Chapter 22 A Matter of Language
In the darkened conference room at Cornell, a cloud of neat Van Dyke beards waved around the mahogany table like fronds of undersea vegetation, rising to wire-rimmed glasses and then to the wildly unkempt hair of the academically tenured. As General Ponder, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rewound the tape recorder, the brightest lights of America’s linguists waited expectantly, men who knew the subtlest nuances of Proto-Urdu, Lower Twandwit, and the rare dialect of Sastabi, spoken only by a tribe of three breech-clouted sheepherders in the Olduvai Gorge. These luminaries had assembled at the urgent request of the Defense Intelligence Agency, all expenses paid, to ponder a dangerous new turn in the war.
General Ponder reached forward and turned a switch. A thin hiss filled the room as the tape began, then the rustle of branches and the faint twitter of birds.
“Ook,” whispered a voice, obviously trying to make as little sound as possible, “Ook-ook. Nani batawa? Tubong san-dalati.”
A burst of static followed, then an answering, “Waba dai ookbang, swahnauta noo pah trane ma?” A tone of deep puzzlement was evident in the voice, the high pitch of which suggested that the speaker was from a race of small build.
“Su cahni lalong dookubi trane sondwanoo pahgah si tala tala sehret yun, nani? Fah!”
“Dwei, sehret yun, yuk!”
A deeper, more resonant voice came on the net, emanating from the fuller rib cage of a Caucasian. “Twan ook sehret yun hau. Hau!”
Toute had noticed this, and suggested that the mysterious mercenaries had Russian leaders. The conversation lasted another thirty seconds, then suddenly ceased. Colonel Rudyard Thackeray Toute’s Radio Intercept division had picked it up coming from the high forests of the upper Annamese Finger, and found that no one could translate it.
This was not the first transmission in the unknown dialect. A suspicious intercept operator had heard for a week several transmissions in what he thought had been the same language, but managed to record only this one. Colonel Toute had sent the tape through channels back to the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California, with an analysis suggesting that the Soviets might be bringing in foreign mercenaries for some sort of surprise operation. He had noted the deeper voice and suggested that the mercenaries might have Russian commanders. Colonel Toute had by this time decided that the most important function of intelligence was to be interesting, and everybody thought mercenaries were interesting.
The Institute had been unable to translate it. The Defense Intelligence Agency had immediately grasped the gravity of the situation, implying as it did a major escalation of the war, and convened the tweeded linguists.
Professor Johan Blenchfedder, head of the linguistics department at Indiana University, put the tips of his fingers together and slowly worked them. “I don’t know,” he said reflectively, “I just don’t know. The lack of sibilants is pronounced, which rules out the inferior Palanganese dialects. I believe I’d recognize even a degenerate inferior Palanganese—but the tonal system just isn’t there, so….”
A minor commotion began at the far end of the table. Dr. Claude Polinaire of Cornell began shaking violently, hair flying as if in orbit. His thin face purpled with anguish, or perhaps agony, as the symptoms of epilepsy crept over him. The circumambient van Dykes turned toward him with a rustle of worn tweed and waited for him to speak. Polinaire was young, but known already as the leading authority on the Tahjong grammars of eastern Unna.
“No. Not Micronesian, and not a trace, not a sign, of Sephardorumanian gutturals.” His voice rose to a shriek.
Dr. Sven Unlufter broke in, “But…’tala tala’…reduplicative verbs suggest an island construct. If of course “tala” can be taken to be a verb.”
“Which it can’t,” growled Robert Trondheim of Quebec. “And I still think the terminal “mah” is a corrupt Sinitic interrogative marker, with the entire tonal system lost of course.”
“No! No! No!” shrieked Polinaire, shaking spasmodically. “How…How do you account for ‘tran-du,’ I ask you? The only long ‘a’ in the entire transcript? How?”
General Ponder listened to the quarrel, as he had been doing for three hours, with a sense of having been dropped unexpectedly, and undeservedly, into a room full of Martians. These men all thought different things, he noted disapprovingly. How could they get anything done if they thought different things? And they slouched.
Slouching was bad. Further, they had all that hair, and beards to boot. Something about their faces kept tugging at his mind, something about the round puff of tangles with the beard projecting below. Finally it came to him: They looked like a bunch of goddam coonskin hats. This place was right out of Alice and Wonderland, he decided, not stopping to remember where coonskin hats occurred in Alice.
He cleared his throat with a booming noise, which he had noticed seemed to quiet them.
“Ha-rooom! Gentlemen, the Defense Department appreciates your assistance, but can’t we come to a conclusion?” he said, watching Blenchfedder slowly pumping his finger tips. Looks like spiders fucking, thought General Ponder.
Blenchfedder was silent for a moment as his mind raced over the fascinating dialect of the tape. His fingers pumped faster, disturbing General Ponder. Fricatives bubbled through Blenchfedder’s consciousness like pipe smoke, declensions and ablatives and Indo-European particles whirred and whirled and nothing came out. The damned tape just didn’t compute. He drifted back to consciousness of the room and saw the broad, green-suited general with rows and rows of red and purple and yellow medals. That man looks like a tossed salad, he thought, and said,
“General, it would appear that we can’t come to a conclusion.”
General Ponder was puzzled. They were supposed to agree on something, but he couldn’t tell them what to agree on. How did civilians get anything done with nobody to tell them what to agree on?
“Why not? Do you want to hear the tape again?”
“There is no conclusion to come to. We don’t know what language it is.”
The General frowned. “Why don’t you know? You’re linguists, aren’t you? Linguists know about languages.”
That’s what they were for, he thought. Hmmm. Well, if they didn’t know what language it was, they at least knew what language it wasn’t.
“Then guess. The Army needs a conclusion. It’s not European. It isn’t Chinese. It isn’t Montagnard. It isn’t all sorts of other things. What’s left?”
Blenchfedder looked at him with new respect. He was right. They could at least narrow it down.
Trondheim said, “Yes. The trouble is that we have among us scholars who know all of the language groups of the world. That is to say, when you have eliminated all possibilities, nothing is left. Our conclusion then would have to be that the tape doesn’t exist.”
“Excellent!” said General Ponder, reaching for the recorder. “That sure solves that, doesn’t it?” All of these hours to decide the tape didn’t exist, something they could have decided in thirty seconds.