Languages

17 Mar

A structured writing exercise

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Most are in English, more than three-and-a-half million. Nine other languages get front-page treatment. Only two are so foreign you don’t know what they are, though you can guess. Русский requires a Google search, which just takes you back, tells you it’s Russian in Russian. Quit trying to pronounce it with that phonetic gibberish you never learned to read. Russkiy yazyk is as close as you get—some Anglicized version that doesn’t help.

Scroll down, back on the main page, and you find illustrated bookshelves that correspond with the number of articles each language has, starting with one-hundred-thousand-plus. Ten-thousand-plus starts with Afrikaans and ends with Žemaitėška, another you don’t know but don’t take time for. Under the ten-thousand bloc, the type shrinks, to make room for the increasing number of languages on the fringe of this free encyclopedia, and a few don’t even show up, represented only by the little boxes you get when Word can’t even fathom a Wingding.

Vanishing books as some coded metaphor, above a list of those languages in which exist only 100 or so. Wonder: where is the bulk of their knowledge stored? ‪Xitsonga’s communal memory fades away; is it cognizant of its disappearance, or ways to prevent it? You think maybe you’re wrong, maybe you’re asking the wrong questions, but still. Zeêuws, on the other side of the world: does it feel the tug of extinction, bound to a fate shared by Xitsonga and Inuktitut and ᏣᎳᎩ?

Along the way, you discover ᏣᎳᎩ = Cherokee and that Cherokee is actually a wholly unique 85-character syllabary. Before this you didn’t know the word syllabary, much less the Cherokee anomaly. Continue on this path, or choose another—the perpetual forks we come to here. Depth versus breadth, as if you’ll ever have either. Even the thought is enough to paralyze. Fork #1: choose the former. Go to “Possible influence on Liberian Vai syllabary,” even though you don’t know what that means. Hunt for reason to go on, for clues to the puzzle you know will elude you, no matter how many forks are reached, or how many links are followed.

Instead, become lost, lose yourself in the white space between choices, between the innumerable doors that copy themselves and lead into one another, like an unsolvable mythological maze. Just as it began, it ends; and you know power again. Know that it is only a game, asking such questions. Loosen your grip; choose neither path.

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