Universal Language

by Ellen Goodlett

Voiced glottal plosive = need a symbol for this. Spoken as part of greeting? Related to yesterday’s breakthrough as regards naming conventions…

The notes all swim together on the page.

I run a hand through the disheveled spikes that used to be my stylish pixie cut. Five weeks in the Congo will do that to moderately voluminous hair.

My Oxford-bred son would be shocked to see the wild woman his quiet, provincial mother has become. Shy academics and multinational exploration don't often go hand-in-hand, but this was a once-in-human-history opportunity. I couldn't say no.

There are parts about the field I enjoy. I'd forgotten, it's been so long. Out here, nothing at home matters. There's no overdue mortgage payment, no mind-numbing afternoon tea at Dotty Henshire's, where just the word "jungle" would've given the tableful of middle-class middle-aged mothers apoplectic fits.

In the field, it's just you and your work. The joy of the hunt, the thrill of discovery. Coming here was like turning back the clock two decades. I felt 24 again — the year I spent deep in the Amazon studying a heretofore untouched colony. Back then, we were historians, academics, linguists. I was there to unravel a language spoken by only a dozen people; to preserve it in a perfect bubble before it died. I risked Botflies and malaria because I understood—every language is a unique translation of the world. Any translator worth their snuff will admit that you can't say the exact same thing in French that you can in Mandarin or Gaelic or Basque.

An unknown language is a case of secrets waiting to be unpacked. Words tell you what they value: how many words do they have for different colors, numbers, times of day, precipitation. Sentence structure reveals their priorities; you learn that what seems essential to you may be irrelevant to another, and vice versa.

But studying an indigenous tribe in our own backyard is one thing. This case, this is another beast entirely. A veritable treasure trove that every country in the world is fighting to get its paws on.

And they need me to find the key.

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