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When discovery was made of this planet—the ninth one to which the iotafying machines had sent survivors, millennia ago—the first thing we did was to confirm that its inhabitants were in fact human. Aside from a few small mutations, such as growth of the outer ear and an elongation of the fingers,
it was determined that they remained perfectly human. The second thing was to decipher the language in which they communicated, a feat that proved far more difficult than anticipated — not because decoding it seemed impossible, or because they spoke more than one language (a perfectly human possibility), but because what we found defied the very notion of “language.”
The planet was discovered by Agent Probii, one of our best, who, despite having undertaken extraordinary research, was unable to draw the conclusions that would have saved his life. This report is based on his data.
Agent Probii’s first days as undercover agent were particularly disconcerting because the city (if it can be so called) to which he arrived was lacking in stable landmarks: where one day there was a paved corner, later that night he found a wasteland; where there had been a streetlight, the following morning he found just a box of cats. Eventually he understood that this urban transience (if indeed we can employ this adjective or that noun) itself informed him of precisely what he was looking for.
It’s not that the local language is unstable but that there are multiple languages, with each individual speaking only their own. Alone, at home, cooking, out for a walk, but never in dialogue. The differences between what each inhabitant speaks extend far beyond the lexical. For instance, there exist multiple ways to say “I am alive”: to be stressed, alert, flowing, trembling; in addition, there are clear syntactical differences, like so:
Though not every language studied exhibits agreement in gender and number (the planet’s inhabitants, it would seem, are not particularly interested in numbering objects; and though there are languages recognizing two genders, others identify up to fourteen), one common characteristic is agreement in spirit. A complete sentence may introduce prefixes, infixes, or suffixes to denote the spirit in which the action is performed.
Thus, the aforementioned examples might be:
And so forth.
This tumultuous concerto of voices, which appear not to respond to one another, wrote Probii, in fact slowly engage, creating a series of intelligible utterances, asserting the desires and opinions of each person, and yet these are expressed not via a single tongue, as it were, but in a language that, though it includes words, does not depend upon them.
Copulation is the planet’s lingua franca.
In order to understand it, Probii began to observe people in various phases of development. He established that, whilst babies seem to share the same tongue in the early phases of verbalization, over the course of their development this is forgotten or stops making sense. Then begins a period of introspection that lasts until the start of puberty, when, after an eternity spent in silence, adolescents watch their bodies change and quickly learn the gradations, accents, and ellipses of their physiognomy; they perfect the figuration of their flesh until arriving at what is the planet’s lingua franca: copulation.
Thereafter the planet’s inhabitants copulate in every imaginable way and with every participant needed in order to express themselves with precision. What is being said when one puts one hand in one place and the other in another varies quite a bit depending on what each is doing with their mouths, how many others are participating, and how slowly this is being done. The nose is vital in the communication of nuance. When words appear during the act, they are spaced out, not pragmatic objects but the accent on a sentence already being said with hips or with teeth.
This is the way relations are entered into, parties are organized, secrets revealed, recipes passed down, detailed instructions given. The planning of the city’s largest bridge, for instance, required the amatory efforts of ninety-seven people at once.
Clearly it was the prospect of learning such sexual sophistication that led to Agent Probii’s perdition. In the last report filed, Probii singled out one particular person with whom to enter into contact, but, incapable of understanding the multiple signs exchanged before reaching that level of communication, what he did was study the language of the person in question, learn its rudiments, and prepare a phrase that, in his judgment, would suffice for the purposes of proceeding to copulation. The phrase, in its most pragmatic translation, was something like: “Me too please.”
The planning of the city’s largest bridge required the amatory efforts of ninety-seven people at once.
The precise meaning, however, is not at all important. It may be, indeed, that the person in question did not even pay attention to what Probii said. The most likely scenario, as per our subsequent reconstructions via prudent investigations with a minimum of interference, is that the very act of suddenly turning up and attempting to usurp the most intimate of possessions—this person’s own, unique and inimitable tongue—was interpreted as heinous. Whether this fingered Probii as spy or devil is unknowable; the result was the same: no sooner had he demonstrated his linguistic prowess than the agent’s throat was summarily slit.
It seems likely that, in the relatively near future, the inhabitants will be the ones to establish contact with us. If we’ve correctly interpreted the massive orgy taking place at the planet’s equator for some two years now, they’re in the process of imagining a space ship.
Yuri Herrera is Associate Professor at Tulane University and author of the novels Kingdom Cons, Signs Preceding the End of the World, and The Transmigration of Bodies, the translation of which (by Lisa Dillman) won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award.
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