Verbum

Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if we hadn’t been each other’s First Contacts. Virgin civilizations, groping each other in the dark.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it,” the smaller of the two men moaned, his head down in his arms on the broken table, as the sounds coming in through the half-boarded-up window swelled louder.

“If they wanted to destroy us, why didn’t they just send a missle, an asteroid, a fucking army?”

The taller man took another drink from the bottle in his hand, staring without seeing at the window.

“We started it, you know.”

“Bastards, bastards.”

“We nearly destroyed them.”

“Should have.”

“It was the linguists,” his voice was rough and slow, detached, almost toneless, “that went out in the first starship. We taught the Tanatha suicide.”

“Bastards.” The sounds outside moved away a bit, grew softer.

“Their language was utterly alien. No reflexive forms, strange verb tenses. Eventually they learned enough of it to try to ask them questions, eventually they asked them what their word was for ‘suicide’. They didn’t have one.”

“Bullshit.”

“They didn’t. They had no reflexive forms, and ‘to be’ and ‘to kill’ were such utterly incompatible concepts that they had been literally unable to imagine killing the person that you are. Until we asked the question, and kept asking it until they understood.”

He took another long drink, a deep breath, and shuddered. The man at the table raised his head just long enough to wipe his eyes.

“It nearly destroyed their civilization. They didn’t have the millennia of evolved defense mechanisms that we did, the cultural institutions that discourage killing yourself, the structures to deal with it.

“They experimented.

“They died.

“Their cultures crumbled.”

“Not fucking far enough they didn’t,” the smaller man muttered, and lay his head down again with a thud.

“They fell so fast. Our linguists came back on the last starship they sent out, along with what was left of their Tanatha colleagues. Half the crew died on the way, but they got here.”

“Bastards.”

“And their linguists, the ones that stayed alive, learned our language in return, and one day they knew enough to ask, to ask what was our word for –”

“No, no, no, no, no,” the man slumped over the table moaned monotonously, as another explosion bloomed outside and a chorus of voices raised in an ululating scream, full of fear and an incomprehensible ecstacy.

(This is an old piece of microfiction (untitled at the time, and I’m not sure “Verbum” is the right title, really), that had the honor of being reposted on Language Log once, that I’m reposting because I may want to conveniently refer to it in a posting about a book I’m reading, once I’ve finished reading it. And also because it’d be fun to gather and post some of my old microfictions. And also I should write more of them!)

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