Ten Ways to Mourn a Dead Language
1. Intersperse words from the dead language into your speech. When asked the meaning of the dead words say, I never said that.
2. Think of an idea or expression that can only happen in the dead tongue. Repeat it until it becomes a hole. Yell in.
3. Write dead words in sugar or salt inside food. Distribute.
4. Rename the stars with words for body parts in the dead language. Teach neighborhood children to use these names.
5. Nothing stays inside the body forever.
7. Use dead syntax with alive English words when asking for directions to places you’ll never visit.
8. What is the most popular song right now? Translate it into the dead language. Then, if the song plays in your presence, hold your breath.
9. Borrow some clothes from friends. On each label write one grapheme to spell across bodies touch me here in the dead language.
10. Send me your address. I’ll send you a letter.
The kangaroo was in a funk. Then an inspiring caravan of hip, divorced tycoons—each with his or her own robot to boss around—
went by. The kangaroo thought, “If I ever leave the boondocks, I can be a kung fu icon with all the ketchup I need to bring me a sense of zen.”
Words travel by boat and by horse and by foot. By mail and by phone and by wire. Kangaroo came by boat—the first aboriginal Australian word into English—with an actual kangaroo.
Arabic: caravan. Bantu: funk.
Chinese: ketchup, kung fu, zen.
Czech: robot. Dutch: boss.
French: divorce. Japanese: tycoon.
Russian: icon. Tagalog: boondocks.
Each language brings new words in differently, showing its habits. Habits—as if a language is a unified organism. Computer. A newish thing. In English, for centuries, the word referred to a professional human reckoning land and stars. The word moved from person toward object. A face reflected back in the screen. The lines of veins measuring time into digital.
In Chinese, computer is electric brain. Movie is electric shadows. Electric ladder is an elevator. The habit of a language plugs the brain in. It thinks. We say.
Computer is originally a French word, but one Frenchman wrote in a letter to IBM that computers will do more than compute. They will order and organize. Ordinateur. The letter was written April 16, 1955.
My son was also born on April 16. He shares his birthday with a French word and Tristan Tzara (1896–1963) who wrote, “I speak of the one who speaks who speaks I am alone/I am but a small noise I have several noises in me.” In this sentence, Tzara unorganizes words into meaning. My son was a small noise and now is a reckoner of words. In the history of his language, computer coincided with his ability to control a mouse. Before computer, there were the sounds the animals make. Someday: death, sex, lipstick, internet, drones. There is no stopping them.
I compute in my brain. The distance and price to you. I don’t say compute. (Cue machine voice.) When the French use an ordinateur there is the hue of organization. Of French organization. My computer proliferates. If the computer is an electric brain, is my brain less electric? I look up computer. I tell my son his electricity comes from food. I tell him you can’t turn a brain off.
—Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward (BOA Editions). She is a Founding Editor of Circumference, the journal of poetry in translation, and she currently teaches poetry and translation at Washington University in St. Louis.