condition Sue had seen often among graduate students.
But Stan wasn’t demented. The word he’d sought was gone. Simply, completely, absolutely, and unsayably gone. Challenged by Stan to enunciate the hitherto common, three-syllable, English adjective meaning “of an appearance that is remarkably appealing,” Sue failed. And their neighbor, Josh, failed at about the same time in his effort to invoke a deity’s wrath upon the stray cat which had just dug up Josh’s best tomato plant. And, down the street, Cynthia was rendered speechless at the gas station while trying to ask the attendant to replenish her car’s fuel to the utmost. And on, and on, and on, all across the increasingly frustrated and alarmed country, which demanded that something be done to recapture the missing words. As best they could, people struggled around holes in their diction to make protest signs, to send e-mails, and to shout insults at similarly afflicted politicians.
Stan took a different tack when he realized that he could compliment Sue readily by using the small clutch of Quaquanantuck words he had mined from the sixteenth century book. The only drawback was that neither Sue nor anyone else within 3,000 miles of Stan understood him.
Exactly 3,001 miles away, there was one very old man who was a fluent Quaquanantuck speaker, having been tutored by his grandparents as he grew up on his family’s tiny island in the middle of Peconic Bay in eastern Long Island. That man, whose library card bore the name of Peconic Joe, spoke Quaquanantuck whenever he spoke to himself. In the fifty-seven years since his grandfather died, Peconic Joe had never met anyone who understood the ancient tongue for the simple reason that there was no one else in the world who used the language.
In the 3,001 miles that separated Stan and Peconic Joe, emergencies were declared, committees were formed, experts were hired, fall-out shelters were cleaned up, and theories (uninhibited by facts) were hawked all over the Internet. Among those who had a theory, but different from most in that she cared about facts, was an inquisitive fourteen-year-old middle school student in Independence, Missouri known as Freckles.
Freckles loved mysteries. Freckles particularly loved the kind of mysteries that she could delve into with the computer she had built from parts of three dozen Commodore 64s liberated from her middle school’s junk room. Freckles leaped on the language problem with every key on her keyboard.
While her parents despaired, believing their precious daughter was wasting her life writing fan mail to teenage idols, Freckles systematically and illegally probed corporate, university, and government databases looking at trends in populations and language use. Her raids left behind digital fingerprints that every knowledgeable computer expert in the world concluded were so improbable and ridiculous that they were clear evidence of sabotage by a reconstituted KGB. The affected companies, governments, and universities had no idea that Freckles was searching for clues to the verbal disappearances and cared nothing for their bank accounts and their nuclear secrets.
While Freckles banged away at her homemade keyboard, and while Stan spoke louder and slower believing that anyone could understand if they only listened carefully, the experts determined: A) The problem appeared mostly in English at that time, although a common Italian term used in greeting and leaving seemed to be suffering from the malady, as did an Arabic term normally translated as “God willing”; and B) No one had the slightest idea why the sudden verbal disappearances were occurring.
Stan became even more indifferent to cause, consequence, and cure when he realized that the concern about language made it a good time to publish what he had learned about the sixteenth century Quaquanantuck tongue, which, he explained in his article’s opening paragraph, had been used all up and down the entire east coast as a trade language five hundred years ago. A dating of loan words cropping up in other languages showed that the common use of Quaquanantuck ceased entirely around 1510.
The very prestigious and very, very unread scholarly journal Archaic Talk put Stan’s monograph online in September with an introductory teaser claiming (without any justification whatsoever) that it was relevant to the deficiencies cropping up in English.
By the time Stan’s article appeared, violent protests had broken out demanding repairs to the increasingly pot-holed language. The government responded with a new round of committees, commissions, and panels of experts who all concluded that nothing could be done to stop the deterioration of English. It was suggested that the U.S. Government appropriate hordes of European words to fill the gaps. Everyone congratulated each other on their cleverness and declared the crisis over just in time to witness the disappearance of the borrowed words, both from the English to which they were assigned and from the language from which they were stolen. Freckles tracked the new round of disappearances with interest as the affected countries threatened lawsuits, war, trade restrictions, and all manner of nastiness if any speaker of English dared use a single additional precious foreign word.
Although he lived alone on a remote island, Peconic Joe was neither unaware of nor immune to the linguistic crisis. He paddled into Riverhead once a week and used his library card to access the internet, generally searching for anything that related to the Quaquanantuck people. His focused interest, however, unavoidably brought him into contact with an avalanche of news about disappearing words as well as flamboyant opinions and vindictive allegations as to which nasty bunch was to blame. As for the personal effect of the problem, Peconic was soon rendered unable to state his second name despite the fact it was written plainly on the library card. He shrugged, shortened his last name to Peconic J__ and moved on.
“Peconic Joe” was not the old man’s real name. That handle had been assigned to him by a lazy kindergarten teacher on his first day in school. Peconic had readily accepted it, believing that this bossy tribe of large white people to whom he was entrusted every day had a ritual of bestowing names to mark important events in a youngster’s life. By the time he realized the error of his assumption, the new name had stuck so he remained Peconic Joe on his diploma, draft card, honorable discharge papers, commercial driver’s license, union card, voter registration card, social security card, and library card all the way up until the day the language crisis reduced the imposition to Peconic J. On his island, he was The Hope That Morning Brings although there was never anyone there to call him by his right name.
In early October, Peconic J’s special interest led him to be the sixth hit upon Stan’s article in Archaic Talk. The first, second, fourth and fifth hit had been the same person: Stan. The third hit had been Freckles.
Freckles had been lured by the magazine’s inaccurate teaser hyping the relevance of Stan’s article to the language issue. On finishing the article, Freckles became the first person, other than a few cranks who scattered comments randomly across the internet, to write something in the comment section of any Archaic Talk article. Freckles’ comment consisted of three questions: How many people had spoken Quaquanantuck? How quickly was the language abandoned? And why?
Those questions were as yet unanswered by Stan when Peconic J’s regular searching made him the sixth hit on the article. He was delighted to dig into something of substance about the Quaquanantuck and even more delighted to answer Freckles’ questions. His answers were that about three million people once used the language for trade; that it was abandoned immediately in the first decade of the 1500s; and that abandonment occurred when the language was blamed for the devastating spread of an unknown disease which killed millions of people up and down the east coast. In addition to the abandonment of the language, the Quaquanantuck people were ostracized which led some (such as Peconic J’s great, great, etc. grandparents) to withdraw to remote islands while others passed themselves off as Shinnecocks, or Mohegans, or Montauks, letting not a single Quaquanantuck word escape their lips.
The response was very helpful to Freckles but only after Stan struggled to translate it into what English remained, because Peconic J, in his enthusiasm, had responded in elegant and forceful Quaquanantuck. Stan did a reasonable job with the translation. More importantly, Stan’s struggles engendered a lively, or at least lively every Tuesday, interaction among Freckles, Stan, and Peconic J. The time Stan spent emailing this new woman called Freckles caused a surge of jealousy which led Sue to join into the electronic conversation once she discovered its non-amatory focus.
In the wider world, the problem that had hitherto limited itself largely to the English-speaking, became prevalent in the Spanish as well. French was stricken next, then Portuguese, then Russian. Angry (but often wordless) demonstrations spread across the world.
The panic did not penetrate Freckles’ cluttered room in Independence as her initial guess rapidly filled out into a real possibility, and then into a probability sufficiently strong to warrant bringing it to the attention of the President of the United States. Which is what Freckles did. Using small words even a politician with a short attention span could understand, with each portion of her analysis supported by anecdotes, statistics, and graphs purloined from the databases she had raided, Freckles wrote a six-page letter explaining why Shakespeare’s cherished language was disappearing.
The letter was answered by a computer that thanked Freckles profusely for her concern about the impact of colonization, but assured her that those days were passed and that the nation faced more important issues, such as the apparent disintegration of its prime language.
“Why did the White House say anything about colonialism?” Stan e-mailed Freckles after receiving her anguished e-mail and the attached brush-off letter.
“Because,” she responded electronically, “the theory is that languages were all created at one time and stocked with words. The reserve of words reflected the anticipated usage. At the time of creation, the imposition of English upon billions and billions of other people around the world was not anticipated. It is this unanticipated spread and usage of English and other European languages largely through colonialism which depleted the reserve of words much, much earlier than was planned.”
Peconic J was quite willing to assign blame to European hubris, and he thought Freckles’ analysis made more sense than anything else that was floating around. At the same time, Freckles’ theory instilled an uneasy feeling. If, as Freckles was suggesting, the overuse of certain languages depleted the stock of words, might not the reverse be true as well?
“You’re … uh … accurate,” Freckles wrote back, struggling around ever new holes in English. “I didn’t … uh … enunciate … nevertheless, Quaquanantuck seems appropriate as a substitute due to its tragic underuse.”
“Negative. Negative. Negative. Negative.” Peconic J wrote back, wantonly wasting the precious verbal reserve. “You stole our … acreage. You destroyed our people, our … existences, our culture. You cannot … possess our words.”
Sue softened Peconic J’s “never” to “I’ll … uh … cogitate about the matter,” by pointing out that switching to Quaquanantuck would mean that his real name would be on the library card, and besides, Sue went on, the situation was becoming tough on her because Stan was running out of compliments.
Stan was very skeptical because Freckles’ analysis contradicted two hundred years of research on the development of language and because, “Freckles implies there had been a controlling being, kinda like, well … uh … a deity, who created a storeroom of … expressions.” That idea was just too retro for Stan. But then again, he started thinking, he would be the first linguistic anthropology student on the scene.
“Godful or godless, Quaquanantuck’s availability or not, it hardly matters,” Freckles moaned digitally, “No one pays attention to fourteen year old … female beings called Freckles!”
“If it’s right,” replied Peconic J, forgetting for an instant his concern that Native Americans were one again becoming too attractive to European types, “it’s right. All we have to do is get people to … tune in.”
Sue was the one who figured out how that could be done. “Nothing rocks the … floating vessel with greater … celerity than claiming that the … powers are persecuting Christians.”
“Huh?” was the collective response.
“All we have to do,” Sue pursued, “is claim the … Prez is suppressing Freckles’ theory because it affirms the existence of … deity.”
“Sneaky!” typed Freckles.
“Unethical,” typed Stan.
“Probably effective,” typed Peconic J.
And so it was that a few strategic leaks to unhinged bloggers went viral and viraler and viralest, generating scare headlines about the Commie powers crushing absolute evidence of God which refuted Darwin. The allegations ratcheted up and up until the President herself was asked in a news conference why the holy visionary from Missouri who proved God’s existence had been locked away in a secret prison in the Rocky Mountains by the Federal inquisitors. The President responded forcefully that no one was locked away anywhere and, far from silencing Freckles, the President had already asked her to the White House to discuss her ideas the very next day.
The statement was an absolute lie but Freckles was not about to complain.
“You’re going to have to propose solutions,” Peconic J emailed Freckles.
“I know,” she replied.
“Quaquanantuck is an obvious solution,” Stan emailed enthusiastically. “We can offer to … pedigogigate it.”
“The only ‘we’,” Peconic J’s letters were red with anger, “is me and the millions who died in the plagues you brought. Don’t assume you can take the only thing that’s left.”
“I didn’t assume anything,” Freckles typed before Stan had a chance to respond, “and I won’t offer anything. Anyway, how do I know they will take me … uh … as if they should pay attention.”
Stan did apologize as soon as he could slip a new e-mail in.
“Forgive the anger,” Peconic J replied. “It’s hard, sometimes and I get … to passing urine. Oh, make an offer. I want this to reach some kind of … finishment. English is driving me … distracted.”
“Nothing without your … Old Kinderhook,” Freckles tapped a second before heading for the Kansas City Airport in a limo supplied by the government. In the meantime, the FBI assigned seventy agents to find out who the KGB agent using the handle Peconic J was and what he wanted.
President Sanders had not intended to take Freckles seriously. A quick handshake was planned along with a photo op, and then off Freckles would go to a clutch of unimportant aides. President Sanders rarely misread people. She misread Freckles.
“I can tell you what to do privately,” Freckles said in a whisper while smiling through the photographed handshake, “or you can read about it in tomorrow morning’s paper and look like a fool.”
“You’re blackmailing me,” The President replied with her broadest smile.
“Affirmative.” Freckles smiled even more.
And so it was that Freckles and the President talked directly and privately (a term that includes three aides, seven recording devices, and four beefy boys and girls from the Secret Service.)
“Quaquanantuck!” The President exploded. “What the … infernal place is Quaquanantuck and how are we supposed to … apprehend it.”
“A language which still has a virtually unlimited store of … expressions and quickly.” Freckles got right down to it.
The Secretary of State, who was wired into the President’s left ear, said it would be better to kidnap the French, Spanish, and Italian Academies and torture them until they forked over new expressions. The CIA chief, wired into the President’s right ear, whispered that his agency had discovered Freckles was in constant correspondence with a likely KGB agent who had infiltrated the Riverhead Public Library under the code name Peconic J. At the same time, twenty three Senators texted, demanding action since they no longer had sufficient expressions to sustain a filibuster.
“Everyone … close your mouths!” shouted the President, startling Freckles since she didn’t hear anyone saying anything. “Now where do we … proceed from … the present place?”
Freckles suggested working a deal with Peconic J. The CIA said they just discovered he was a card-carrying AIM member as well as a KGB agent and should be arrested and deported. The Secretary of State asked for authority to dispatch Delta Force to shoot someplace up.
Using what few words remained to her, the President ignored the bellicose advice and dispatched an advance team to Peconic J’s island. She also scheduled a full White House meeting for the next day, pulled the wires out of her ears, and ordered lunch for Freckles and herself. It turned out they shared an affinity for Commodore 64s and spent much of the afternoon discussing Freckles’ homemade computer.
Meanwhile, the wheels of government ground finely, seizing all of Stan’s Quaquanantuck materials (“mostly romantic words” the report sneered); searching for other sources of Quaquanantuck (“None.”); and concluding that The Hope That Morning Brings was, in fact, the only person who knew the language, AIM member and KGB agent or not. The old man, in turn, the advance team reported, refused to commit himself but would attend the scheduled meeting provided the meeting honored the time-honored rituals: purification, a bit of smoking, complimentary (off-topic) speeches and gifts before any business could start.
The Presidential appointments person replied, “We can find sweetgrass, the Smithsonian will supply the catlinite pipe, Congress will waive the no-smoking law, but what kind of a gift does this dotty old guy with the funny name and the dangerous associations want, eagle feathers?”
By this time, lunch was long over and Freckles was back in Independence whacking away at her own keyboard, hacking into the White House. She read the appointment person’s e-mail as it was being typed and she watched the reply from the advance team on Long Island appear on the screen.
“The gift this ‘dotty old guy’ wants is to have the Black Hills returned to the Lakota.”
John Byrne lives in Albany, Oregon with his artist wife, Cheryl French, and their high school-age daughter. He writes stories, plays, and poems. A recently published play (In Elsinore) can be found in Issue 3 of Chamber Four Magazine. The February and May 2013 editions of Poetic Pin-Up include two of his recent poems. This story ultimately arises from the fact that he, on occasion, can’t come up with common words. It explains why.