Thursday, May 9, 2013

Made of Words: Two Moles Are Sitting in a Beaker

"In my opinion, short words are preferable to long ones; the fewer the syllables the better, and monosyllables, beautiful and pure like 'bread' and 'sun' and 'grass,' are the best of all." 
           --Barbara Tuchman, "In Search of History"

I'm not good with language. 
If I were good at language, I don't think I would spend so much time thinking about it. It would come more naturally, like steering a spoon to my mouth instead of my eye. We all know these things--eating with a spoon, asking for a kitten, riding a bicycle--take practice, and, with enough practice, become sort of automatic. But I have a lot of trouble attaining that state. Language is anything but automatic for me. I read and I write because language isn't easy; the technologies of written language let me slow down and re-examine the phenomenon of words. 

The archaeology of words
The headlines are delightful: "You hear me! No spitting in the ashes, mother!" and "Thou old black worm, I spit fire on your ashes!"  I haven't read the original research paper by Pagel et al. yet, but I've been as delighted as anyone with the lists of ultraconserved words. These are the lexical tuataras*.

thou, I, not, that, we, to give, who, this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit**, worm
"Worm." ! A steady word, right to hand, dependable--and beautiful and pure as bread (I think we ate a lot of worms) or sun (strange engine so unlike) or grass (where worms rise up and dance). 
Two Moles and a Walrus
So, "I F#cking Love Science" posted this on Facebook. I found it enchanting, and then...well, I completely failed at communication with the word thingies is what.

This is exactly what I find funny.

    • Genius Editor: Are they walri?
      Me: Smart people like puns. That's my theory. Best. Jokes. Ever. Puns....
      Genius Editor: I'm clearly not smart people.
      Me:  Oh. Dear. Puns are a sort of rhyme. They make language transparent and goofy.
      (Note I have now insulted the intelligence of a person much smarter than I am TWICE! I ignored her question and  I propound my theory of puns.)
      Me:  And also, I was just today thinking of walrus ivory.
      (Note how I drift off into non-sequiter; that's helpful.)
      Me:  But these are moles, two per liter.
      (Note how I am not making things better at all.)
      Me:  In the cold light of dawn, I realize that I leapt to the defense of all puns when it was a matter of these specific moles. My apologies to my editor.
      (Note how, after the passing of hours, my tuatara* thoughts arrive, but there is no saving me from myself. I've already made a mountain, or at least a walrus-sized dune, out of a molehill.)

Thus ends the evidence. I believe I've proved my thesis.
*Tuatara: A nocturnal lizard sometimes called a "living fossil" because it hasn't changed in 225 million years. 

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